New gondola creates a Sierra megaresort, delivering joy and worry

KT-22 is a sacred site in Lake Tahoe’s storied ski culture, a mountain summit with formidable terrain that has served as the proving ground for many of the nation’s finest winter athletes.

It is also, starting Saturday, a convenient stopover spot for anyone with a ski pass and some gumption.

With this weekend’s historic opening of a new 2.4-mile, $65 million gondola, the ski areas of Palisades Tahoe and Alpine Meadows are now merged into a single megaresort, connected by KT-22’s midway station.

This means Palisades skiers can easily visit Alpine, and Alpine skiers can easily visit Palisades without having to make a 20-minute, 5.5-mile drive. And everybody can visit KT-22.

Ski lifts are more than mechanics and metal. They’re transport to bliss. But they can forever alter pristine landscapes, real estate development and crowd behaviors.

“It’s going to be a good thing, with some definite downsides,” said Scott Dailey of Menlo Park, with a home near Palisades, formerly named Squaw Valley. “It should reduce a lot of car and shuttle bus traffic. We’ll be much more likely to go visit Alpine on the spur of the moment, which is cool.”

But with expanded access to the top of KT-22, “on powder days, it’s probably going to be really crowded, and will get skied out pretty quickly,” he said. From the top of the ridge, “and visually, it’s unattractive to see that much hardware on the mountain.”

Saturday’s gondola launch party, celebrated simultaneously at both resorts with music, fireworks and other events, is part of the resort’s larger plan to become a global destination, offering convenient access to 41 lifts and 279 ski runs for visitors seeking week-long vacations.

The two resorts in North Lake Tahoe are located off Highway 89, east of Tahoe City. In the future, owner Alterra Mountain Co. envisions a real estate expansion in Olympic Valley, with up to 1,493 bedrooms in 850 hotel and condominium units, as well as a 90,000-square-foot Mountain Adventure Camp with an indoor pool, water slides, movie theater, bowling alley, arcade and more.

The weekend festivities, emceed by Olympic gold medal freestylist Jonny Moseley, started in sub-freezing temperatures shortly after dawn, as skiers and snowboarders arrived early to get seats on the colorful, eight-passenger, high-speed gondola cabins. They were serenaded by musicians playing wistful mountain folk tunes on wooden Swiss alphorns.

First to board was 14-year-old snowboarder Bianca Voltmer of Palo Alto, who awoke at 5:30 a.m. for a 6:30 a.m. arrival, the sun still hidden behind sheer granite cliffs.

“I thought it would be a cool experience to be first in line for this big monumental moment,” she said. “I’ll probably ski Alpine in the morning, then maybe come back to Palisades.”

Ticket-holding sightseers, not just skiers and snowboarders, are welcomed.

Suspended in midair, with a stunning 16-minute view of the vast Sierra Nevada, the gondola will likely become a new Instagram hotspot, as well as the scene of wedding engagements, breakups, birthday parties, corporate product placement and a stealthy bowl of cannabis.

Gazing out at the vista, 11-year-old snowboarder Cole Ewan of Tahoe City said, “It’s a good idea, because it allows more access to two mountains, with less traffic. There’s more range of variety.”


“People are worried, perhaps, that their terrain is going to get invaded,“ said his father, D.J. Ewan, a board member of Ski California, the trade association representing 35 ski resorts in California and Nevada.

“But I don’t think that’s a worry…Alterra has the people who have looked at this thing, hard,” he said. “I think most people are just going to use it to get from one base to the other. They want to do the ‘groomers,’ have a nice day out and come back without an injury.”

The gondola doesn’t officially start spinning for another week or two. Following the inaugural event, it will close while crews and the lift manufacturer finalize an “interconnect” piece that will allow it to operate as one continuous lift.

With the only gondola in the U.S. to link the bases of two resorts, Palisades is now the third largest ski resort in North America, behind Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb and Utah’s Park City. Park City also has a gondola, but it connects two mid-mountain areas. The gondola at  Whistler connects two peaks.

The Palisades project — four terminals, 33 lift towers, and 96 gondola cabins — marks the end of a decades-long effort to link the two resorts, which merged under common management in 2011.

“My father always had the dream of connecting the two valleys together,” according to Eric Poulsen, whose father Wayne purchased 640 acres in Olympic Valley from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1943, setting the stage for a venue that went on to host the 1960 Olympics, several World Cups and many legendary skiers and snowboarders..

But execution of this vision took many twists and turns, with early attempts abandoned due to lack of funding and focus. The original plan — to traverse Granite Chief Wilderness Area — was rebuffed by environmentalists, forcing a realignment of its route.

The biggest challenge was getting access to the precious sliver of land between the two resorts. After protracted negotiations, in 2015 Alterra signed a lease agreement with enigmatic property owner and former freestyle skier Troy Caldwell. Because the resorts don’t own this land, it’s not possible to ski between the two resorts.

Still, not everyone is rolling out the red carpet.

“It doesn’t increase terrain. It doesn’t improve the skiing experience at all,” said longtime Olympic Valley resident and skier Andrew Hays. With the popularity of the multi-mountain IKON ski pass, “we’ve seen a massive influx of visitors. How do we manage these crowds?”

“We need to be looking for ways to expand our terrain,” he said.

Critics worry that the merger will accelerate the loss of Alpine’s distinct culture. Once known as a home for casual, telemark-skiers, Alpine is already feeling the pressure of Palisades’ adrenaline-fueled spirit of bravado, they say.

The money could have been spent in better ways, they add, such as improving existing lifts or building employee housing. And they worry that it is the beginning of more development.

“It looks a lot like a very expensive marketing ploy,” said Tom Mooers, executive director of the environmental organization Sierra Watch. “My biggest concern about the gondola is: Where will it end? Will the region stay a mecca for everyone who loves the great outdoors — or will you get off the gondola amongst a bunch of Las Vegas-style attractions?” 

But the most immediate impact will be felt on the iconic terrain of KT-22, critics predict.

With nearly 2,000 vertical feet of cliff bands, chutes, open bowls, glades and moguls, Powder Magazine ranked it one of the top five best lifts in the world. Even the easiest way down is considered difficult. During storms, skiers sleep in their cars to be first in the lift line, earning a chance at delicious turns.

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