Saturday, February 17, 2024

Limitations of Alta–Zermatt Comparisons


Zermatt, Switzerland

It is not unusual to hear people make comparisons between Alta and Zermatt when it comes to transportation.  One often hears statements like "Alta should be like Zermatt" or "we should have a train like Zermatt."  This article is not to argue against transportation upgrades (I am likely supportive of a well designed mountain transportation system for the Wasatch), but to instead discuss some of the limitations of these comparisons and the unique challenges facing Little Cottonwood Canyon.  

Alta is a small town.  The population for the 2010 census was 383.  This dropped to 228 for the 2020 census.  I'm not sure how confident to be in either of these numbers, but we are talking about less than 400 permanent residents.  It has five lodges [Snowpine (58 rooms), Alta (57 rooms), Goldminer's Daughter (89 rooms), Alta Peruvian (80 rooms), Rustler (85 rooms)], some condos, and some additional rental units.  Down the road, Snowbird reports that they have 882 total rooms.  I'm not sure what the total lodging capacity is in upper Little Cottonwood (perhaps someone has it), but let's say it is around 2,500 people.  

At the base of Little Cottonwood, Salt Lake County has a population of almost 1.2 million people.  The Wasatch Front has a population of 2 million people.  

Zermatt is often called a village, but it is really a small city.  It has a modest population of 5,733, but also 106 hotels with 7,310 beds ( There are also apartments which add several thousand additional beds.  In 2023, Zermat saw about 2.25 million overnight stays at hotels and rental apartments (  

At the base of the Matter Valley that leads to Zermatt is Visp, with a population of 6,777.  The entire Valais Canton, which includes Visp and Zermatt and extends from the southeast shore of Lake Geneva to the Furkapass in south central Switzerland has a population of 343,000.

So, consider the difference between big ski days at the two resorts.  At Alta (and Snowbird), most of the skiers have to get to the resort during an intense morning rush hour.  At Zermatt, most of the skiers are already at the resort.  They arrive in a less intense pulse the prior day and evening.  

My point here isn't to argue against a mountain transportation system, but to highlight important differences between Alta and Zermatt that should be recognized.


  1. Excellent points. I would be interested in knowing how much of the Zermatt infrastructure is government subsidized. I believe the answer is a LOT, including subsidies of summer agriculture throughout the Alps.
    In addition, development of second homes is rigidly limited by planners, in favor of hotels, and bed and breakfasts, plus restaurants. This brings many more jobs.
    I may be wrong, but that is what I have heard. And this is one reason why ski ticket prices are low enough for families to afford. Powder mtn today: adult ski day pass $250.

    1. I came to say the same thing - excellent points! I just saw the price of a lift ticket for snowbasin today. I about died. The good-ol' days are long behind us. I don't even go near the canyons anymore.

    2. Yeah not sure "how much" actually but "most if not all" is accurate.

      The issue here is simply creating a long term solution and NOT sacrificing the ideals of much better public access to the canyons via rail at the altar of environmental over-wokism. A train combined with an improved (protected with snowsheds) roadway would be ideal and provide a long term solution that is very scalable in the future. When Jim mentions that Zermatt (as an example) has all of those beds it is of course implicit that mountain tourism was embraced fully by the Swiss over a century ago. Of course there is still plenty of agriculture going on up in those canyons today as well. I've traveled the Alps in IT, SUI and FR extensively and it's done just so much better... It's literally palpable. There are few issues with infrastructure on, over and into the sides of canyons and these transportation and other infrastructure pieces are orders of magnitude more substantial than anything contemplated (yet?) for LCC or BCC. There's not a tunnel the Swiss have ever seen that they don't want to construct, and no mountain peak or crag that is too remote or inaccessible to have an unloading area (for a cable lift of some kind...) on it.

      To create the beds and other businesses Alps, hotels and restaurants and houses are clustered in defined (and tight!) spaces and also sporadically (from decades and decades of agricultural and mining and tourism activities) located all over the mountains. Chairlifts, trams and gondolas, not to mention funiculars and cog trains, are replete. The Europeans in this sense celebrate their usage of the limited land that they have, and so many embrace getting outside and DOING the outdoors, winter and summer. It's as much cultural and generational as it is physical.

      If the same infrastructure improvements were made in LCC and BCC that literally could eliminate the transportation shortcomings and regular inaccessibility issues year-round during any weather, then all of the groundwork to create truly accessible and dynamic, sustainable tourism would be laid. But why plan for that? There's too many risks to the environment and too much expense. That's simply a convenient prevarication.

      Building a Gondola is a much less than half-baked money pit. Doing nothing or "adding bus routes" is self-flagellation at best! Do the right thing and build rail, improve and protect the roadway, and create a long-term, scalable and permanent solution. If a few tunnels have to get dug and some snowsheds erected, that's just the right way to get the job done.

    3. PS - it's not just in Zermatt... It's in literally countless canyons and passes throughout Europe. These are countries that are certainly wayyy smaller than the United States, who cherish the outdoors, and don't have any problem with concentrating mountain development wherever it's economically feasible and from there using cableways and trains to penetrate up and into much more remote areas.