Nathaniel Coleman sees more than just a big rock when sizing up a hulking grey boulder that claimed its patch of ground in Little Cottonwood Canyon millions of years ago. Applying a trained eye, the first Olympic silver medalist in climbing notices the small pockmarks, nodules and tiny reliefs in the quartzite mass that is wider than two excavators and just as tall.
In Coleman’s eyes, the boulder is its own species. And, he says, it’s in danger of going extinct if the Utah Department of Transportation goes forward with its plan to relieve canyon congestion by either widening the road or building an overhead gondola.
“The thing to realize is that every rock is unique. Every rock is an impossible combination of coincidence,” Coleman said. “The boulders that are going to be destroyed are some of the best boulders in the canyons. They host climbs that are challenging and technical and teach climbers how to move over rock. And they are truly irreplaceable.”
In an effort to save the boulders he learned on, Coleman put on a climbing demonstration Monday on a rock in the Gate Buttress area of the canyon that, to the untrained eye, is as big and nondescript as its name: “Standard Overhang Boulder.” The demonstration was part of an event organized by the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance to protest the two options UDOT put forth in June — after three years of studying options — to alleviate the glut of vehicles along the narrow, avalanche-prone road that leads to the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts as well as numerous hiking, climbing and backcountry ski routes.
Both options, the climbing advocacy group says, would endanger not only the unique boulders but a longstanding culture of climbing in the canyon.
“There is a tradition of hundreds and hundreds of climbers here. Not a few, hundreds,” Utah climbing pioneer and former Salt Lake City mayor Ted Wilson said. “People learned safety here as well as excellence.”
Climbers like Wilson have been exploring Little Cottonwood Canyon since the 1960s. The SLCA was formed in 2002 to address a climbing access issue in Big Cottonwood Canyon. In 2017, the group began leasing the 140 acres around the Gate Buttress from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Within that lease, the SLCA receives permission to make improvements, such as maintaining permanent bolts and creating a hiking path between boulders to keep climbers from walking along the road.
Some boulders, such as the one Coleman climbed Monday, squat within a few steps of State Route 210. To accommodate the widening of the road to allow for a dedicated bus lane each way in the winter and bike lanes in the summer, they would likely be destroyed. And several climbers voiced concern that those buses may not even stop anywhere other than at the resorts. If they do, the pullouts could take away already limited parking spaces at popular climbing spots and could be coupled with a ban on roadside parking. Either of those measures they say would greatly limit the number of people who can access the more than 1,000 boulders and climbing routes within the canyon.
“There are so many people in this canyon all the time for so many different reasons,” said Sandy resident Jess Powell, a member of the SLCA board of directors. Though many of the climbers also ski, she said it would be nice “if we got a solution that caters to everybody instead of the solution that caters to only the people that are going to Alta and Snowbird.”
The gondola is generally considered less obtrusive at the ground level, but it comes with its own issues, the climbers say. For one, it isn’t clear whether people will be allowed for safety reasons to recreate in the easement directly below the gondola’s path. Also unknown is where the giant stanchions will be placed along the route and how they will be accessed. In some places, the canyon walls are so close to the highway that SLCA director Julia Geisler said the destruction of boulders or climbing routes would be inevitable. And, it will almost certainly change the view.
Each plan is estimated to cost roughly $500 million.
“Why do we have to go to such what feels like permanent, very costly means when we haven’t really given a fair shot to at least some of the less impactful, less disruptive options?” said David Carter, SLCA’s policy and conservation chair. “So it just feels like it’s a big leap to say we need permanent infrastructure when we haven’t tried the other things first.”
Carter, who is also an assistant professor of public policy in the University of Utah’s political science department, said the SLCA would like to first see UDOT experiment with tolls, shuttles and increased carpool incentives.
He compared the caliber of the climbing in Little Cottonwood to the canyon’s snow. Alta and Snowbird have become synonymous with the state’s successful marketing campaign, which designates the winter precipitation “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”
“I mean, we’re talking about the quality of a natural resource,” Carter said. “Just taking that out, getting rid of it.”
It’s a resource that will be even more in demand in coming years, Coleman said. He, perhaps more than anyone else in the United States, has felt the surge in climbing’s popularity created by its inclusion in the Olympics. It was the most Googled sport the day it debuted at the Tokyo Games and more indoor gyms opened in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, than did in 2019.
Coleman credits much of the creativity that helped him climb the podium to work he put in on a boulder at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon named Copperhead. He has voiced concern about the explosion of interest in climbing and the impact it will have on the environment and revered climbing areas. But the more places people have to climb, the less those impacts will be felt. In his mind, creating less space for one activity in favor of another doesn’t make sense. It’s like choosing the survival of one species over another when both could coexist.
“A lot of people moved here for the climbing and visit here for the climbing. So, as climbing gets bigger, I think the Salt Lake would do well to accept it into a part of our culture,” he said. “And this is kind of inflammatory, but on the other hand, snowfall is getting less and less each year and skiing is going to become less of a resource as time goes by. Making a permanent change like this is premature.”