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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
People exit Snowbird's 600-foot tunnel Wednesday, which connects the Peruvian Gulch to Mineral Basin.

SNOWBIRD — Rather than going up the slopes on a chair lift or back down in the tram, Snowbird skiers and snowboarders will soon have another option for hitting the powder: a magic carpet ride through the mountain.

Excavators broke through Snowbird's new, European-style ski tunnel Wednesday, the first of its kind in North America. The 600-foot long tunnel will take skiers from the Peruvian Gulch into Mineral Basin.

"The finishing touch on the tunnel is the conveyor system," Snowbird President Bob Bonar said. "It's called a magic carpet in the ski business. It's a very unique project."

A 30-inch wide conveyor belt, similar to moving walkways commonly found in airports, will take riders on a relatively flat 4-minute ride, 350 feet underground. In addition, a $5.6 million, 8,000-foot-long high-speed quad lift will connect riders from the base of the mountain to the passageway.

Both are slated to open in time for ski season this year. And Snowbird staff members say the new lift and tunnel will fix some existing issues.

When harsh winds hit Little Cottonwood Canyon, Snowbird is forced to shut down the tram — the main ride to Mineral Basin. But both lift and tunnel can still operate with those windy conditions.

"The tunnel really solves problems for us," Bonar said.

The project's total cost is $6.5 million, and the tunnel and the majority of the lift were built on private land.

Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah president, said the tunnel adds to the list of Utah's bragging rights.

"People are tired of hearing us talk about how great our snow is," Rafferty said. "And to have a project like this is pretty cool. . . . Projects like this don't come along every day for our ski industry.

"I'm going to be up here on this chair lift the first day it opens," he added. "You'll have pull me off of it. I'm really psyched to see this happen."

The tunnel punch-through came a week after the Salt Lake County Planning Commission approved Snowbird's updated master plan. Future improvements, which have no starting date or time line, include more employee housing, underground parking and new condo and hotel units.

County Councilman Marv Hendrickson, whose district includes Snowbird and neighboring resort town Alta, said the tunnel will add to the burgeoning, 35-year-old resort.

"One thing about Snowbird, Snowbird has done it right from day one," he said.

Snowbird staff started brainstorming for the tunnel idea about 5 to 7 years ago. To construct the tunnel, crews travel up and down the Peruvian Gulch through a winding canyon road. Large equipment sits at both ends now, and a helicopter flies in concrete.

That construction zone will soon be cleaned up, Bonar said. Once the project is completed, the mountainside will be replanted and regraded.

Crews now are focusing on spraying concrete along the solid rock lining the tunnel walls, flattening the floor and putting rock anchors in to secure the ceiling. Eventually, a pavement walkway, garage-like mechanical doors and lights will be added.

As for a name for the unique creation, Snowbird is still working on it.

"We were hoping someone would come up with a more creative name, like the Chunnel in England. So if you have a creative name, let us know!" Bonar said, laughing. "Skunnel," however, has been voted out.

E-mail: astowell@desnews.com