The light at the end of Snowbird's tunnel is still a year away.
But mining crews have virtually finished excavating a 595-foot tunnel between Peruvian Gulch and Mineral Basin back bowl, the most intriguing project in a busy offseason of improvements at the Little Cottonwood Canyon ski resort.
Of greater significance to government regulators and environmentalists is the regrading and paving of the resort's lower parking lot, and the construction close by of a long-awaited day lodge. Those interrelated projects will better accommodate customer needs, while reducing the amount of silt and salt entering Little Cottonwood Creek, a drinking water source for Salt Lake City.
"From a resource standpoint, this is one project we're really excited about," said Steve Scheid, a snow ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, which has authority over those portions of the resort on public land. "Customers didn't like the muddiness [of the old parking lot]. We didn't like the potential for adding sediment to the stream. This will improve the riparian area and water quality, which have been problems forever."
The tunnel, by contrast, is an idea that popped up less than a year ago.
"If you would've said we were going to be doing this - even two years ago - I would've said, 'I don't think so,' " said Jim Baker, director of mountain planning and development for Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort. "But the more we got into it and got into the ground, the better it seemed. Next thing we know, we're standing at the end of a tunnel at Mineral Basin."
Six feet from the end, technically. Snowbird left that much ground uncut until next summer to allow other components of the project to catch up.
Down in the Salt Lake Valley, Doppelmayr CTEC is building a $5.6 million high-speed quad lift that will replace the 1980-vintage Peruvian chairlift, which will be used for one more winter to move pass holders from the base to mid-mountain.
The new chair is longer. It will rise 2,600 vertical feet to the base of Gorilla Ridge, just above Chip's Run. From there, a quick right turn leads to the staging area for the tunnel, where skiers and boarders will step onto a 30-inch-wide conveyor belt that will take them on a four-minute ride through the mountain to Mineral Basin.
"The conveyor is so user friendly it's unbelievable," said Baker, noting that it works much like moving walkways at airports. "Beginners can get on, kids can get on. You don't have to go through the learning curve of getting onto the lift and getting off of it."
Riders move 160 feet a minute, a brisk walking pace, through the 10-foot-wide, 12-foot high tunnel. "Go to the middle and look back 300 feet and it doesn't seem that far," said Baker, acknowledging that claustrophobic types might struggle with the concept. "Some people won't want to come in."
But Snowbird is sold on the idea, which benefits the resort in several ways.
If nothing else, the tunnel will be a curiosity, something people feel compelled to try at least once. "There's nothing else like this in North America," said Baker.
The new chairlift will make it easier for more intermediates to use the Peruvian side of the mountain, relieving them of the need to work their way down a series of steep switchbacks from Hidden Peak to the mellower trails from Chip's Run on down.
The tunnel also gives them an easier way to reach Mineral Basin's intermediate runs. For the basin's powder hunters, the tunnel provides an alternative to the Tram, which has long lines on snowy days and shuts down when the wind is howling.
"We had questions about skier circulation in Peruvian Gulch," said Scheid of initial Forest Service reservations. But a carrying-capacity study indicated "there is enough skier capacity that we won't be putting more skiers in there than is practical."
And by not adding any structures to the ridgeline, Snowbird also is complying with Salt Lake County's foothills protection ordinance and avoiding a confrontation with Save Our Canyons and other opponents of its on-hold plan to build a lodge atop Hidden Peak.
In fact, the working relationship between Snowbird and Save Our Canyons is a source of satisfaction for both sides and the Forest Service.
"They're doing a good job with what I've seen," said Save Our Canyons executive director Lisa Smith.
Added Scheid: "Snowbird involved the environmental community from the beginning and it's been a good process of collaboration. The more people who are involved, the more ideas, the better the project is in mitigating some concerns."
Snowbird also satisfied Salt Lake County Fire Department concerns about what might happen if a fire broke out in the tunnel.
The tunnel's grade was lowered from 15 percent to 7 percent to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and lessen the "chimney effect," funneling oxygen to a blaze and concentrating smoke in a confined area. All key electrical equipment will be enclosed in a fireproof structure on the tunnel's far uphill side. A nonflammable belt material also will be required when Snowbird chooses between two vendors bidding for the deal: SunKid Skilift from Austria and Denver-based Magic Carpet Ski Lifts.
While that selection proceeds, Snowbird also is investigating ways to minimize a possible Venturi effect, a term for the increase in wind velocity that occurs when flow is constricted. Some type of slatted fencing may be erected on the Mineral Basin side to disrupt the flow of wind entering the tunnel and keep it from becoming a wind tunnel, Baker said.
A drainage system also will not be completed until it becomes clear next spring how much snowmelt seeps into the tunnel.
Then it will be time for Boise-based Small Mine Development, LLC to finish its excavation work. Company owner Ron Guill is excited about the prospect.
"We're doing it for the glory and not the money," he quipped. "We're underground mine developers. We work with Barrick, Newmont, all the mine people in Nevada. This was just a little sidelight. We used it as a reward for a couple of our key people who had done a good job for a lot of years."
Because last winter's abundant snowfall took so long to melt, Guill's crew of a half dozen miners were not able to move their cumbersome boring and blasting equipment up to the tunnel site until early August.
Finally, on Aug. 17, "we opened it up very delicately," Guill said, cognizant of the fact the mining operation was in full view of sightseeing passengers taking Tram rides.
"There were at least 30 to 50 sets of environmental eyeballs looking at it every half hour," he said. "We expected to see some opposition because we're miners and doing something to the face of the mountain. But the acceptance of the novelty and excitement of it was shared by everybody."
While his crews advanced 24 feet a day, other Snowbird contractors were overhauling the Entry 1 base area.
The lower parking lot was raised 10 feet and moved at least 25 feet from the creek. A sediment trapping pond was created, and a roundabout was added to allow Utah Transit Authority buses to drop passengers at the new Creekside Day Lodge, which will include ticket and ski school offices, retail and rental shops, and some food service.
The ticket office will open Nov. 17, the lodge by mid-December.
Along with the water-quality work, Save Our Canyons' Smith particularly likes the improved bus service.
"We've all seen the congestion in Little Cottonwood Canyon on a good snow day. This will help encourage bus rides for season-ticket holders and employees," she said.
Another appealing day lodge feature, said Snowbird spokeswoman Laura Schaffer, are big bay windows and a heated deck overlooking the bottom of Gad Valley runs.
"Parents and grandparents want to hang out and watch their kids ski. This deck will let them do that," she said. "Kids will ski down Gad Valley and wave, 'Hi mom. Hi dad,' then get on the lift. This opens up a whole new area for that."
About Snowbird's groundbreaking tunnel
Goes through Gorilla Ridge to connect Peruvian Gulch and Mineral Basin
595 feet long, 10 feet wide, 12 feet high
Cost is almost $800,000, including conveyor lift
Accessed next year via new Peruvian high speed quad lift, cost $5.6 million
Moving walkway conveyor belt is 30 inches wide, travels 160 feet per minute
For more information about conveyor lifts, check http://www.magiccarpet.rmce.com or http://sunkid.at