Getting Flagstaffed: Will Alta Put a Lift in Backcountry Terrain?

Utah backcountry skiers are shaking their heads at a possible Alta expansion.
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Utah backcountry skiers are shaking their heads at a possible Alta expansion.

For backcountry skiers around Salt Lake City, Flagstaff Mountain, directly across the street from Alta Ski Resort, is the gateway to the Wasatch range. A 40-minute skin up the peak accesses the Powder Circuit, classic terrain in Days Fork, Silver Fork, and beyond. But this could change.

Alta is studying the feasibility of a lift up south-facing Flagstaff Mountain, says Alta’s Director of Public Relations Connie Marshall. At present, the resort’s ski patrol fires howitzer rounds across Little Cottonwood Canyon Road to control avalanche terrain surrounding the town of Alta. But the use of artillery may not be an option in the future, due to restrictions by the Department of Homeland Security. “One solution would be to set up a new lift so patrollers can do control work without howitzers,” Marshall says, adding that skier compaction would also help. “We’re having a dialogue with the Forest Service, but it’s so very early in the process.” Which begs the question: Could Homeland Security be worried that Al Qaeda has infiltrated ski patrol, or does it believe that Alta hates our freedom?

Backcountry skiers think it’s the latter. Alta’s no-uphill-traffic policy—a necessity while patrollers do avy-control work—means locals wouldn’t be able to skin up Flagstaff to access the goods. And then there’s the issue of skier traffic. A lift would whisk resort-goers right into the heart of the Wasatch, meaning fewer fresh tracks for the earn-your-turns purists. “From a backcountry perspective it would be devastating,” says Andrew McLean, an accomplished ski mountaineer and Wasatch local. “I’ve always liked Alta, but to put a lift on a south-facing aspect is definitely out of character for the resort.”

But sadly, mucking up something that has nothing to do with terrorism is hardly out of character for the Department of Homeland Security.