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Missing Link

Fall Line

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American skiers who visit Europe are often disappointed when they return home. After all, when it comes to size, skiing a few back bowls behind Vail is downright lame next to skiing all of the Dolomite range. In Europe, it’s not uncommon for skiers to lunch in a different village, province or country from where they sat down for breakfast. “Skiing is only part of the European package,” says Vern Greco, president of Utah’s Park City Mountain Resort. “Interconnected ski areas add a big-mountain dimension and a sense of exploration to the experience.” Which is why Greco is hot for interconnection to hit his side of the pond.

In the New World, the Whistler/Blackcomb giant illustrates the power of interconnection. Shortly after the duo pooled their resources and turned two large hills into one mega-resort in the late Eighties, the place exploded and moved into the elite category of North American resorts.

American ski areas, however, have moved snail-like in embracing connectivity. In Vermont, Stowe and Smugglers’ Notch offer joint tickets as part of lodging packages. The resorts have not, however, offered interconnection to the day skier. “We both have our toes in the water and the water feels good, but we’re not rushing into a full dual day pass,” says Smugglers spokesperson Barbara Thomke.Even U.S. resorts owned by the same company that have managed to connect are struggling to make it work. For instance, skiers at Killington and its sister resort Pico must make a five-minute drive or ride a shuttle bus between hills, which means the areas share hassles rather than synergy. Vermont’s Sugarbush North and South are connected, but with scant skier traffic moving between the two.

Throughout most of America, interconnection is simply not part of the geographic or political landscape. Environmental regulations often restrict the development of intervening lands, which are primarily public. Despite Colorado’s abundance of ski resorts, for instance, strict environmental statutes and the absence of shared ski-area boundaries means resorts like A-Basin and Keystone, Winter Park and Berthoud Pass, and Copper and Breckenridge won’t be interconnecting while your knees can still bend. In California, Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley are but a chairlift away, but difficulties in developing the DMZ in between the two resorts, and the differences in culture between a granola hill (Alpine) and a Froot Loop hill (Squaw) has Tahoe prognosticators saying connectivity is at least a decade away.

Not so in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. The biggest news this ski season, and news that will give Little Cottonwood resorts solid media play despite the absence of Olympic venues, is the official interconnect between Alta and Snowbird¿the twin pillars of Utah’s hallowed powder grounds. A new high-speed quad in Snowbird’s Mineral Basin deposits skiers on Sugarloaf Pass, accessed from the north by Alta’s Sugarloaf Chair. A two-area day ticket will cost $68, compared to $56 for a single day at Snowbird and $38 at Alta. A dual season pass will cost $1,200, and will give AltaBird skiers access to 26 lifts and 4,700 acres of terrain, making Vail the only American hill that is significantly bigger than Utah’s new tandem.

It’s not a decision Alta made easily. This cradle of American skiing has long placed the quality of its ski product over the quantity of its visitors, valued untracked powder over big profits, supported bargain rates over modern infrastructure. Nonetheless, Alta is not in the business of going out of business, and with its aging skiers dropping dead or blowing knees¿and with its no-snowboard policy keeping young blood off its slopes¿financial stress cracks are showing. So Alta agreed to the interconnect, but only budged so far: Alta will retain its boarder ban, so only skiers will be allowed to migrate over to Alta from Snowbird.

The Snowbird/Alta link is just the first step. Interconnecting Park City, Deer Valleey and The Canyons has the potential of creating a European village-to-village experience, unique to North America. “Our hills working independently don’t have the horsepower of a Jackson Hole, the acreage of a Vail, the vertical of a Whistler,” says Greco. “But by interconnecting the three we jump from several 3,500-acre resorts to 11,000 acres, from 16 lifts to 50 lifts.”

Adding skiing on such a massive scale to a town with Park City’s accessibility and panache has Greco seeing visions of Whistler/Blackcomb¿and its two million annual skier visits. It’s a vision on the cusp of materializing. Park City and Deer Valley share a ropeline along the East Ridge of Jupiter Peak. If the rope was dropped, connectivity could happen tomorrow. “People assume our no-snowboarding policy is the big hurdle,” says Bob Wheaton, president of Deer Valley, “but we’re comfortable offering a dual-mountain pass to skiers only.” Wheaton says the rub lies in the possibility of overtaxing Deer Valley’s famed restaurants. “This might undermine the quality of experience our skiers have come to expect,” Wheaton says.

Wheaton, however, recognizes interconnection’s ability to draw skiers to Park City. So with the world’s spotlight here during the Salt Lake Olympic year, Greco and Wheaton will experiment with connectivity this season. Greco is confident that when Deer Valley discovers that limited interconnectivity hasn’t blemished its name, it will be taking bolder steps to cut the ropes.

Meanwhile, The Canyons, now the largest of the three Park City resorts, is in step with Greco. Since the area was purchased by American Skiing Co. in 1997, The Canyons has made a relentless march south by adding seven lifts that have opened terrain in valley after valley. Now only White Pine Canyon separates it from Park City’s Pine Cone Ridge. It’s a connection that looks to be inevitable, and a move that Blaise Carrig, president of The Canyons, sees as good business. “Utah as a state hosts only 3 million skier visits a year compared to Colorado’s 12 million. When Park City gets connected, we could change those numbers,” Carrig says. And with Alta and Snowbird taking the first step and the Park City troika poised to take interconnectivity to grander heights, Solitude and Brighton may need to connect in self-defense. Dave DeSeelhorst, part-owner of Solitude, rates the interconnect as a “medium-priority task.”

The 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, combined with these developing pockets of interconnection, make Utah the big ski story this season. What could transform Utah into the Godzilla of American skiing would be a Grand Unification of Park City’s seven resorts. It’s a scheme that would create a monster ski experience, with more than 80 lifts and 18,000 skiable acres. And it’s a scheme that’s geographically simple. Says Greco, “I think interconnection could easily be the next ‘Big Thing’ in North American skiing. It could leapfrog Utah to the top of the ski world.”