Avalanches Shut Down Utah Resorts for 52 Hours

It’s the dream scenario for many who have skied Little Cottonwood Canyon: get up the canyon before the road closes, sit tight while the avalanche professionals do their job, then enjoy the Greatest Snow on Earth virtually crowd-free while the masses wait for the road to open. Locals call it “country club skiing,” and it’s a thing of legend at Alta and Snowbird.

That’s not exactly how things worked out last week. A one-two punch of perfect storms closed both resorts for two days, from Feb. 6 to Feb. 8, and put all guests and resort staff under interlodge restrictions—where travel outside of buildings is prohibited—for 52 hours.

Photo: Courtesy of Lee Cohen/POWDER Magazine

From Thursday to Saturday, about 20 inches of snow blanketed upper LCC. Alta starting spinning their lifts for lodge guests at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8. Snowbird wasn’t far behind, opening the Mid Gad lift by 10:20 a.m., and Wilbur before 11 a.m. Both resorts estimate they had less than 1,000 guests each.

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“For the most part, I think people took advantage of the brief window they were given to get down the canyon on Thursday,” says Brian Brown, marketing manager at Snowbird. At 11:38 a.m., the Utah Department of Transportation announced that Little Cottonwood Canyon had finally reopened.

avalanche utahPhoto: Courtesy of Lee Cohen/POWDER Magazine

The reprieve was temporary, however. By 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, both Alta and Snowbird announced that their lots were full. By 1:30 p.m., UDOT closed uphill traffic in the canyon due to congestion. Traffic also caused Big Cottonwood Canyon to close briefly on Saturday, prior to Little Cottonwood reopening.

Evan Thayer, the Utah forecaster for Opensnow.com, was one of those who made it up the canyon on Thursday before the road closed. “Everything was going according to plan,” Thayer says. “They announced that the road would likely be closed indefinitely. So everybody who was in Goldminer’s Daughter was starting to celebrate and salivating at this idea of a country club ski day up in Little Cottonwood Canyon. It just wasn’t to be. I mean, we never left the building.”

avalanche utahPhoto: Courtesy of Lee Cohen/POWDER Magazine

As a meteorologist, Thayer says this storm was intriguing. “It just had absurd amounts of moisture in it,” he says. “And it was a very long-duration, persistent northwest flow. So basically the same areas that are favored in that just kept getting hit. When it snows almost constantly for two and a half days at a high snow density, it’s going to cause issues, but it’s just the amount of water contained in the storm was remarkable.”

One monitoring station at Alta measured almost 7 inches of snow water equivalent—the amount of water you would have if all the snow melted.

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This warm, wet storm came on the heels of another atypical system that hit Utah on Sunday and Monday, Feb. 2 and 3. This first storm dropped 18 inches on the Salt Lake City benches, but only 7 inches of very light, cold snow at Alta. “It was the perfect recipe for unstable snow pack and avalanche issues,” Thayer says.

Factor in Little Cottonwood Canyon’s unique topography, and the situation gets even more grave. LCC has 122 named avalanche paths, more than 40 of which are capable of crossing the road. According to UDOT, the road has one of the highest Avalanche Hazard Index ratings in North America.

As anticipated, the avalanches came. On Feb. 7, the Utah Department of Transportation reported “major natural avalanche activity,” including multiple slides hitting Little Cottonwood Canyon Rd. Snowbird Entry 1 was buried under 9 feet of snow. Videos showed a slide crossed the road and hit the Peruvian and Wildcat parking lots at Alta.

LCC also has an uncanny knack for snagging moisture from the air that misses its neighbor to the north, Big Cottonwood Canyon. According to the National Weather Service, the monitoring station at Alta-UDOT measured 6.79 inches of snow water equivalent. All of the Big Cottonwood Canyon stations registered less than 4 inches.

“If this were normal Utah density snow, which is around 8% and about 15 to 1 ratios, that would be about 90 to 100 inches of snow from this storm,” says Thayer.

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Avalanches, or course, are nothing new to Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s rare, however, that both resorts would shut down for an extended period. Photographer Lee Cohen waited out this one at his home at the mouth of the canyon and ventured up to document the aftermath. He remembers a day in 2002 when both resorts closed. “But that was just a one day affair,” he remembers. In March of 1983, Cohen remembers being interlodged for three days.

“When I was younger, we’d go get interlodged on purpose,” Cohen says. “But man, once you get caught for some longer interlodges, it gets old. I started trying to avoid it.”

avalanche utahPhoto: Courtesy of Lee Cohen/POWDER Magazine

Thayer took advantage of a short window on Thursday when UDOT opened to road to let people down. He says staying at that point was not even a consideration. “There were several people who said, ‘Oh I just want to be interlodged again tonight because Friday’s going to be just absolutely epic,’” Thayer says. “I was like, nothing is going to change. All it’s going to do in the next 24 hours is continue to snow just like this. If it’s not open today, it’s definitely not going to be open tomorrow.”

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Those who stayed, eventually got their country club day, albeit not the Utah blower you see in many of Cohen’s signature shots. “It did wonders for our base,” says Snowbird’s Brown. “But it was so dense, it went straight to base.” As for Thayer, he took advantage of Salt Lake City’s central location to six different resorts. “I went to Park City,” he says.

This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.

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