Tahoe is on the verge of becoming the third largest ski resort in the country. Here’s how it happened and what it all means

A long-awaited mountain-top ski gondola that promises to reaffirm Lake Tahoe’s stature as a marquee ski destination is set to begin ferrying skiers as early as mid-December.

The gondola will link the bases of Olympic Valley (formerly called Squaw Valley) and Alpine Meadows – which operate together as one resort called Palisades Tahoe – and create the third largest ski resort in the United Statesbehind only Park City Mountain and Powder Mountain in Utah.

Threaded for more than two miles on a high ridge between the two ski areas, the gondola is the most significant upgrade to Tahoe’s ski infrastructure in a decade or more. (None of Tahoe’s other nine major ski areas are linked in this way.) Its 98 passenger cabins will cruise at 11 mph, approximately 16 minutes of travel between base areas and transport riders past a spectacular view of the surrounding Sierra peaks with the cobalt body of Lake Tahoe visible in the distance.

“It’s transformative,” said Dee Byrne, president and chief operating officer of Palisades Tahoe, before a recent private tour of the gondola for The Chronicle. The resort aims to be operating from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. by Dec. 17, about a month after the resort opens for skiing.

The gondola figures prominently in Palisades’ larger vision of becoming a resort town on par with major family tourist destinations. However, a proposal to fill Olympic Valley with new accommodation units, employee housing and 300,000 feet of commercial space – a 25-year project, if it goes ahead – is tied up in a trial carried by environmental defenders.

“We compete with top travel destinations like theme parks and cruise ships,” Byrne said. “We recognize that everyone is upping their game in terms of services, facilities and programming.”

By establishing a real connection between Olympic and Alpine, the gondola is a big win for Palissades. But it won’t open up new ski terrain, which for some local skiers makes it little more than a flashy gimmick for marketing brochures.

“It adds that element to Palisades of being a big name destination. That probably doesn’t mean as much to locals as it does to a general population of skiers,” said Cody Townsend, a professional freeskier who lives in Tahoe City.

Still, many believe the gondola portends a significant shift in the ski experience in Tahoe, which some say has stagnated.

“The skiing has always been good here, but it puts us on the world’s radar now that we have this amazing interconnected ski area,” said Olympic skier Travis Ganong, who grew up in Alpine Meadows.

Ganong is not really impartial: he is sponsored by Palisades. However, he is a mountain sports enthusiast who, like many hardened skiers and cyclists in Tahoe, cherishes Europe’s unique alpine culture, where ubiquitous networks of chair lifts and ski villages allow people to explore the vast landscapes more freely and casually than more insular. American alpine ski areas.

“These big ski lifts have been around forever in Europe, connecting resorts to an endless playground in the mountains,” Ganong said. “I’m really excited to see what I hope is a trend starting in the US ski market, and I’m proud to have it happening in my backyard.”

Some of the gondola towers in the Olympic Valley are up to 90 feet.

Some of the gondola towers in the Olympic Valley are up to 90 feet.

Gregory Thomas

* * *

The Olympic Valley dry ski hill was intense activity with cement trucks, diggers, pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles racing up and down the motorized slopes. Builders were laying pipes for a new set of automated snow cannons under the refurbished Red Dog lift and leveling a fresh snow beach around the base’s chairlifts.

At the newly constructed gondola base terminal, a single covered cabin hung from the carrying cable, wrapped in a canvas blanket like a Christmas present.

“It’s a long time coming,” said Jason Hansford, vice president of development at Alterra Mountain Co., the Denver company that owns Palisades.

“I’ve lived here for 35 years, and from the day I moved here, everyone’s wondering when Alpine and Palisades are going to connect.”

Palisades is scheduled to open for the winter on Nov. 22. By then, he hopes to have completed the final stages of the necessary load tests and safety inspections, although the first passengers will not board until several weeks later.

Project manager Casey Blann (right) and Alterra Mountain Co. vice president of development Jason Hansford stand next to the gondola's first passenger cabin.

Project manager Casey Blann (right) and Alterra Mountain Co. vice president of development Jason Hansford stand next to the gondola’s first passenger cabin.

Gregory Thomas

Larger puzzle pieces came together atop KT-22, the station’s signature peak. There’s always been an elevator to the top, but look up the mountain now and you’ll see a row of freshly erected galvanized towers – some of them 90ft tall – leading from the Olympic base to a black-domed terminal at the top . It is one of two intermediate stations needed to transport gondola drivers between ski areas; the other is on the south face of the ridge near Alpine Meadows.

KSL Capital Partners, the Denver conglomerate that co-owns Alterra, has been considering the gondola idea since 2011 after completing purchases of Olympic and Alpine. An early proposal met with swift resistance from local environmentalists who argued that running passenger cabins at high speed through the mountains between the two stations would harm the wilderness. But one legal challenge to this effect was resolved in 2020the resort agreeing to reduce its impact on the environment and help preserve the habitat of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

Engineering the gondola has presented all sorts of challenges, from finding safe places for towers in avalanche terrain to laying cables over the ridge, where wind gusts can exceed 100 mph.

“Some aspects of this lift are unseen anywhere in North America,” said Casey Blann, senior consultant for Palisades who acted as project manager on the gondola.

Unlike most elevators, this one is powered by direct-drive motors at both base terminals, which are quieter and more energy efficient than conventional high-speed motors with gearboxes. Additionally, the custom design allows the gondola to operate independently on either side of the ridge: if the weather is rough in the Olympic Valley, for example, the gondola can still spin passengers up to KT-22 and back from Alpine’s base.

A view of the new gondola station at the top of KT-22, which skiers consider the jewel of the Olympic Valley.

A view of the new gondola station at the top of KT-22, which skiers consider the jewel of the Olympic Valley.

Gregory Thomas

To reduce wind exposure at the KT-22 midstation, which sits about 8,000 feet above sea level, workers blasted off part of the mountaintop, reducing the height of the towers by 30 feet and now the matter closer to the field. The rubble from the blast was collected in stacked steel cages which now form the retaining wall of the middle station, giving it the appearance of a castle fortification from the bottom of the valley.

Another unique element of the gondola is a parking warehouse at Alpine Meadows where passenger cabins can be unloaded from the cable and stored to prevent wear and tear in inclement weather.

Blann has been helping to design and manage lifts for over 45 years and said, “This is the most unique and challenging lift I have ever done.

* * *

Local response to the gondola has been mixed. Much of communal pride and tradition is wrapped up in a ski resort’s identity, and some skiers say the gondola undermines the intimate charm of Alpine Meadows, low-key compared to its high-profile sister resort on the hill. Others are delighted to be able to easily ski both areas in one day.

There’s community burnout in Tahoe in the face of rising tourism, so a new marketing vehicle for a place that many residents already feel is outdated sounds like a recipe for headaches.

Some fear that attracting more skiers and snowboarders will worsen the sometimes slow pace of the lifts on powder days.

The base-to-base gondola that will soon open in Palisades Tahoe is in the final stages of construction.

The base-to-base gondola that will soon open in Palisades Tahoe is in the final stages of construction.

Gregory Thomas

But Palisades says the high speed and high capacity of the gondola — it’s capable of carrying 1,400 skiers an hour from base to base — should actually alleviate crowding in base areas.

“For people who say it will bring more people here, maybe it’s true, but without change it’s hard to move forward and improve the situation,” said Ganong, the Olympic skier. “If nothing changes and more and more people come here, then what? »

It’s hard to imagine the gondola kicking off a trend in which Tahoe’s competing ski areas are beginning to collaborate on interconnected lift infrastructure. But neighboring resorts will certainly monitor the benefits that may arise.

“I want people to see that we care about skiing in Tahoe,” Byrne said. “We invest because we are committed.

Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle’s Lifestyle and Outdoors Editor. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas

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