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Little Cottonwood Canyon Traffic Congestion Lands Silver Medal Climber On Opposition Podium As Public Input Deadline Nears

A photo of Nathaniel Coleman climbing in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Ben Neilson
Olympic silver medalist Nathaniel Coleman says, “Little Cottonwood meant a lot to Salt Lake and a lot to the nation in the development of climbing. And to destroy that means that no climber in the future will be able to appreciate it in the same way.”

Bumper to bumper traffic and long waits on the road to ski resorts Alta and Snowbird have prompted the Utah Department of Transportation to look for ways to ease traffic in Little Cottonwood Canyon. The public has until the end of day Friday to comment on UDOT’s preferred proposals — installing a gondola or widening the road and expanding bus service.

But people in the rock climbing community are speaking out against both options. KUER’s Pamela McCall talked with Olympic silver medalist climber Nathaniel Coleman about what the rock walls of Little Cottonwood Canyon mean to his sport.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: On any summer weekend, parts of the canyon's roadside are crammed with climber's parked vehicles. To what extent does the popularity of climbing contribute to congestion on the road and point to the need for alternatives?

Nathaniel Coleman: Climbing is an exploding sport. We do ask a lot of the canyon and a lot of the trails, but we also put a lot of work back into maintaining those trails and keeping the canyon healthy. It's a massive part of climbing culture to leave no trace when you go climbing. And for the most part, I see climbers doing a really good job of that.

PM: What will it mean for climbers and for the boulders if either of these transportation plans proceeds?

NC: Climbers have a connection to boulders or the walls that we climb on that is really hard to understand if you're not a climber. These rocks, they not only provide us with a connection to nature, they're also challenges that allow us to grow. They're natural things, so when a boulder breaks or when it becomes unclimbable, it's kind of seen as this tragedy in the climbing community. It's really not only about the climbing experience, it's about the history of climbing. Little Cottonwood meant a lot to Salt Lake and a lot to the nation in the development of climbing. And to destroy that means that no climber in the future will be able to appreciate it in the same way.

PM: What role would you say that Little Cottonwood Canyon played in you ultimately being able to stand on an Olympic podium with a silver medal?

NC: I think that Little Cottonwood taught me patience, it taught me determination and it taught me how to deal with failure — how to find the positive aspects of failure. When I first started climbing there, I had these high expectations, and I was quickly humbled. That taught me how to enjoy the whole process of climbing, not only the successes. And I think that that is something that applies to every aspect of my climbing, including training, including climbing outside and including other aspects of my life. I think, most importantly, it taught me to stand on my feet and trust my feet.

PM: What would leaving Little Cottonwood Canyon intact, foregoing any transportation changes, mean for up and coming climbers?

NC: Respecting the canyon — it gives this next generation of climbers an opportunity to learn from the boulders the same way that I did. It also shows the climbing community that Salt Lake is invested in the climbing culture. And I think climbing is becoming a lot bigger, and Salt Lake is one of the places that people are moving to pursue that. In the future, I would love to see climbing become a bigger part of Salt Lake's culture. Respecting the canyon, it's an act of good faith.

The traffic problem has been building for years. I've seen it the whole time I've been growing up. No solutions have really been tried at this point. I think that to invest a half a billion dollars into these solutions that permanently destroy and don't equally serve the canyon's users, I think that it's just too much, too fast. Other options exist, ones that are far less destructive and far more inclusive, and those need to be tested and perfected before we can go for such a permanent change.

PM: Nathaniel Coleman, silver medalist in sport climbing. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NC: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

PM: I'm now joined by KUER's Jon Reed. He's been covering the story and listened into our conversation. Jon, why haven't other solutions been tried or were there other plans that just didn't make the cut?

Jon Reed: Well, there have been some smaller things done, though people may disagree on how helpful they've been. The main things so far have been creating a website and social media accounts that give people live updates on conditions in the canyon. There's also been some small construction projects to expand merge lanes at the top and bottom of the canyon.

But probably the biggest thing people ask about is a toll on cars, and why hasn't that happened yet? UDOT says that a toll would almost certainly reduce the number of cars on the road. But before they can do that, there has to be some planning. The first thing is kind of figuring out what kinds of infrastructure would be needed and the kind of impact it would have. The other thing is figuring out how to make it fair. You don't want to block off public lands to people who can't afford a toll. So before that happens, UDOT says there has to be more bus service(s) so that everyone has a reasonable way to get up to the canyon without having to pay a toll.

PM: How do we get to the two options on the table, Jon, either a gondola or widening the road? 

JR: UDOT says these are the two that accomplish the goals of the project best — consistent and reduced travel times. The enhanced bus service is going to have the shortest times. The gondola would have the most consistent travel times. And so while those two are the primary proposals on the table right now, there were five main proposals, including doing nothing, that are still kind of on the table. It depends on what happens with this public comment period and this final analysis going into the winter.

PM: What's at stake if things are left as is in Little Cottonwood Canyon?

JR: Well, anyone who's gone up the canyon during winter probably knows what's at stake here, but traffic is getting worse every year. The region is growing. UDOT projects that in 2050, average commute time up the canyon would be around 85 minutes, and the line of cars on Wasatch Boulevard would stretch out for miles. Doing nothing, they say, is going to just exacerbate the current traffic challenges there.

Pamela is KUER's All Things Considered Host.
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