Ever since KSL Capital Partners, the owners of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, purchased neighboring Alpine Meadows in 2011, it has been a dream of SVSH President and CEO Andy Wirth to realize a longheld dream for the region and connect the two mountains with a base-to-base gondola. Fortunately for Wirth, the owner of the private land between the two ski areas and the key to any interconnect — Troy Caldwell — shared his vision. Today, the two announced that after four years of trying to make it work, they finally did.
“This is amazing for me,” said Caldwell, whose White Wolf property encompasses 460 acres that stretches from the top of KT-22 to the base of Alpine Meadows. ”From the time I got there in ’69, no one has been able to pull it off. My whole adult life I’ve been working towards this.”
In what both Wirth and Caldwell hope will be a game-changer for skiers not only in Tahoe and California but potentially in all of North America, the Squaw-Alpine interconnect, which will unify 6,000 acres of skiing into one experience, will be a high-speed, detachable gondola made up of three segments that can operate as a single unit or separately. Segment A will stretch from the base of Squaw Valley near Cushing’s Pond to the top of the KT-22 ridge, segment B will travel from the ridge over Caldwell’s property to Barstool Lake on U.S. Forest Service land, and section C will take skiers from Barstool Lake to the bottom of Alpine Meadows in an exact location yet to be determined. Each segment allows for loading and off-loading, so for instance skiers could use segment A to reach the KT-22 ridge and ski back to the base of Squaw, or during high wind events A and C could still run while B is closed. The gondola will be bi-directional and operate in a continuous loop.
“One of the exciting things with the gondola is that you take three gondolas and put them together to make one,” Caldwell said. “It makes it exciting to run it as a base-to-base loop or take segment C and head back down to Alpine.”
The base-to-base travel time over approximately 2 miles is calculated to take 13 and a half minutes, and the new gondola, which will likely have eight-person cars, will be able to carry 1,400 skiers an hour. This is less than what both Squaw’s Funitel (4,000 skiers/hour) and KT (2,200 to 2,400 skiers/hour) can transport, which was done intentionally. Wirth and Caldwell decided on a lower capacity lift for both environmental and accessibility reasons. For one, such a gondola requires less towers and less infrastructure to build. According to Wirth, the design will have minimal impacts on wetlands, be built almost exclusively on granite, and will not require construction roads since the towers will be brought in by helicopters. The base-to-base gondola will also be constructed low to the ground and to the far west of Caldwell’s property to minimize scenic impacts, particularly to nearby Granite Chief Wilderness. According to Wirth, hikers on the popular Five Lakes Trail “won’t be able to see it virtually at all.”
“We were very concerned about the impacts of where it goes and what it looks like,” said Caldwell, noting that the gondola will “hug” the ground on his property. “We moved the viewpoints as far away as possible from visible viewing points.”
The two also wanted the interconnect to be accessible to skiers and riders of all ability levels, which is one reason they opted for a gondola versus a chairlift, which can be intimidating to beginner skiers.
Wirth also expects the interconnect to lead to a reduction in overall vehicular emissions since guests who normally ski both mountains in one day can now opt for the gondola ride instead of their car or the free shuttle. According to Wirth, around 25 percent of skiers, or one out of four, ski both mountains on any day.
Squaw and Caldwell ran through 28 different alignments before settling on the current plan. While the two have reached an agreement on the interconnect, which involves SVSH leasing the land from Caldwell, the project still needs Placer County and U.S. Forest Service approvals. The agreement between SVSH and Caldwell does not allow skiers and riders to enter White Wolf property.
SVSH is currently in negotiations with both Doppelmayr/Garaventa and Leitner-Poma, the two largest manufacturers of lifts, to build the gondola. Wirth noted that even after adding Squaw’s Big Blue Express chairlift in 2013 and with plans to update Siberia, Hot Wheels, Granite Chief, and Red Dog lifts, once the base-to-base gondola is completed there will be less uphill capacity than before 2011, when four chairlifts at Squaw were removed.
Both Wirth and Caldwell, who were “vibrating” with excitement at the announcement, believe the Squaw-Alpine interconnect will make the conjoined ski resort one of the top ski areas on the continent, equal to Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s largest ski resort. The British Columbia ski resort was created in 1997 when two separate ski areas merged. The two mountains are now joined by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola for a total of 8,171 acres.
“People will see Squaw and Alpine in a different light,” Wirth said. “From the ’60s to the ’80s, Squaw was one of the most desired ski experiences in North America, but competitors changed that. This takes us back to where we used to be. I firmly believe that with the interconnect we will be the only ski area comparable to Whistler Blackcomb. It changes the perspective of the customers.”
Caldwell echoed Wirth’s sentiments.
“It puts us in the big leagues,” he said. “We kind of dropped out of the competitive world. Now we will be at the forefront of it.”
In typical skier fashion, Wirth and Caldwell celebrated the recent signing of the agreement not by popping the cork off a bottle of champagne, but by cracking open two cans of Coors.