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Article Authored by Gregory Thomas
Original Article Featured in San Francisco Chronicle

Tahoe is getting a massive upgrade.
Here’s how it will transform the ski destination

A long-awaited mountaintop ski gondola that promises to reaffirm Lake Tahoe’s stature as a marquee skiing destination is set to start carrying skiers as soon as mid-December.

The gondola will link the base areas at Olympic Valley ( formerly called Squaw Valley) and Alpine Meadows — which operate together as a single resort called Palisades Tahoe — and create the third-largest ski resort in the U.S., behind only Park City Mountain and Powder Mountain in Utah.

Strung more than two miles over a high ridge between the two ski areas, the gondola is the most significant upgrade to Tahoe’s ski infrastructure in a decade or more. (None of Tahoe’s other nine major ski areas are linked in such a fashion.) Its 98 passenger cabins will cruise 11 mph, for about a 16-minute ride between base areas and carry riders past a spectacular vantage point of the surrounding Sierra peaks with the cobalt body of Lake Tahoe visible in the distance.

“This is transformative,” said Dee Byrne, president and chief operating officer of Palisades Tahoe, before a recent private tour of the gondola for The Chronicle. The resort aims to have it running 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. by Dec. 17, about a month after the resort opens for skiing.

The gondola figures prominently into Palisades’ larger vision to build itself into a full-season resort on par with top family-oriented tourist destinations. However, a proposal to fill out Olympic Valley with new lodging units, employee housing and 300,000 feet of commercial space — a 25-year project, if it goes forward — is tied up in a lawsuit brought by environmental advocates.

“We’re competing with top travel destinations like theme parks and cruise ships,” Byrne said. “We recognize that everyone is upping their game in terms of services, facilities and programming.”

In establishing a true connection between Olympic and Alpine, the gondola is a big win for Palisades. But it won’t open up new skiing terrain, which to some local skiers makes it little more than a flashy contrivance for marketing brochures.

“It adds that element to Palisades of being a big marquee destination. That probably doesn’t mean as much to locals as it does to a general population of skiers,” said Cody Townsend, a professional freeskier who lives in Tahoe City.

Still, many believe the gondola presages an important evolution of the skiing experience in Tahoe, which some say has stagnated.

“Skiing has always been good here, but it puts us on the world’s radar now that we have this amazing interconnected ski area,” said Olympic skier Travis Ganong, who grew up in Alpine Meadows.

Ganong isn’t exactly impartial: He’s sponsored by Palisades. However, he’s a mountain sports lifer who, like many hard-core skiers and riders in Tahoe, cherishes the unique alpine culture of Europe, where ubiquitous networks of chairlifts and ski villages allow people to explore the vast landscapes more freely and casually than more insular American downhill-ski areas.

“These big lifts have been around forever in Europe, connecting the resorts into an endless playground in the mountains,” Ganong said. “I’m really stoked to see what I hope is a trend starting in the U.S. ski market, and I’m proud that it’s happening in my backyard.”

Some of the gondola towers in Olympic Valley are as tall as 90 feet.

* * *

Olympic Valley’s dry ski hill was a flurry of activity: Cement trucks, excavators, pickups and all-terrain vehicles motored up and down the slopes. Builders were laying pipes for a new set of automated snow guns below the refurbished Red Dog lift and grading a fresh snow beach around the base chairlifts.

At the newly built gondola base terminal, a single covered cabin hung from the haul cable, wrapped in a canvas cover like a Christmas present.

“This is a long time coming,” said Jason Hansford, vice president of development at Alterra Mountain Co., the Denver company that owns Palisades.

“I’ve lived here 35 years, and since the day I moved here, everyone has been talking about when are Alpine and Palisades going to link up.”

Palisades is set to open for winter on Nov. 22. By then, it hopes to have completed the final phases of load tests and safety inspections necessary, though the first passengers won’t board until several weeks later.

Project manager Casey Blann (right) and Alterra Mountain Co. vice president of development Jason Hansford stand next to the gondola’s first passenger cabin

Bigger puzzle pieces were coming together at the top of KT-22, the resort’s iconic peak. There has been a lift up to the top forever, but look at the mountain now and you’ll see a row of freshly installed galvanized towers — some of them 90 feet high — leading from the Olympic base to a black-domed terminal on high. That’s one of two midstations needed to carry gondola riders between ski areas; the other is down the south face of the ridge near Alpine Meadows.

KSL Capital Partners, the Denver conglomerate that is a part-owner of Alterra, has been envisioning the gondola idea since 2011 after completing purchases of both Olympic and Alpine. An early proposal met with swift resistance from local environmentalists who argued that running high-speed passenger cabins through the mountains between the two resorts would foul the wilderness. But a legal challenge to that effect was resolved in 2020, with the resort agreeing to reduce its environmental impact and help preserve habitat for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog.

Engineering the gondola presented all kinds of challenges, from finding safe places for towers in avalanche terrain to stringing cables over the ridgetop, where wind gusts can top 100 mph.

“There are aspects of this lift that are unseen anywhere in North America,” said Casey Blann, senior adviser for Palisades who acted as project manager on the gondola.

Unlike most lifts, this one is powered by direct drive motors at both base terminals, which are quieter and more energy efficient than conventional high-speed motors with gearboxes. Also, the custom design allows the gondola to run independently on either side of the ridge: If the weather is rough in Olympic Valley, say, the gondola can still spin passengers up to KT-22 and back from Alpine’s base.

To cut down wind exposure at the KT-22 midstation, which sits at about 8,000 feet in elevation, workers blasted off part of the mountaintop, thereby shaving 30 feet off of the height of the towers and keeping the whole affair tighter to the terrain. The blast rubble was scooped into stacked steel cages that now form the midstation’s retaining wall, giving it the look of a castle fortification from down valley.

Another unique element of the gondola is a parking warehouse at Alpine Meadows where passenger cabins can be offloaded from the cable and stored to spare them wear and tear during inclement weather.

Blann has been helping design and manage lifts for more than 45 years and said, “This is the most unique and challenging one I’ve ever done.”

* * *

Local response to the gondola has been mixed. A lot of communal pride and tradition is wrapped up in a ski resort’s identity, and some skiers say the gondola undermines the homey charm of Alpine Meadows, low-key compared to its high-profile sister resort over the hill. Others are excited about being able to ski both areas easily in a single day.

There’s community wide exhaustion in Tahoe over surging tourism, so a new marketing vehicle for a place many residents feel is already overrun sounds to some like a recipe for headache.

Some worry that attracting more skiers and snowboarders will worsen the sometimes sluggish pace of lift lines during prime powder days.

Lake Tahoe to be third-largest ski resort in US with new gondola. The soon-to-open base-to-base gondola at Palisades Tahoe is in the final stages of construction.

But Palisades says the gondola’s high speed and high capacity — it’s capable of shuttling 1,400 skiers per hour from one base to another — should actually alleviate clumping at the base areas.

“For people who say it’ll bring more people here, that might be true, but without change it’s hard to progress and improve the situation,” said Ganong, the Olympic skier. “If nothing changes and more people keep coming up here, what happens then?”

It’s tough to imagine the gondola kicking off a trend in which Tahoe’s competing ski areas begin collaborating on interconnected lift infrastructure. But nearby resorts will certainly be watching to see what benefits may come from it.

“I want people to see that we care about skiing in Tahoe,” Byrne said. “We’re investing because we’re committed.”

Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: Twitter: @GregRThomas