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A gondola up Little Cottonwood makes more sense

Soaring above the car congestion is a better fit for Utah’s iconic — and extremely popular — canyon than widening the road that runs through it

A car drives up Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
A car drives up Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

I took a drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon the other day. On the list of state treasures, I would place Little Cottonwood a notch above Zion National Park and in a tie with Delicate Arch. It ought to be on the license plates. In a way I guess it is.

Then again, I am biased. I have a personal connection with the canyon that dates back almost to when the American Indians owned it.

My grandfather, Adolph, a Swedish immigrant who changed his name from Bengtsson to Benson, settled in Sandy, and at one time had a stake in the Alta Gladstone Mining Co., located in Gad Valley where Snowbird now stands. I still have the stock certificates to prove it.

In the 1860s, My great-grandfather, Solomon Despain, homesteaded on 320 acres at the mouth of the canyon near where the La Caille restaurant now stands. He built and ran a shingle mill. My mother, Beryl, was born and raised in Granite.

In more modern times, I learned to ski on the so-called Never Sweat run in Albion Basin at Alta. I can still remember my brother Gordy flying over the crest of a hill he should never have tried to fly over. I got some of the worst sunburns of my life on the Wildcat lift going for a weekend tan I could show off at Jordan High on Monday, and nearly froze to death more than once on the Germania lift, with my friend Doug Berry and me saying every swear word we knew trying to get lightning to hit us and warm us up. We were teenagers.

I was an employee of Snowbird the day the resort opened in December 1971. I was on Christmas break from college and got a job parking cars. It snowed on Christmas Day that year and an avalanche closed the road, stranding me and everyone else at the resort, along with 2 feet of fresh powder — and I didn’t bring my skis.

I’ve hiked Lone Peak, climbed to the top of the Pfeifferhorn, ridden the Temple Quarry Trail, did the Snowbird Hill Climb a couple of times on my bike. My brother Dee won the women’s division of the race one year. He went to the podium after his name was called and informed them he wasn’t a woman. The harried race director looked at him and said, “Are you sure?” Just one of countless pleasant memories I have of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

And is there a more picturesque canyon anywhere? It’s like the Creator said, “OK, look at this.” It’s the Brad Pitt of canyons, formed by a glacier, with huge walls of granite serving as sentries to the eternal home of the Greatest Snow on Earth. There is nothing wimpy about it.

Alta and the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon are pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
Alta and the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon are pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

All this is by way of introduction to the ever-increasing popularity of the canyon, the crowds that flock there, especially on powder days in the winter, and the decision facing the state about what to do about it.

So far, two courses of action have gained traction: One, widen the road and provide more bus service. Two, build a gondola that connects the mouth of the canyon to Snowbird and Alta.

In round numbers, both the road widening and gondola come with a reported price tag of around $500 million. (A train through the bottom of the canyon — which was how it was back in the Alta Gladstone Mine days — would reportedly cost closer to $1 billion. So that appears not to be an option.)

The debate between road and gondola seems like an easy call to me. A gondola makes much more sense. I am mystified why anyone would vote to widen the road and increase the traffic flow, which is the original problem. Not only is there still the dead end and limited parking at the top to contend with, but that plan is essentially surrendering to global warming and air pollution, at least until everyone stops driving gas-powered vehicles. And is there anything uglier or more intrusive in a canyon than pavement?

One year, after Salt Lake won the 2002 Olympic bid, I covered some International Olympic Committee meetings in Switzerland and visited the Jungfraujoch region. Another time, after covering the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, I came home by way of Zermatt, the Swiss village that sits below the Matterhorn. I was impressed by the connecting lifts and cog railway system in the Jungfrau that allow you to move from ski resort to ski resort for a distance of several miles, no car required. In Zermatt, I was surprised to learn that they don’t allow cars at all. There are a few e-taxis, but other than construction machinery, gas-powered vehicles are verboten. The reasoning is elementary: Who in their right mind would want pollution to obscure the view of the Matterhorn?

Both were examples of doing things outside normal convention when solving a problem where iconic mountains are involved. A gondola that would transport as many as 4,000 people an hour to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon would require 20 lift towers that would blemish the pristine beauty of the forest, it’s true, but it’s no different than the ski lift towers at the resorts and it beats the alternative of the canyon road imitating the 405 freeway at rush hour. I think, too, a gondola would turn out to be a huge tourist draw in the summer.

The gondola’s base terminal, as proposed, would be built on an empty parcel northeast of the La Caille restaurant in Sandy. Great grandpa Despain’s old stomping grounds. He lived before cars, before skiing for that matter, but like his progeny, he loved the canyon he lived next to. I’m sure he’d vote for the gondola, too.

A truck drives past fallen trees in an avalanche path in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
A truck drives past fallen trees in an avalanche path in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News