While some skiers are calling for a less intrusive access road, Snow King Resort is standing firm in its request for a route up the front of the mountain.
Resort officials contend a frontside road will offer beginning skiers a more forgiving run from the summit to the base. But one critic said that would come at the expense of advanced skier terrain.
“It’s going to diminish the quality of skiing,” Rod Newcomb said. “Every skier skiing every run has to deal with that road.”
Newcomb is the founder of the American Avalanche Institute, a backcountry skier of nearly 60 years and former Snow King patroller. He also served on the Snow King stakeholder group earlier this year.
Newcomb argues that the proposed road would break up some of the mountain’s best slopes, forcing skiers to navigate steep banks where the road would cut across the slope. His alternative is for Snow King to take advantage of an existing road that travels up the back side to the summit, via Leeks Canyon, never interrupting a ski run. It was used to build the original summit lift and Panorama House, and these days operators use it to reach the cell tower atop the mountain.
The road is just one piece of Snow King’s proposed changes to its master plan for development on the mountain, which is under review by the town of Jackson and the U.S. Forest Service. The resort’s sweeping package of proposals is meant to bring financial stability to a business that has long claimed to be gushing red.
The road would be used to construct a restaurant and serve a gondola station at the summit and would double as accessible learning terrain for children and new skiers.
“It’s not about do we want to do this or that,” Snow King GM Ryan Stanley said. “It’s really about our goal to improve the winter operations and ski experience … and having a beginner ski-way is a critical piece.”
Newcomb believes that beginner experience would come at the expense of expert skiers, who prefer runs without obstacles like road cuts.
“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “Is the impact of that road worth what they want it for, when there is a road that would perfectly suit the construction purpose on the back side?”
The road up the backside begins just south of High School Road and crosses land owned by the Lockhart family. Kelly Lockhart said the family has long negotiated with groups that needed to use the road and would be willing to do the same with Snow King.
The road isn’t in good enough condition for heavy construction vehicle use and would need improvements before Snow King could use it. But Newcomb argues it’s a better option than marring the mountain’s finest runs.
The proposed road on the front would require a 6-foot bank on the uphill side where it crosses Elk run, Newcomb said. Further west, where it crosses Bearcat run, the road would cut through steeper terrain and create even taller banks.
Newcomb, who has held avalanche courses at ski resorts throughout the West, said these steep sections above the proposed road are prone to avalanches and would need to be monitored.
Although many ski mountains have frontside roads, Newcomb said most situate them so they are not a hindrance to skiing.
But as Snow King sees it, the new road would improve the overall ski experience, allowing the resort to reclaim existing roads that now cut across Elk and other runs.
“It’s not a major net loss,” Stanley said.
Another common concern is that the road will encroach on valuable wildlife habitat as it passes through undeveloped land on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, land that is now outside Snow King’s boundaries to the east and west.
“As Teton County continues to increase in population and build out to the forest, this boundary becomes more important,” Newcomb wrote in a letter to Mary Moore, the U.S. Forest Service’s Jackson District ranger.
The road would head east beyond the north face of Snow King and into the Cache Creek drainage before switchbacking and cutting across all the runs from the top. Past the Bearcat run to the west the road would switchback again, extending beyond current boundaries before reaching the summit.
Stanley said the Forest Service, as it analyzes all of Snow King’s proposals through its National Environmental Policy Act process, will determine whether the road would harm wildlife. If it would, the Forest Service will recommend alternatives, he said.
“Some people think these are foregone conclusions,” Stanley said.
But what is finally approved will depend on what the Forest Service decides after an expected 18-month review.
Speaking Monday at a joint meeting of the Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners, Moore confirmed that assertion. She said that after her superiors have considered all relevant information they’ll decide whether to support the proposed road, or some alternative.
Long before Newcomb was a veritable ski legend, he began skiing Snow King in the early 1960s, and then, as now, there was no beginner terrain from the top. There were, however, two get-off stations on the old Summit lift.
He started by hopping off at the first one, skiing a short way to the base. Then he graduated to the second.
“Eventually I had my courage to go to the top,” Newcomb said. “The locals who grew up here will tell the same story.”
And as long as he’s been here, he said, the resort has struggled to sustain winter operations. With that in mind, he supports the resort’s efforts to diversify its activities and appeal to a wider audience.
“I’m not against improvements,” Newcomb said. “Let them have their gondola and their restaurant at top. But this road is going to be a major feature.”
Editor's note: This article has been revised to clarify Snow King's financial status.