The Proliferation of Lift Accessed Mountain Biking In The Wasatch
Photos by Jay Dash
4,457,575. This figure represents the number of people who visited Utah during the 2015/2016 ski season to explore the varied terrain of our world-class resorts. Last season broke all previous attendance records and the state realized a 10% increase from the season prior. The return of a normal winter brought on by the “Godzilla El Niño” played a part, and it goes to show that the Greatest Snow on Earth still plays a huge role in attracting visitors to Utah. The collaboration between 14 resorts spread from Logan to Cedar City and the marketing machine that is Ski Utah continues to benefit the state in a number of ways. Thousands of jobs are created because of these resorts and the crowds they draw each year bring an influx of tourism dollars that keep the coffers full for continued investment. But what if Utah could capitalize on the remaining six months of the year (May-October) by attracting some of those very same people to the very same resorts with a different sport? I’m not talking zip lines and mountain coasters, or even golf as the case may be at some resorts. I’m referring to the most noble of human creations, the mountain bike.
There is no doubt that Utah is inextricably linked to the sport and by now Moab is synonymous with full-suspension. The natural wonders of the state provide an endless canvas for the rider to create their lines, but with increasing regulations placed on federal lands, it can be harder to find the same experience that once existed. Resources are finite and the reality is that ski areas are already disturbed pieces of land that go underutilized for nearly half the calendar year. So why not take advantage of existing infrastructure and bring more people into mountain biking while allowing the resorts to operate under a more sustainable business model? Many have already heeded the call to action, and others are starting to see the bigger picture as the sport continues to steam roll down the trail. It is high time that our resorts join the ranks of those lift-accessed biking Meccas of Whistler, Winter Park, and Mountain Creek. The demand is real and there are many mountain employees ready to grab a pick and shovel and start building.
The Wasatch Originals
During the glory days of mountain biking, when NORBA was an acronym that meant something to riders, there were developed trails transecting several resorts across the range. The slopes of Deer Valley and Sundance were festooned with primitive trail networks that saw more use from hikers than bikers. Builders of the day focused on creating a way for people to connect with nature and explore the beautiful terrain of their favorite ski resorts during the off-season. Beneath the shadow of the mighty Mt. Timpanogos, the Sundance Ski Resort offered lift accessed trails that traversed the oasis of lush vegetation located on the lower reaches of the mountain. The technology of the mid-90’s meant all trails were hand dug and only a few people spent time with a shovel in their hands.
Summer Mountain Safety and Trail Manager, John “Woody” Woodruff, has been working in his position at Sundance since 2004. During that tenure he has seen the evolution of the mountain bike and consequently, the evolution of the trail network. “All our trails are intermediate to advanced,” says Woody. “Nothing is super sketchy or going to take you into something real steep or committing.” The majority of the trails originates at one of three unloading points on Ray’s lift and winds down the front side of the resort for just over 1,000 vertical feet. Everything from scenic loops looking across Sundance and Provo Canyons, to singletrack that takes you through massive aspen groves and around minute alpine lakes exists here. However, there is a growing interest in the gravity-oriented trails that allow riders to get more technical and harness their inner speed demon. The Expert Trail is the principal downhill trail and serves as a perennial venue for the Utah State Downhill Series. Since 2010, Woody and his small team of builders have been developing this trail to attract a variety of the region’s top DH riders, while still being forgiving enough to keep less experienced riders interested. “Everything here is hand built and we don’t get out on the trail with any machinery,” says Woody. Each berm is carved out of the raw earth and many a railroad tie has been man-hauled out to shore up cut banks and create more formidable sections of trail. “Most people would roll through a piece of trail and never notice the amount of work that went into to creating that corner,” adds Woody as he points to an intricate wall composed of lumber and dirt. Part of the continued development plan for Sundance is to retrofit and improve the existing trail network to incorporate the much-desired flow that every rider seems to be after. Woody states that there are plans for another intermediate trail with a variety of earthen accoutrements to keep visitors entertained. The challenge for him and the crew is the short construction window where the dirt is workable, as well as the other 24 miles of biking and hiking trails that must be maintained from May to October. “We have the longest biking season of any ski area in Utah and we want to make the most of it,” says Woody.
Across the Wasatch lies Deer Valley and its multiple mountains and growing trail complex. The original network was constructed in the early 90’s and served as the first lift accessed trail system in Park City. Carving out steep and rooted trails was a hallmark of the initial build crews and DV soon earned a reputation for being fast and loose. The infamous N.C.S. trail served as a premier track for the National Off-Road Biking Association’s (NORBA) National Championship Series held for many years leading up to the early 2000’s. Big bikes and burly riders would trundle down the flanks of Bald Eagle Mountain hoping for a shot at victory. The rough and tumble course left many riders and their machines limping home with broken parts and broken dreams. When NORBA dismantled the wave of popularity of Deer Valley’s trails crested. For the next decade builders focused their efforts on catering to the growing cross-country craze and some of the finest trails along the Wasatch Back were constructed to meet demand.
“We saw the equipment changing and adapted accordingly. We’ve focused on being diverse and that has served us well,” says Steve Graff, Mountain Bike and Ski Patrol Manager at Deer Valley. His nearly two decades of experience on the hill gives him a keen sense of how the industry ebbs and flows. Graff and his team continue to monitor trends and are allocating a wealth of resources to the growth of the network. Resurgence has come in the form of better equipment for building trails and bicycle technology improvements. Big things are underway in this corner of the range and DV is ready for the next set to come rolling in.
The Gravity Graduates
In 2010 crews at the then named Canyons Resort saw the potential for building a downhill specific trail system that would emulate the bike parks found in places like Whistler and Winter Park. Investments were made to bring in consultants for advice on the construction of trails and how to properly manage maintenance and continued development. Their expertise in building on the snow features allowed them to transition some of their workforce to shaping dirt and progress blossomed. Dan Black was part of the original crew and put his passion for mountain biking into many of the new trails at the park. “I started out doing finishing work by hand and it showed me the value of machines in the process,” says Black. “Once you build a section, then you ride it in. It is not like sculpting snow though, you have to do it right the first time.” Black spent the next several years building at The Canyons and instructing mountain biking. His understanding of bike control advanced his wherewithal behind the shovel. “Speed management through banked turns and clean sight lines is an essential part of a good trail. This prevents excessive wear and keeps it in good shape,” adds Black. Progressive trails and features are what Canyons Bike Park is still known for and you can find many core riders perfecting their skills there each summer.
In 2015, news broke that Deer Valley was going to begin construction on a new flow trail. Gravity Logic, based out of Whistler, BC was contracted to assist in the build. Black saw the opportunity and jumped at the chance to work alongside these master craftsmen. Dave Kelley, Rob Cocquyt, and Tom Prochazka are three of the principal minds behind Gravity Logic and its success throughout the years. In addition to being responsible for the prolific designs at Whistler, they now travel the world helping resorts break into the realm of downhill mountain bike parks. “We came to Deer Valley [in 2015] and got to understand its history. We looked at the existing network and explained that some parts were going to have to be modified or eliminated in order to improve the park. They were fully supportive and embraced the change,” says Cocquyt. The Tidal Wave opened last fall as the first trail to be completed under the collaboration and you can see it is an instant classic. Opening weekend at Deer Valley this year saw hundreds of riders flock to the resort, many to feel the exhilaration of flowing through the aspens on this high-speed roller coaster of dirt tables and berms. New upgrades to trails like Nail Driver and Twist and Shout were also well received. To start of 2016, trail breaking has just begun on the newest green run entitled Holy Roller, which will be a great way for riders to work up their confidence and skill. The folks at Gravity Logic will also be spending a lot of time meandering through the woods in an effort to create the alignment for a black trail that will be the next step up from Tidal Wave. “Seeing what resorts around the globe are doing illustrates the potential for riders to safely progress through a well planned trail system. I have children who ride and I want them to be able to travel and build upon their experiences,” says Kelly.
Snowbird is in the nascent stages of developing a dedicated lift-accessed program to coincide with increasing demand. “I have seen a lot of interest at all levels of the sport. The user numbers are there and it is a perfect complement to what we do,” says Dave Fields, Vice President of Resort Operations. The Big Mountain Trail is the current backbone of Snowbird’s network and offers riders 3’000 vertical feet and 7.5 miles of brake-burning descent. It’s not for the faint of heart and Snowbird realizes the need to augment its lower mountain trails. They are currently in talks with Gravity Logic and are creating a detailed Master Plan to submit to the U.S. Forest Service this fall. The plan calls for beginner, intermediate, and advanced trail alignments to be constructed off the Mid Gad chairlift in Gad Valley. “We are taking our time and being diligent about the process. If all goes well, we could be turning dirt by next June,” adds Fields.
Dispersing the user groups across more mileage within areas that have already been disturbed is a better alternative than rampant overrunning of existing Forest Service trails operating above capacity. Resorts have the ability and capital to build and maintain modern trails that serve a wide variety of ridership. They also have the trained medical staff that doubles as trail maintenance crews. Building trails that can cost $30,000/kilometer is certainly a huge investment and educating team members allows for a better experience across the board. This does not mean the end of trails outside the confines of a resort, nor does it guarantee that die-hard riders will stop building renegade trails. But it does provide the opportunity for continued growth of the sport and offers a balanced supplement to the multitude of existing trails throughout the range. If you haven’t been up to experience the scene for yourself, take some time this summer to get out and explore. Young or old, beginner or expert, there is something for everyone. Much like the winter, each resort has its own unique character and it is pretty cool to be able to trip around the Wasatch and check out the myriad opportunities available to riders.