Chris McCandless: Little Cottonwood Via Gondola

By Tom Kelly Feb 17, 2021
Chris McCandless grew up in Little Cottonwood Canyon, dropping powder lines as a kid and hiking Mt. Superior in the summertime. It’s a place near and dear to his heart. Amidst a discussion on mountain transportation today, he has a vision - for a high speed gondola
Chris McCandless: Little Cottonwood Via Gondola

Chris McCandless grew up in Little Cottonwood Canyon, dropping powder lines as a kid and hiking Superior in the summertime. It's a place near and dear to his heart. Three or four days a week you might find him driving up the canyon where the decision of the morning is Alta, Snowbird or backcountry - all the way up just soaking in the scenery.

Chris is like many of us and certainly not immune to having those moments of solitude soaked up by traffic jams on SR210. But amidst a broad public discussion on mountain transportation today, Chris McCandless has a vision. His concept for a high-speed 3S gondola to whisk skiers up the canyon and help alleviate traffic on the dangerous canyon road below is very real. And people are listening.

If you've ever skied in Europe, you quickly learn how mountain regions have created transportation systems that simply don't rely on cars. Lifts and tramways aren't just for skiers. They're for moving people on railways, gondolas and more.

The proposed Le Caille base station (featuring underground parking and a bus interchange).

McCandless is a skier's skier. The passion he felt as a nine-year-old in Little Cottonwood burns every bit as big today. He brought that same passion to public service, as a Sandy City councilman for 15 years and past head of the Central Wasatch Commission.

Today, he just wants to be a part of the solution for future generations.

This episode of Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast will amaze you at how realistic the gondola project is over the next decade. Gondola? Railway? Buses? Highway? Watch for a Utah Department of Transportation decision soon! Here are a few tidbits. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Skiing is really at your core, Chris, isn't it?
(As a kid) I lived in Sandy. Me and my friend, we'd go up there every weekend and build jumps on the rope tow. We'd wear out so many pairs of gloves and make my mom crazy. We would take shovels, build great jumps, try to impress people. I don't think we impressed anybody, but we thought we did. And that was the fun part of it with our amazing prowess and ski jumping. And it just led from there and never gave up. I'm still skiing as much as I possibly can. And it's been a great experience. The hope is that we can help perpetuate this experience into the future for all of the generations yet to come.

"People want something to happen. They want it to happen now. We've talked about this for decades. Let's get something done now to solve the transportation problem." Chris McCandless

How did you get inspired on this project back when you were on the Sandy City Council?
A lot of projects came across our desk at Sandy City at the time. It was fulfilling. I was part of the solution and I enjoyed that. I don't regret a single day of service. And that helped me formulate where we are today with trying to figure out a solution for the transportation problems that plague the south end of the valley as it relates to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Two to five hour transit times to get into and out of the canyon doesn't work. We're ruining our asset.

How will the gondola help mitigate traffic in the canyon?
The gondola has the capacity of about 4,000 people per hour, which is a peak hour need. If you're taking that number of people up the canyon, you eliminate 1,800 cars an hour out of that canyon. You have decreased the congestion. You've increased the enjoyment of not having to deal with the 'red snake,' as they call it, going either up or down the canyon. It's pretty brutal sometimes.

How will the system tie into the neighboring communities in the valley?
One of the parts that I really like is our trail systems going into the base station. We want to extend the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and bring trails in from Sandy and Cottonwood Heights and from our immediate neighbors and put it right through a project so people can ride their bicycle to the gondola station or just walk. It'll be an absolutely staggeringly beautiful walk just to get the gondola base station and then take that up the canyon. Quite a date night, I would say. But, you know, I'm a romantic at heart!

There's plenty more in this episode of Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast.

  • What does he share in common with the lead character in Jon Kraukauer's Into the Wild?
  • How did he get up Little Cottonwood as a kid?
  • Why did he steal his brother's bindings?
  • His favorite line off the tram on a powder morning and why you want to be on first tram.
  • His favorite old guy rock band?

Take a listen today. Tune in to Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by High West Distillery on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.


  • Gondola Car: Doppelmayr 3S, 28-passengers
  • Base Station: Le Caille (restaurant) with underground parking and bus interchange
  • 28 minutes to Snowbird
  • 35 minutes to Alta
  • Flies over 64 active avalanche paths
  • 57% of the nine miles of SR210 is threatened by avalanche paths
  • Helps mitigate the up to 7,000 cars a day in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Grindelwald-Eiger - This Doppelmayr video captures the construction of an impressive 3S gondola on the Eiger in the Swiss Jungfrau region.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:00 Chris McCandless, welcome to Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast. Nice to have you with us today.

Chris McCandless: |00:00:04 Thanks for having me here.

Tom Kelly: |00:00:06 What I really loved when we came in to set up for the interview today is that we each talked about how we went out this morning and we went skiing. Isn't that what skiers are supposed to do?

Our studies show emissions will be reduced by 56 percent. Using the gondola protects our watershed and it's the least disruptive system in our canyon from a construction perspective, because there's already a road there. We don't have to build another road to get to the gondola for maintenance." Chris McCandless

Chris McCandless: |00:00:16 That's correct. And we're not going to tell anybody about the secret little spots that we went down, because then there'll be lots of people in those places. And it was a great morning this morning, actually. Not too cold. Bright and light was great. And the snow - we had about two inches at Snowbird. How much did you have at Park City?

Tom Kelly: |00:00:38 We didn't have any new today, but that's snow from this past weekend really made a difference. Just the surface conditions were just fantastic. We did the ski - we started at Park City Base and we skied over through Quicksilver over to the Canyons side and had a great time with one friend from back east who is making his annual trek through the West and another longtime Salt Lake native who lives up in Park City, who I ski with occasionally. So had a great time.

Chris McCandless: |00:01:06 I know all those places. I spent a lot of time in Park City, but most of my time has been spent in Little Cottonwood, Big Cottonwood. But generally speaking, it's a Little Cottonwood Canyon that pulls my heartstrings.

Tom Kelly: |00:01:18 Well, we're going to talk about that. But I want to just since you're on the topic of Park City, you used to patrol at Park City.

Chris McCandless: |00:01:24 I was a volunteer ski patrolman, started in 1984. And I think I ended in the late 1990s, 97, 98. They gave me my ski patrol stuff and just said, just come back any time you want. So I got to bootleg a couple of days, past the day where I officially quit. But what a great experience that was. It was helping people and being on the mountain and gaining some knowledge that I would have not otherwise had that great experience because I've used that emergency medical care experience throughout my entire life. But, of course, you know, there was that uncut powder underneath the lift at 7:00 a.m. that all ski patrolmen want to get to whether they're supposed to or not. They're going to go get that powder. And so we did a lot of that.

Tom Kelly: |00:02:18 Well, we would expect them to do that. That was actually you were a volunteer patrol at that point, right?

Chris McCandless: |00:02:25 That's correct.

Tom Kelly: |00:02:26 That's different now,

Chris McCandless: |00:02:27 I don't think they have any volunteer patrolmen anymore in the Wasatch Front or back ski areas. I think Brighton still has a few. But it was a really great period of time in my life. One of my favorite photographs is on my wall in my basement, and it's of about 45 volunteers, ski patrolmen. We swiped the sign off a ski patrol shack and put it out in front of us and at the bottom of the Prospector Lift, we had us all there posing. And I look on those days with incredibly fond memories.

Tom Kelly: |00:03:03 There's just such a great fun history. I have done a bit of research, particularly the history in the Park City area, and it really is an amazing sport that has deep roots here in the state.

An example of the high-capacity 3S gondola cars, which will be affixed to three cables allowing them to sustain winds up to 80 mph and remain operational.

Chris McCandless: |00:03:16 Yeah, I don't know if you want me to go into this, but I guess I will. So I started skiing when I was nine years old. My dad gave me a pair of skis. He forgot to give me the bindings or the boots or the ski pole. So I had this pair of skis and in those days had to extend your arm out really, really tall. And if you could touch the top of the ski, well, then the skis were too short - super long boards.

Tom Kelly: |00:03:41 And narrow, probably too.

Chris McCandless: |00:03:43 Narrow and no binding. So my brother wasn't using his skis, so I stole his bindings off his skis, put them on mine and got his boots, which were about three sizes too big. And off I went. I headed to Alta where I hitchhiked to get a ride, have buses or mass transit and it was a different world. And how.

Tom Kelly: |00:04:03 Excuse me, but how old were you then?

Chris McCandless: |00:04:04 Nine.

Tom Kelly: |00:04:05 And you hitchhiked?

Chris McCandless: |00:04:06 Oh, yeah. I lived in Sandy on about thirteenth and eighty six. And me and my friend, we'd go there every weekend and build jumps on the rope tow. We'd wear out so many pairs of gloves and make my mom crazy because you know, you're grabbing on to the rope and going up and take shovels, build great jumps, try to impress people. I don't think we impressed anybody, but we thought we did. And that was the fun part of it with our amazing prowess and ski jumping. And it just led from there and never gave up. And so naturally led me to the ski patrol after my friends got married and old and I got married, I just didn't want to get old. So I'm still skiing as much as I possibly can. And it's been a great experience and the hope is that we can help perpetuate this experience. Into the future for all of the generations yet to come.

Tom Kelly: |00:05:04 We're going to talk about the gondola project that you're involved with, which is truly fascinating. And I know as skiers, we're all looking for something innovative and something that can protect the environment and create an opportunity to properly visit the canyons. And we'll get into that in just a little bit. But you grew up here on the, kind of call it the south and east side of the valley. So Little Cottonwood was really your home growing up.

Chris McCandless: |00:05:31 Absolutely. We spent a lot of days as youth in Little Cottonwood Canyon. In fact, the wilderness was 9400 south, about 18th east. There was nothing there. And we'd camp and enjoy ourselves as young kids. We had a hill that was called Greenwoods Hill and we'd get all these big rubber tires that were abandoned, put them on the hill in the wintertime. And that was our night skiing. We'd cruise down that thing and zip in and out of those tires that were on fire. But it was a different place. There wasn't anybody out there. It was just us. And so from an American experience, that was one of my memories, learning how to ski.

Canyon Traffic Avalanche Paths

Tom Kelly: |00:06:19 Just a little bit more on your background before we talk more about mountain transportation. You have built a career as ... in the real estate and the development and property management area, but you also got involved in public service and spent quite a bit of time on the Sandy City Council and also were the head of the Central Wasatch Commission for some years. What was your initial motivation to get into public service?

Chris McCandless: |00:06:45 One of the city councilmen in Sandy decided to get transferred from Sandy to Texas, which left the spot. And I've been involved in public service and numerous different community organizations. And I was asked by a couple of the existing city council members to apply to take his spot. So I was appointed, which is a great way to win an election. You just have to get a couple votes from the city council and prove you're a city councilman. And from there, I was able to get on a number of different projects and committees. The one that I liked the most involved Little Cottonwood Canyon. And so we created relationships with our business organizations, because if you take that, if you take the exciting part about little walking in a way, which is the skiing and hiking and climbing and there's ice and it's just an outstanding asset for our community and you and you boil it down to the businesses that are associated with that. And as a city councilman, I have to represent everybody which includes my business constituency. And so I felt like I needed to make sure that their interests were protected as well. And you take a look at all of the benefits associated with Alta Ski Area and Snowbird. And it's thousands of jobs. It's millions of dollars in payroll families depend upon. And if they don't have that job, if their interests aren't protected, which are our interests, well, then I guess I'm not doing my job as the elected official that I was. And I was in politics for 15 years. And on January one of 2020, I said goodbye. And I found my smile and it's still there every time I say that I can't help but smile and I'm not I don't regret a single day of service. And as a city councilman, there was some difficult times. A lot of projects came across our desk at Sandy City at the time. It was fulfilling, I was part of the solution and I enjoyed that, and that helped me formulate where we are today with trying to figure out a solution for the transportation problems that plague the south end of the valley as it relates to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Two to five hour transit times to get into and out of the canyon doesn't work. We're ruining our asset.

Tom Kelly: |00:09:20 As you look back to your childhood and growing up and utilizing that canyon, has it been a particular passion for you to find a solution? You are a user of the canyon and you're someone who has always sought to protect it. Was there something that really clicked for you that led you to a solution like this?

Maps show the planned route of the Doppelmayr 3S gondola from the proposed Le Caille base station (featuring underground parking and a bus interchange) to the nearby mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon up to Tanner's Flat, then on to Snowbird and Alta.

Chris McCandless: |00:09:42 So after I quit politics and I was no longer the chair of the Central Wasatch Commission, which was ... our Bible with the Central Wasatch Commission was the mountain of court documents signed by numerous, numerous people, it was an extraordinary undertaking to try and come up with a solution to canyons. And I say that in multiple numbers problems, mostly the transportation issue. And I was a really significant fan of the Central Wasatch Commission's federal legislation, where we tried to create some protections for the canyon itself, creating a larger wilderness area where in appropriate areas and then coming up with transportation solutions. So the training ground for me kind of culminated up to January 1st of last year.

Chris McCandless: |00:10:33 What happened with me was as they were looking at alternative solutions to the transportation problem, buses, trains, or a gondola. My first inclination early on was the train. As a city councilman, I wanted a train to go from Sandy to Alta. I thought that would be a great way to solve the problem. But as I worked in the train and the buses are actually great options, anything's better than nothing. We have to do something. And so but as I looked at the gondola option and studied that, I was standing on the road at Highway 210 or in Little Cottonwood, and I saw this great big for sale sign, the second or third of last year. And the property that is just west of that road, north of Little Cottonwood Canyon, had been listed for sale by a local real estate agent. And I knew the owners. And that's one of those things where it just kind of comes together. The owners were old ski patrolmen from Park City, and we had a lot of fun together. So I actually called the owners and said. 'What do you guys think? I'd like to put this under contract. I've got some ideas.' At the same time, my business partner on a lot of different projects because I'm a real estate guy, had purchased Le Caille and had amassed about 24, 25 acres, and it had its own challenges. And for a couple of years, he's been asking us to come in and help him with that. And as a city councilman, I refused because I felt like there would be a conflict of interest. And January 2nd, Kevin calls me up and says, How about now you're no longer an elected official. I'm honored you and Wayne come over here and help me with this project. And that's the day I stopped and called Suzanne and said and Kevin, this is an opportunity to solve the problems in the king. And because if we don't have this property. I don't believe the canyon's problems will go away, we'll just kick the can down the road because they wanted to put the gondola, for example, at the mouth of the canyon instead of outside of the canyon. Challenge with that is you've got to have a whole bunch of buses dropping people off. There's no place to drop them off. So now I visualized because I've been in construction and real estate for a long time, a freeway interchange there so the buses could turn around and head back out. Buses turn and left is a bad idea. And I visualized the size of the gondola itself at the mouth of the king and disrupting that incredible view of that glaciated aspect of the canyon.

Chris McCandless: |00:13:34 We can't put a big tall three to four story structure in the mouth of the canyon because then instead of looking at the beauty of the canyon, you're going to focus in on that building. And so I wanted to get it away from that area. The next problem that I saw was there's a bunch of problems. I don't want to bore you with too many details. But, um, I looked at the location of Susan's property. Susan, Eric and Shayne, family members were the original homesteaders of that property a long time ago. And this is the last piece that they have, one of the last pieces that they have of the original 640 acres that they homesteaded. And I said if we put the gondola base station here. It's outside of the canyon and it's not on federal land, it's not on Forest Service property is private property. And so then it takes it away from the king. And so we don't destroy the view shed as people go into the canyon. And I mention this to you, I think that I think the little canyon should have been a national park. But that decision was made long ago, and so now we get to deal with what we've got left and try to protect it in the future from overuse, quite frankly, and some of the challenges associated to having that phenomenal asset in our backyard. I don't know how long it took you to get to Park City this morning, but I'm guessing I had about 5000 vertical by the time you got there. But at Snowbird. It takes me about 45 minutes to get to Park City. I'm not saying ... I love Park City. It's a great place, great city, great people, great skiing. It just takes me too long to get there and sell 10, 15 minutes. I'm at Snowbird and I get to go skiing.

Tom Kelly: |00:15:26 I want to talk in a bit a little bit more about Little Cottonwood Canyon itself. But first, I want to explore a little bit the whole concept of mountain transportation. And this is something that in my travels, particularly the times that I've spent in Europe with the U.S. Ski Team over the years, what has always impressed me is the culture of those mountain communities. And they really understand mountain transportation and mountain transportation isn't getting in your car and driving up into the mountains. It's getting on a train, it's getting on a bus, or it's getting on a tramway of some sort, be it a gondola or some other type of device. Have you thought much about how do you change the culture of everyone to understand that we need to have a different way of getting around? I think this was addressed a bit in the Mountain Accord document, which your Central Watch Central Wasatch Commission worked on is changing this culture a big part of what we need to all engage in over the next decade or two.

Chris McCandless: |00:16:30 It is actually. And so part of the part of the Utah Department of Transportation's current environmental impact study that they're undertaking, which is a very expensive, very long process and coming to the finish line actually addresses a lot of those things. And so motivation to get people out of their cars comes in a couple of forms. And then that starts to create the need for that European element of transportation in the mountain. So let's just say it's a gondola and I call it the lucky Bay Station. Remember my friend owns Le Caille? So I'm going to try and make him famous. Right? So we'll call it the Le Caille Base Station. If the Le Caille base station is constructed, whether it's a train, a gondola or a bus station, it becomes a multimodal hub, which is primarily what they have in Europe. They have different ways to get there. So for the Le Caille base station, if it's a gondola, you can drive your car to the base station park and one of the 8500 stalls that are buried pretty much in the ground. So you don't really have to see this gigantic, tall, six story structure penetrating out of the view shed. It's in the ground for the most part. You park there, get on an escalator, get on the gondola. You're at Snowbird or Alta in about a half an hour. It's a cool ride. Now. The other options would be you could take a bus from the mobility hubs being studied, which is the second part of that transportation plan, you could come from Big Cottonwood Canyons Mobility Hub or Sandy at Highland Drive and 9400. So just ride a bus, get off the bus, walk into the gondola station, go to Snowbird or Alta. If you have ... The plan is today that if you're a season pass holder and I know snowboard has 10,000 season pass holders. You just use your pass to get on the gondola. There's not a charge. So if the EIS by UDOT is accurate and most of their materials that they've been talking about so far to date as about tolling the canyons, we have to do something to disincentive people from driving their cars. And I'm just as guilty as everybody else. I drove my car this morning. It's just me and my truck. I could have taken the bus, but I took the car because I had no incentive not to. But if it was a gondola and I was going to spend a pretty good chunk of change paying my toll to get in the canyon, and I just show my ski pass to get on a gondola and go to Snowbird, I'd be on a gondola. Now I'm part of the solution versus part of the problem. Now I do take the bus a lot, by the way. But this morning I did drive my truck.

Tom Kelly: |00:19:22 I actually have been taking the bus up there more and more the last few years. The service has increased and it has been a good way to get up there. But I think I would opt for the gondola. Let's talk, though, about the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon on a nice day, on a bluebird day. You drive up there and you just think you're in heaven. There's beautiful, snowcapped peaks rushing creek off to your right, and it's just like heaven driving up there. And you don't think, though, about the dangers and the challenges that that road presents until it snows.

Chris McCandless: |00:20:01 Right. So I heard this from reliable sources. I've never actually looked it up. Little Cottonwood Canyon is the most dangerous road of its kind in the world. So we got lots of people coming, how we're going to put more of them up there on a road that's that dangerous and the other alternative is to put them in a gondola. Now, the 3S gondola system by Doppelmayr is the one that I personally like the most, packs 32 people in heated seats. The glass is defrosted. So then it's floor to ceiling glass. You're seated. Your skis are in a rack that's embedded into the floor and you are flying above the pine trees, riding up that same canyon without the G forces, without the problems of ... if it snows, if the traffic gets bad, is the canyon going to be closed. It gives everybody that confidence and a reliable transportation scenario to get me up there and get me back within 30 minutes because it's raining all the time. For me, that solves the problem. Secondarily, for those who want to drive, because there are those guys who will still drive, especially delivery trucks, those kind of guys taking materials to the ski areas and the resorts. The gondola has the people capacity of about 4000 people per hour, which is a peak hour need, and if you're taking that kind of people up the canyon, you eliminate 1800 cars an hour out of that canyon. You still got to drive or you still need to drive. You have decreased the congestion. You've increased the enjoyment of not having to deal with the red snake, as they call it, going either up or down the canyon. It's pretty brutal sometimes.

Tom Kelly: |00:22:03 How is the route from Le Caille up to Snowbird? And by the way, for listeners, if you want to see more detail, we will have this posted at So you can see some of the maps and the charts and so forth. But what is roughly the route from LeCaille up to Snowbird and Alta?

Chris McCandless: |00:22:21 So if you get on at the base station, there's a big bend on Highway 210. It's prior to the Big Bend because I really want to protect the view shed of that big bend. As you make that turn, you get to see inside Little Cottonwood Canyon, which should be preserved. So the goal is get on the gondola. The first angle station's right there at the mouth of the canyon from that angle station. Then it's a straight shot up to Tanners. And from Tanners it makes another course correction and goes up to just to the south of the Cliff Lodge by the Bypass Road. You get off there and go skiing or you get off there and you go riding or hiking or whatever the entertainment that you're looking for, or just get off there and sit on the side of a hill and enjoy the day. And one of the exciting things I've not heard about that. And then for Alta, it goes straight up over the top of the hill and then back down into the valley just east. And these are all preliminarily locations, right? Just goes to the east of Goldminer's basically, and that's where the terminus point would be. And so for me I think. I get to enjoy the ride, I'm the guy who helped facilitate through the CWC getting money to increase the number of buses two years ago with our group of elected officials. And they all work extraordinarily hard on this particular topic, but we facilitated some additional funding to help increase the frequency of buses in the canyons, both big and little complex. And I think they run about every 15 minutes now. And I've ridden that bus a lot and my favorite little parking spot. And I'm not going to share it with you because they all disappear too quick, but. It's not as much fun as it would be as if it was in a gondola. I'm not looking forward to a bus ride. I think I would look forward to a gondola ride or perhaps a train ride if that was the case. It's just a little more enjoyable. I think one of the people that I really respect called it an experiential enhancement, and I've used that a lot. I don't even know if it's a word, but it sounds really good and it describes how you'd feel gliding up the canyon without any G forces or danger. One of the big items for me is that both Snowbird and Alta have said and this goes back to my CWC federal legislation days.

Chris McCandless: |00:25:07 They've both told me in writing that if the gondola gets built, they will put a conservation easement on all the property they own, not including Grizzly Gulch. That's a hop. That's a that's a hot topic. We all want to talk about that. But all the rest of their property, Toledo to Flagstaff, Superior Peak, they'll give us as the public a conservation easement on that property, preserving hundreds and hundreds of acres from being developed in the future. That watershed. It's iconic, and we should save it. That's the brass ring. That's what I want.

Tom Kelly: |00:25:46 You're listening to Last Chair, the Ski Utah podcast. We're with Chris McCandless today talking about the proposed gondola going up Little Cottonwood Canyon. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with Chris and Last Chair.

Tom Kelly: |00:26:40 And we're back now with Chris McCandless and Chris, you had talked about the system of the gondola going from LeCaille up to Snowbird and on to Alta. Many of us have been on gondolas. There are a number of gondolas around the state. But the design on this one, this 3S design, is different. Can you tell us what that is about?

Chris McCandless: |00:27:01 So the 3S system ... First 3S is an acronym for three cables. That's primarily a European country or European manufacturer. Because you have three cables, it increases the stability and stability is absolutely critical because you're carrying 32 people, you have a whole cable and then you have the other two cables that will roll along. And what that means is that a lot of folks are worried about wind and being shutdown and emergency evacuations. But on a 3S Doppelmayr gondola system, they can sustain winds of up to 80 miles an hour. That's extraordinarily rare and the bottom of the canyon, and it's not likely that that would ever happen. The second part of that safety scenario is that the gondola, if it was to break down or lose power or somehow not be able to function, they can lower all of the cars back down to the base station and just offload them there without any significant emergency evacuation. I know a lot of people familiar with the old gondola in Park City. We just have to practice gondola evacuations with ropes. And that was actually really fun. But that's not something that would happen with these newer systems are staggeringly amazing. With their heated seats and their heated windows, Wi-Fi and every and every car, they generate electricity going up and down the canyon from the rolling wheels on the cables. And they're all ADA accessible. They are. It would be an exceptional ride.

Tom Kelly: |00:28:43 You are a backcountry user, you backcountry ski, resort ski and you hike and you utilize that canyon. Having a gondola is an additional thing in the canyon, but for you as a backcountry user, what's your perception of that? How do you look at this?

Chris McCandless: |00:29:01 Struggle with it, in some aspects. But that aspect is, as I want to be the only guy in the canyon, period. You guys are all messing up my powder. And so that's not realistic, of course, I am one of the people who have created the problem where there are so many people and so many backcountry skiers, we have to do something. And so the choice is between buses, which, quite frankly, I don't believe can solve the problem. It doesn't check all the boxes. A train is also being studied, which is not a bad idea. It just costs twice as much money. It's about a billion dollars, which means the cost of riding the train will be twice as much and decrease the rider participation because the cost is prohibitive. And so from my perspective, and it's a ground based structure so that avalanches there are 64 avalanche paths and little Cottonwood Canyon and adding a bigger road and more surface transportation without a secondary emergency access, which a gondola provides, we don't really solve the problem. And so I don't like the big towers just like everybody else. I'd rather see it just stay pristine. That's not what we get to work with. We're going to double the population in the next 30 years and the Salt Lake Metropolitan Statistical Area. And when that happens, if we don't have a solution, we will destroy little Cottonwood Canyon because people are going to go there.

Chris McCandless: |00:30:35 We need to have a system in place where we can control how many people get up the canyon. And with a gondola, you just stop loading people when they reach that capacity. And a capacity has been talked about a lot. And sooner or later, somebody has to decide what that capacity is. It's not part of the study for the year and it's actually a job for the Forest Service. And I believe there are people that will take that topic by the horns and figure it out. And it needs to be someday because we can't just keep loading more people up there. But for today, let's solve the problem that we have at hand. And it's a problem. It's staggering seeing the number of people that are going up there. And we need to get rid of some of the cars and surface transportation. So we get to pick one of three options. Buses, trains are gondola. And I believe by far the gondola is the best choice to be able to solve the transportation problem. A little complicated right now.

Tom Kelly: |00:31:40 The provider that you're looking at is Doppelmayr, which is an amazing global company, interestingly enough, has its North American headquarters right here in Salt Lake City. This technology, I'll call it, that is in place in many places in the world. I believe the Peak to Peak gondola at Whistler/Blackcomb is a 3S design. Have you had a good partnership with Doppelmayr in looking at the possibilities here?

Chris McCandless: |00:32:06 You know, Doppelmayr - I can't say enough good things about them. I like the fact that they're headquartered here in Salt Lake County. I like the fact that they presently have 110, I think it's 110, lift systems operating in this area. They're our neighbors. They employ people here. I find that very appealing to me. The Doppelmayr system that I like a lot just opened up in and they call it the Eiger connection in Europe.

Tom Kelly: |00:32:40 Yes.

Chris McCandless: |00:32:41 Tremendous videos on construction, operation and what it does. And it's the same exact system that we're talking about here. And you see those videos of how they're moving people quietly, effortlessly, effortlessly. And it has a positive impact on reducing by a significant level the emissions from carbon-based vehicles going up the canyon. Our studies show emissions will be reduced by 56 percent. Using the gondola protects our watershed and it's the least disruptive system in our canyon from a construction perspective, because there's already a road there. We don't have to build another road to get to the gondola for maintenance. We just use the existing road.

Tom Kelly: |00:33:35 It's an interesting example with the Eiger lift. That is a region in Switzerland that is just quintessential combinations of mountain transportation systems with train, cog rail, tramways and now this development. So it's a fascinating look at what you can do to move people effectively and around a mountain area with a real concern for the impact on the region itself.

Chris McCandless: |00:34:06 You know, the coolest part about the entire system and all these pieces that seemingly just kind of came together. Well, we've been talking about fixing the canyon and for four and a half decades, a long time, we need to get something done. Now, we've talked a lot, but one of the parts that I really like is our trail systems going into the base station. We want to extend the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and bring trails in from Sandy and Cottonwood Heights and from our immediate neighbors and put it right through a project so people can ride their bicycle to the gondola station or just walk. It'll be an absolutely staggeringly beautiful walk just to get the gondola base station and then take that up the canyon. Quite a date night, I would say. But, you know, I'm a romantic at heart.

Tom Kelly: |00:35:00 This is a really fascinating project, and, of course, with any project like this, especially one on this scale, you wonder what could the timeline be? Is this something that we can see in the foreseeable future? And I know this also weighs into the decisions that will be made by various agencies to choose which one of these methodologies they will go with. But what is a potential realistic timeline for the implementation?

Chris McCandless: |00:35:26 So first, I'm an optimist. So my schedule will be optimistic. But Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is going to release their draft of the preferred choice. That'll be buses, trains or gondolas. I'm not sure which one it'll be. I know it'll be one of the above and all of the options would be better than what we have now. And so I'm excited to see what they're going to print. As I mentioned, my favorite as the gondola, for those reasons already stated, that'll happen sometime this summer. Once that has happened and they'll have another round of public comments, not the last public comment. Pretty hot topic, right? The last public comment period they had they had a record number of comments, six thousand five hundred and twenty one comments. I read every single comment, absolutely brutal, took me weeks. But then what I did was I said, all right, so are people saying, we want the gondola, we want the train and we want the bus or we don't want anything. And of the 6,521 comments, almost 4,000 people said we like the gondola. Period. And it wasn't even close by comparison to any of the other options, and I thought that was kind of telling. People want something to happen. They want it to happen now. And a lot of the comments said just that. We've talked about this for decades. Let's get something done. And so that's my hope, is that in this next round of public comments coming up this summer, that that'll be the driving force. Let's get something done now to solve the transportation problem. Once that's happened, then you will make a final decision on their environmental impact study. They'll record what they call a record of decision. I think that's the proper term. And then they'll have made their decision. At that point, then it goes, I believe, to the Utah state legislature to figure out funding for whatever alternative it is. It's going to be expensive buses and bigger roads going to be 500 million. The gondola, I believe, is going to be about 400 million, I think. There are some ways you can save a little bit of money. The train is about a billion, 1.05 billion dollars. And so, whatever that is, we got to fund it and figure out ways to fund it next legislative session, would be the hope. I don't know if that's realistic, but that's the hope. When that's completed. Doppelmayr's told me they could have the product finished, constructed in a two-year period. And so if you add all that up, 2025, 2026, you know, we could have been part of the solution to the problem.

Tom Kelly: |00:38:16 One more thought before we get to just a few fun questions to close. You grew up in a Little Cottonwood. You're a hiker. You're a skier. You've climbed up on the rocks. If you look into the crystal ball for 50 years from now, what do you want to see in Little Cottonwood Canyon?

Chris McCandless: |00:38:33 Right off the top? My number one priority. Preserve Superior. Fifty years from now, that's all privately owned property, and I think we have the opportunity to, as a community, embrace a solution that's embraced by those landowners and they've made a commitment. I want to see Superior preserved. I really don't want to see ski lifts and other improvements on the north side of Highway 210 other than what's already there. And quite frankly, as a backcountry skier, I go up there nowadays and there's moguls up there because we've got so many backcountry guys up there skiing. We have moguls in the backcountry. That's pretty amazing, actually. But and so I can't even imagine that as a developed site. I'd love to see that preserved. Secondly, I'd like to see a structure where transportation is used as a means to an end and not as a means to get to an end. And so I'd love to see more of a Europeanesque element. Let's get as many cars out of the canyon as we can and still allow people to enjoy this phenomenal resource. I don't want my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren not to enjoy the same experience I had, although I really don't want them putting their thumb out at nine years old and hitchhiking up Little Cottonwood Canyon on their brother's stolen bindings, right, to ski. I'd rather I'll just get them some skis and a bus pass or a gondola pass, but I want them to enjoy this place we call home. Period. And it's up to us to do it. If we don't do it, then I'm worried that it will fail.

Chris McCandless Skiing Fresh Lines
Nothing like fresh tracks in Little Cottonwood Canyon powder, as skier Chris McCandless demonstrates.

Tom Kelly: |00:40:21 Chris, thank you so much for sharing your vision on this. We're going to wrap up this interview with a section that I call fresh tracks, a few simple or hopefully simple questions for you. Just to learn a little bit more about you. And I have to tell you, as I did my research to learn more about you, I have to ask you, how often do people say, 'are you the dude in Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer?'

Chris McCandless: |00:40:43 No, that guy's dead. And I wasn't resurrected. But I have the same name. When I was a ski patrolman in Park City, I had some friends that asked me when I came back to do my recertification. They looked at me in the Krakauer book, came out and said, hey, aren't you supposed to be dead? Like to get a little more credit than that. But I get that comment quite a bit. And a lot of people will ask me and say, well, was that story true? I thought you were dead and I'm going a different guy, obviously.

Tom Kelly: |00:41:10 That's funny. Your favorite Utah resort ski run.

Chris McCandless: |00:41:15 Oh, that's a tough pick. And you're talking resort ski run?

Tom Kelly: |00:41:21 In the resorts. We're going to ask you backcountry country next year.

Chris McCandless: |00:41:24 It's got pow on it. If it's a powder day and I'm first tracks, I want to come off the tram because I get 3,000 vertical. My favorite, Silver Fox, pop back down to McDonald's going down through Mach Schnell. I love Mach Schnell from the top - top to the bottom. Kind of a long haul to get there, but it's worth and lots of great big moguls on a foot and a half of powder. We were there last Saturday with a billion people. I was the first one on the left and got fresh tracks on a foot and a half of powder. And it was little over Mach Schnell section because that's the only place that was open. Outstanding. I, I don't know how you pick. That's like asking somebody. How do you know who's your favorite child, right?

Tom Kelly: |00:42:09 Yeah. But you gave us an awesome run from the tram. That's perfect.

Chris McCandless: |00:42:14 As a great that's a great way to see if I'm in the backcountry. I'm just not going to tell you - I got too many friends out there. There are way too many tracks in the backcountry, but I ski a lot in the Manti-LaSal area, down backcountry, down by a cabin that we own. And I can get about 800 vert and I can sit and farm my tracks all day long and nobody else shows up. That's my favorite run backcountry, I think.

A lifelong climber, Chris McCandless scales a face of Devil's Tower.

|00:42:44 And I hear you have your own PistenBully down there.

|00:42:47 I do have a snowcat. So when I get tired and I don't want to earn the turn, I'll take my snowcat at night and I have a put in the Doobie Brothers or Boston or some old guy rock and roll. Right. And me and my wife will ride around in the snowcat and we'll groom the roads in our community up there. Next day, we'll take our snowmobiles and I'll hitch a ride and we'll just do laps, I'll get a ride on the back of a sled or get towed. We get about 800 vertical feet. And it is, I call it righteous backcountry skiing, but I'm cheating because I'm not really earning the turn. I'm on the back of a snowmobile and it's really fun. And you just do lap after lap after lap and there is nobody there. And so you get that really secluded experience and it's with family and that makes it even more special.

Tom Kelly: |00:43:42 So who is your favorite old guy? Rock band?

Chris McCandless: |00:43:47 Well, Eagles, as you know, if I'm pickin. And Doobie Brothers, I love. Eagles. When I was a city councilman in Sandy, I asked Tom Dolan says, I'm going to support this because I know it makes sense financially, which it did. It's way off topic of gondola. And I said, the only thing I really request is that we get the Eagles to play a concert at Rio Tinto Stadium and Sandy. And we did. And it was a great day. It was a great concert, but.

Tom Kelly: |00:44:17 So Eagles, I would say, are probably my favorite rock band, I think that was one of my early concerts growing up in Wisconsin was a fun activity you and the family enjoy outside of skiing.

Chris McCandless: |00:44:33 Fly-fishing.

Tom Kelly: |00:44:34 Really?

Chris McCandless: |00:44:36 Wintertime we're skiers, summertime we're fly fishermen. My wife doesn't fly fish much. My daughter, my son is an avid. His only goal in life is to out fish his dad or out ski his dad. That day is coming. But it ain't this day.

Tom Kelly: |00:44:51 You still out ski him?

Chris McCandless: |00:44:52 Still out ski him and I still out fly fish. And much to his chagrin, he's proud of me and I'm proud of him for trying. But once in a while he can show me up right on.

Tom Kelly: |00:45:03 Last question when I ask all of my last year guests groomers, moguls, glades or powder?

Chris McCandless: |00:45:12 In that order?

Tom Kelly: |00:45:14 What's your preference? Well, you don't have to rank them.

In the winter he skis, but in the winter he throws flies.

Chris McCandless: |00:45:17 Well, I can rank the top two for sure. It's powder first always because I'm 65. And second, I still ski bumps - love moguls. That's where I grew up at Snowbird and Alta and moguls, back in the day, was where it was at. Connect in the line.

Tom Kelly: |00:45:36 You know, I don't ski moguls, I don't like to ski moguls. Very few people pick moguls and I'm glad to see that you did. Shannon Bahrke, a two-time Olympic moguls medalist, didn't pick moguls, but you did.

Chris McCandless: |00:45:48 Yeah, powder and moguls with powder on it. That's the top. That's where it's at. You get a face shot at the bottom of every bump and that's where that and that's what it was last Saturday. Fun Avenue powder moguls was pretty outstanding skiing.

Tom Kelly: |00:46:10 Chris McCandless, thank you for joining us on Last Chair from Ski Utah. We love your vision and hope that you can help to bring that concept to Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Chris McCandless: |00:46:21 We shall keep trying. Thanks for having me on.