Utah climbers rally in support of Little Cottonwood Canyon as UDOT nears decision

Utah climbing enthusiasts gather at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City to watch the premiere of a short film about the importance of Little Cottonwood Canyon during an event Wednesday night.

Utah climbing enthusiasts gather at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City to watch the premiere of a short film about the importance of Little Cottonwood Canyon during an event Wednesday night.



Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — There are several groups anxiously awaiting the future of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Utah's tight-knit climbing community is one of those groups. While many Utahns may have forgotten about the Utah Department of Transportation's plan for either a gondola or widened lanes with extended bus service because those options were presented months ago, Utah climbers haven't.

"Both of these proposals are pretty impactful to the lower part of the canyon," said Julia Geisler, the executive director of the Salt Lake Climbing Alliance.

And a new short film aims to ensure they don't forget.

Dozens of climbing enthusiasts — and even representatives of the U.S.'s best climbers — gathered at The Front Climbing Club to watch the debut of "Home Crag," a new short film about the canyon and the project. The 12-minute film was released through several online platforms Thursday.

"Little Cottonwood Canyon is such a huge resource. ... People come here from all over the world to ski, especially, but also to climb," said Tim Behuniak, content manager for Salt Lake City-based company Gnarly Nutrition, which backed the film. "It's just such a historic place for the climbing community, especially. ... It's just stunning, it's beautiful and I think (the UDOT plan) is just affecting a whole, wide demographic of individuals."

Behuniak also co-produced, co-directed and co-photographed the film. He said the point of the film is to keep the subject relevant heading into the 2022 Utah Legislative session that begins next week.

Tim Behuniak, a content manager for Salt Lake City-based company Gnarly Nutrition, sets up "Home Crag" during a debut viewing at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.
Tim Behuniak, a content manager for Salt Lake City-based company Gnarly Nutrition, sets up "Home Crag" during a debut viewing at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

While UDOT's public comment period for the project ended, Behuniak and Geisler say legislators still have the ability to influence the final decision that's expected to come sometime in the next few weeks. Legislators will also play a big role in what would come next, which is funding for a future project, too.

"The decision isn't made yet from UDOT or funded yet from the legislature," Geisler said. "We still have time and opportunity as a climbing community to say there are other options out there that are less impactful."

The short film starts with Nathaniel Coleman, who won a silver medal in the first-ever sport climbing event at the Olympics last year, describing what it's like to travel through Little Cottonwood Canyon as drone footage offers a surreal view of the dense pine forest underneath and between massive rock walls.

The Utah native also reflects on his first climb in the canyon, which helped propel him into a career that's made him one of the premier rock climbers in the world and an Olympic medalist. But he also describes the canyon as a haven from city life.

"It really gives you these moments of peace and nature, which is very appreciated (when) you're living in the city," Coleman says. "Little Cottonwood has been home to new projects that push me, as well as a place for escape. ... You're just out here to enjoy climbing for the right reasons."

Utah climbing enthusiasts watch "Home Crag" at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.
Utah climbing enthusiasts watch "Home Crag" at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City on Wednesday night. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

The Olympian has voiced his concerns about the Little Cottonwood Canyon transportation project in the past. In August, not long after returning from the Tokyo Games, he said he opposed both of the final transportation options that UDOT announced.

The short film is essentially an extension of that view from the rock climbing community. Marc Norman, the CEO of USA Climbing, which moved its headquarters from Boulder, Colorado, to Salt Lake City in 2018, and Geisler also speak out against the plan.

Norman explains that the canyon draws in the world's best climbers. Geisler, on the other hand, says the Salt Lake Climbers Alliance invested over $500,000 in public and private grant money over the past decade to build new trails and replace climbing anchors in the name of making infastructure that allows people to recreate in the canyon while limiting impacts on the landscape.

"This area of this canyon — it's the glue in the climbing community," she says, in the short film. "It's where people come after work to go bouldering. ... It's gorgeous and it hooks you. And you become really passionate about it and you want to come back."

They know that climbers aren't the only ones passionate about the canyon. The canyon connects to Alta and Snowbird ski resorts, and is also popular for hikers, photographers and just about any nature aficionado.

But that reality is also at the heart of the UDOT plan.

Traffic moves up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City on Jan. 13, 2021.
Traffic moves up and down Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City on Jan. 13, 2021. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Joshua Van Jura, UDOT's Little Cottonwood Canyon Project manager, said last year that the use of the canyon is expected to grow 45% over the next 30 years because of its popularity. If that happens, UDOT projects it would take up to 85 minutes to travel the distance of the canyon during peak hours.

The project aims to cut the travel time in half. UDOT narrowed its final options to a gondola or a widened road with a bus service last summer, trimming a light rail service and two other ideas tied to bus and gondola service from the future possibilities.

The announcement garnered a lot of reaction from residents and people who recreate in the area and representatives of communities near the canyon, like Cottonwood Heights and Sandy. UDOT also announced it broke all sorts of public comment records with over 10,000 submissions.

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll published last month found that 60% of respondents preferred the enhanced bus system compared to 20% that preferred the gondola. About 10% said they would prefer nothing done, while about 9% said they would prefer something else. Among those who favored the bus, only 37% said they would like the road to be widened.

A spokesperson for UDOT told KSL.com on Tuesday that the agency is still on track to make a decision between the two final options by "late winter," which doesn't end until March 20.

That doesn't mean construction starts right away; once an option is selected, UDOT will have to find funding to bring the project to life. Either option is expected to cost over $500 million in capital expenses and millions more in annual operation and maintenance costs.

While the final project will seek to address Little Cottonwood Canyon's growing popularity, Geisler asserts in the film either option also has the potential to ruin what makes the canyon special. The large poles needed for a gondola, for instance, would brush up by popular routes.

In her opinion, UDOT is only looking at traffic concerns that exist only about 30 days of the year, during prime snow recreation days. She and others hope that state transportation officials are willing to consider the majority of the days that traffic isn't a concern when piecing together their final draft.

"These large landscape changes will both be huge impacts to this canyon and this landscape," she says. "Once they're made, you can't go back."

Coleman agrees. He knows whatever changes may come in the future won't erase his past. The canyon will always be a place he can look to as a major contributor to his success as a rock climber.

What he fears is what those possible developments might mean for the next generation of rock climbers and nature enthusiasts. They may not have the same haven that he found.

"It seems unfair to take that away from the next generation," Coleman says. "I want the kids who grow up now — and even the adults that are new to climbing — to have the same chance to experience what I experienced."

During Wednesday evening's event, Geisler added that Utah climbers are ready and willing to work with UDOT to find the best solution that works for everyone. She just doesn't believe that solution exists with the options on the table at the moment.

As for the short film, Behuniak hopes people will view it and understand why climbers care as much as they do about the canyon. He also hopes it motivates people to speak up about the issue.

"It's never a bad time to call your local representative and get in touch," he said. "The ultimate goal is to have people take action."

Related Stories

SIGN UP FOR THE KSL.COM NEWSLETTER

Catch up on the top news and features from KSL.com, sent weekly.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast