Climbers rally against proposed tramway and expanded bus lanes in Utah's Little Cottonwood Canyon

Posted on: March 23, 2022

[UPDATE—The Utah Department of Transportation announced on April 5 that it will postpone its decision until the summer. KUER News quoted the project manager citing comments from climbers as a factor in the agency's decision to wait a bit longer. The original story below has been updated to reflect this news.]

Olympic silver medalist Nathaniel Coleman climbs Wrist Rocket (V9), his favorite route in Little Cottonwood Canyon, which would be impacted by the proposed tram or expanded bus lanes that are being considered by the Utah Department of Transportation as preferred alternatives for future transit in the narrow canyon. [Photo] Tim BehuniakOlympic silver medalist Nathaniel Coleman climbs Wrist Rocket (V9), his favorite route in Little Cottonwood Canyon, which would be impacted by the proposed tram or expanded bus lanes that are being considered by the Utah Department of Transportation for future transit in the narrow canyon. [Photo] Tim Behuniak/Gnarly Nutrition

A big decision that was anticipated to be made this April has been pushed back to summer after the continued outpouring of comments regarding the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC), just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah.


Little Cottonwood is home to the world-famous ski resorts Alta and Snowbird, as well as top-notch backcountry skiing, rock climbing, bouldering, ice climbing and more. This and the surrounding region are part of the traditional lands of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, Goshute Indian Tribe, Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and other groups. Pictographs exist in one location that date back around 1,000 years.

In the climbing world, the famous names affiliated with the canyon presents an ongoing list of who's-who that spans generations: Jeff Lowe, Conrad Anker, Alex Lowe, Steve Hong, Kyle Dempster, Scott Adamson and Lynn Hill, and top boulderers like Alex Johnson and Nathaniel Coleman, to name a few. Meanwhile, the popularity of all these outdoor activities is growing exponentially every year, and accommodating the steadily increasing traffic through LCC is becoming an extreme challenge. Making the challenge even greater is that many avalanche paths threaten travel through the canyon in winter.

The decision facing the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is whether to proceed with one of two plans that have been defined as "preferred alternatives" after years of studies that began in 2018; the two favored proposals are intended to ease traffic congestion in the narrow canyon by building a massive tramway that would involve giant towers lining the length of the canyon to serve the ski areas, or widening the road for expanded bus service. John Gleason, a spokesperson for UDOT, confirmed that the proposed bus system would only serve Snowbird and Alta.

In an article about Utah's Wasatch Mountains titled "Welcome to the Greatest Snow on Earth," published in issue 142 of Backcountry magazine (2022), Scott Yorko writes of Little Cottonwood:

Rapidly increasing visitation has created some of the worst ski traffic in the United States, especially in LCC, where Google Maps' "red snake" can result in an hour-long drive to cover the eight miles between the mouth of the canyon and Alta. Triple that if there's an accident. Calculating the impact of such heavy usage on the natural landscape and watershed serving Salt Lake City's 1.2 million people is complex. After...UDOT spent the last three years reviewing 124 proposed concepts to mitigate traffic congestion, the two options identified in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) have yielded more questions than answers.

Either of the options—the tram or the expanded bus lane—would likely destroy hundreds of "iconic" granite boulders that have classic problems on them, according to videos on the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA) website. SLCA has been waging a campaign to save the boulders and also to protect the character of, and the access to, other climbing areas in the canyon. The group hosted an event in January with Olympic silver medalist Nathaniel Coleman, in which he premiered a short film, titled "Home Crag," about how the LCC boulders helped set him on a path to becoming a professional climber. In the film, Coleman highlights his "favorite climb in the canyon," Wrist Rocket (V9), which would be impacted by the proposed developments.

SLCA and other groups—even the Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson (in this video)—say the projects are too narrowly focused on addressing traffic to the ski resorts during peak season while ignoring the many other user groups—not only climbers—who have long enjoyed the natural beauty of the granite rocks, the wild flowers, the aspens and the pines. (Salt Lake County's letter to UDOT can be found here.) Friends of Little Cottonwood Canyon also note that this area is part of an important watershed and a fragile environment, unsuited to more development. Increased reliance on public transportation, using electric buses on the existing road, would be a cleaner solution than building gondola towers or adding a lane, argue members of Students for the Wasatch. A Deseret News story published March 18 reported that "several Utah lawmakers say the decision-making process requires additional scrutiny" and that they requested an audit "to evaluate UDOT's approval process and investigate any 'inappropriate' outside pressure that could influence policy decisions."

In an email to Alpinist, Gleason emphasized that UDOT "is committed to following the process and conducting a thorough analysis of impacts and addressing stakeholder concerns; this may mean the project schedule deviates from published timelines."

Julia Geisler, executive director the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA). [Photo] Tim BehuniakJulia Geisler, executive director the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance (SLCA). [Photo] Tim Behuniak

SLCA Executive Director Julia Geisler told Alpinist in an email:

The destruction of LCC with a gondola or additional lanes is not a foregone conclusion if people lend their voice to the issue. Act now to save LCC climbing. Even if you don't live in Utah, your social platforms and connections in the web of the climbing world are your voice. There is a UDOT proposal of increased electric bus service without adding lanes on the table that each of you can advocate for that has the potential to service all canyon users.

Transportation infrastructure that physically and permanently alters the beautiful landscape of the canyon should only be considered after less impactful options have been implemented and shown not to be effective. Climbers can be part of the solution in the canyon today if we too as climbers, skiers, and canyon visitors change our behaviors and take the existing ski bus, car pool, and make sure our vehicles are up to winter travel.

Geisler said that in addition to the visual and auditory impacts that would result from the "large and detrimental" changes that constructing the gondola or widening the road would bring to the landscape, she has concerns about limitations to physical access points that include:

-Parking to access climbing in the canyon will be reduced with the elimination of roadside parking [and] parking lot alterations with reduction in number of stalls.

-Lack of public transit options for dispersed recreationalists.

-Lack of clear mitigation plans for climbing access trails during construction.

-Closure of the climbing resource during construction.

More details about the draft EIS can be found on the UDOT website here.

More videos and information about the impacts to climbing in LCC can be found on the Salt Lake Climber Alliance website here.

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