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April 18, 2024
PI Global Investments

We can do better: Why Park City Mountain’s infrastructure is aging and how to fix it

Matthew Prince
Courtesy of Matthew Prince

In the spring of 1981, my dad loaded me into a snowcat at the base of some mountains about a mile from where we lived. We rumbled up freshly cut paths through the aspens and pines. This was Deer Valley before there were lifts. I remember skiing Nabob and Solid Muldoon and thinking both were funny names for ski runs. I still think they are, more than 43 years later.

Last Friday, I got the opportunity to go cat skiing again at Deer Valley, this time in the new terrain scheduled to open in the 2025/26 season.

First, a quick report: it’s awesome. The view from U.S. 40 that many of us have been skeptical of is like viewing The Canyons terrain from Highway 224. It’s actually much higher, more north-facing, and altogether greater than it appears from the road.

Some of the new terrain at Deer Valley Resort.
Matthew Prince

Two facts stood out to me:

  • As you may have heard, the International Olympic Committee is considering our hometown as the host of the Olympics in 2034. Nothing is official yet, but they’ve begun scouting venues. While it’s not currently the top choice, the run from the top of Bald Mountain to the new East Village has more than enough continuous vertical to qualify for a downhill. And while Snowbasin is the favored location of the 2034 downhill, imagine how cool the shots looking over Jordanelle would be if East Village were chosen as the finish line.
  • I’d spent the weekend before up at Sun Valley at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association’s annual meeting. Sun Valley’s newly installed Challenger chair is incredible: eight minutes bottom-to-top with about 3,000 feet of vertical. I did laps on it all weekend and wracked up nearly 40,000 vertical feet of skiing one day before lunch. Deer Valley’s as-of-yet-unnamed Chair 6 is the same technology with nearly the same vertical. The runs off it are like a double-length Stein’s Way. So if you’re looking for me in 2025/26, now you know where to find me.
One of the many views of the Jordanelle Reservoir from Deer Valley’s extended terrain.
Matthew Prince

I’m excited. As kids, my friends and I used to ride the Jupiter chair at Park City and then hike over and ski what’s now called Empire Bowl at Deer Valley. We didn’t know the name for it at the time. It was fun but stupid, as none of us wore helmets or brought avalanche beacons, and the first ski patrol and chairlifts weren’t there until 1998.

I’ve skied these mountains nearly every year since 1977, when I got my first season pass. Believe it or not, on an inflation-adjusted basis, a season pass for Park City Mountain is significantly cheaper today than it was back then (different story for day passes and lessons, which have far out-paced inflation).

That’s not all. I’m here from the past to tell you: Today the mountains are bigger, the lifts are faster, the lines are shorter, the snowmaking is better, the grooming is more extensive, the skis are easier to turn, and everything about skiing here is really, really better than it used to be.

I know that’s not been fashionable to say for the past 10 years. And it’s been almost exactly 10 years since a funk of doomerism began prevailing in these parts. I’m not exactly sure why, but I have a guess. In 2014, the Cummings, who are remembered today as having been widely beloved, and their holding company Powdr (who, full disclosure, I used to work for in a very minor capacity) failed to send the requisite letter to renew at the halfway point their way-below-market, 99-year lease for Park City Mountain. Rather than go quietly, they decided to piss in the pool and sour the view of our community on anyone who came next to operate the lifts that service these hills.

I get it. I, like John and Kristi Cummings, feel what happened was totally unjust and at best legally formulaic, and I believe they’ve done a ton for the Park City community. I’d have pissed in the pool myself had I been in their position. But since then, it’s been de rigueur among many in town to bad-mouth Vail Resorts, the company that took over after Powdr failed Legal 101.

So let’s break down the community’s complaints about Vail Resorts as a steward of Park City Mountain: 1) the lift lines are too long (especially at the base in the morning and on a few lifts like Silverlode that are bottlenecks); 2) the runs are too crowded; 3) there’s not enough snowmaking; 4) there’s not enough grooming; and 5) they’re just “too corporate.”

Again, I get it, especially No. 5. I was among the first to hate on Vail Resorts as “too corporate” when they took over The Canyons even before the Powdr debacle.

But here’s the thing: I’ve spent the past year digging into the other four issues, which if we’re honest are the real non-hand-wavy ones. I started with the assumption that Vail Resorts was the villain, that they simply weren’t investing in the mountain where I learned to ski and still love. Now, a year later, I’m convinced they’re not the primary reason Park City Mountain is rotting. If we want to fix it, it’s time to focus on where the problem really lies.

Let’s start with solutions. First, the mountain is big enough. It has the most skiable acreage of any resort in the United States. For those of us who know where to ski, even on the busiest weekends we don’t wait in lines or see anyone else on our favorite terrain. But there are bottlenecks at certain lifts and on certain runs. And there are parts of the mountain that are massively underutilized. (When was the last time you skied Red Fox?)

I was a ski instructor in Park City in the 1996/97 season. It was the last year of the old gondola (incidentally, lest we romanticize the past, it often had an hour-plus line and was always a 23-minute ride after that).

It also was the first year of the Silverlode six-pack. We called it “the flying couch.” It was great.

But let me put it in some perspective. I’m turning 50 this year. I was 22 when I taught skiing. I’m definitely not as fast and agile as I was straight out of college. Neither is Silverlode.

If you’ve ridden Challenger at Sun Valley or the new Eagle Express at Solitude, that’s how fast and great a modern lift can be. This sucks to realize because Silverlode is a major bottleneck on the mountain and a disaster whenever it breaks down, which, like me, it does more and more in its old age.

What’s interesting is the Park City side of the mountain has so many more problems than The Canyons side. There are more bottlenecks. More underutilized terrain. More places people get stuck. And more complaints from visitors and locals alike. Why is that?

I’ve spent time talking with resort designers, locals, visitors and even — gasp — Vail Resorts. Here are some things that would immediately help the Park City side of Park City Mountain:

  • Upgrade the nearly 30-year-old Silverlode to a modern, higher-speed eight-pack lift.
  • Add another high-speed lift below Miner’s Camp to the Crescent Lift terminus to provide another route other than Silverlode out of that choke point.
  • Replace Eagle with a high-speed lift up to the old Ski Team Lift terminus to relieve some of the morning base lines and make better use of the Ski Team Ridge terrain.
  • Upgrade Pioneer to a high-speed lift and extend it to start near the current base of the Bonanza chair (looker’s left of the Silver King Mine).
  • Install a short, three-person fixed chair from the current Bonanza base to the top of Payday (think a connector lift like Viking or Judge at Deer Valley).
  • Replace Town and Bonanza with a high-speed gondola to the Summit House, including an angle station supporting load/unload capability near the old gondola’s angle station (just to skier’s right of the bottom of the Silver Queen run).
  • Over time, replace the aging King Con, Payday, and McConkey’s lifts with modern, faster lifts.
  • Add snowmaking throughout the mountain and especially along the Ski Team Ridge runs (Crescent/Silver Skis/Sliver King/Erica’s/etc) to enable regular grooming and allow advanced intermediate skiers a path down the mountain that doesn’t involve Homerun or the much-maligned Gotcha Cutoff.
  • Rebuild the Summit House to be a modern lodge and include breakfast, lunch and dinner service throughout the year.
Underlying map by James Niehues.
Underlying map by James Niehues

You may quibble with some of these ideas, but I challenge any Park City Mountain snow rider to object to them all, especially if you ride the Town Lift on any regular basis.

So why aren’t any of them getting done? Isn’t this a reason to be super anti-anti-anti-anti-anti-Vail Resorts to the extreme?!

While Vail Resorts is an easy scapegoat, and there are literally people on the social media site formerly known as Twitter regularly Tweeting at me that the solution is I step up and buy Park City Mountain, I’m sorry to tell you no white knight will save us because Vail Resorts is not the root of the problem.

So what is?

It turns out, Vail Resorts not only supports but actually proposed most of the ideas I listed above. Why can’t they do them? Because they are limited by an outdated development agreement with the city that was struck with Powdr back in 1998 and hasn’t been updated since. That’s 25 years — a quarter of a century — since we’ve revisited how Park City Mountain can be upgraded and maintained.

Want to add snowmaking? Nope, can’t do any that, as it wasn’t originally contemplated in the development agreement. Want to rebuild the Summit House? Nope, same problem. Want to make the Town Lift not be an 18-minute slog that makes you think about jumping off at Tower 16, after which there’s another 12 minutes of ride and yet only another 100 feet of vertical rise? Sorry, not possible until the City Council approves a new development agreement.

You can be angry at the four people who sued to stop the upgrade of Silverlode and Eagle — and don’t get me wrong, every time I wait in a line at Silverlode I mumble angry epithets in each of their names — but the real villain here is the City Council. The people suing aren’t making it easier, but their pedantic point is that Vail Resorts must stick to the antiquated development agreement.

That development agreement isn’t etched in stone, however. It’s a contract. It can be updated — pretty easily, actually. So it’s the City Council and their failure to do so who are literally letting our mountain’s infrastructure rot.

Incidentally, it’s fair to point fingers at the Planning Commission as well, but the City Council appoints the Planning Commission, so the council is the real root of the problem. If we had a predictable, reliable process, maybe we could live with a quarter-century-old document, but we don’t.

The good news is that these are solvable problems, requiring only a pittance of political will and an ounce of courage. Just look at the new, incredible terrain and the extensive snowmaking about to open at Deer Valley, which because of MIDA and being almost entirely located in Wasatch County isn’t subject to Park City’s broken bureaucracy. Or even the Canyons side of the same resort, also operated by Vail Resorts, which has had significant snowmaking improvements, got a complete gondola cabin upgrade last summer, and is getting another new gondola to replace the Sunrise Lift next season because it is subject to Summit County’s solutions-oriented approach, not Park City’s paralyzed politics.

It’s time for the City Council to take our failing resort infrastructure seriously. It’s time for them to sit down with Park City Mountain and put together a new development agreement that allows them to do many, if not all, of the no-brainer upgrades outlined above.

If the City Council puts in place a visionary plan and Vail Resorts still doesn’t invest in the mountain, then I’ll be back on the “Vail Sucks” bandwagon and so should you.

But I’ll bet that isn’t what happens. Vail Resorts, after all, had two shiny new lifts delivered and sitting in a parking lot ready to be installed. They’ve shown they’re willing to invest, only to be stymied by outdated bureaucracy. Now we need our elected representatives to update the development agreement to allow Vail Resorts to prove they are committed to investing in our community, our mountain and its infrastructure.

Until then, starting today, The Park Record will be publishing a counter of days that have passed where the City Council failed to do the right thing and put in place a new development agreement that allows the mountain we love to stop rotting.

We’ll publish the counter of the days that have passed on the front page of each issue until they act. As of today, 9,387 days — that’s 25 years, 8 months, 3 weeks and 1 day — and counting. It’s long past time our elected officials stop living in fear of change and do the sensible things to make this community and our mountain better.

Matthew and Tatiana Prince are the owners of The Park Record.

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