Terror and Triumph in Little Cottonwood Canyon
Stranded at Alta Ski Area for eight days, the author experienced record snowfall and thundering avalanches—and yeah, some pretty amazing skiing
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First, there was my plan. Little Cottonwood Canyon, above Salt Lake City, Utah, is home to (in my opinion) the two greatest powder ski resorts in the world, Alta and Snowbird. If you know anything about skiing, then you’re familiar with them. So, when the forecast on Thursday March 30 was calling for 60 inches of late season snowfall, I assembled a hasty batch of homemade breakfast burritos, a box of Grape-Nuts cereal and honey, several apples, and two suspiciously overripe looking avocados and took off for my ski house at Alta before the canyon shut down for avalanche hazards.
I wanted to be up there when the canyon’s Highway 210 shut down, because once the door’s locked, no one gets up and no one gets down. And that’s the point. We call these “country club days,” which simply means we’re up here skiing several feet of fresh powder and you’re, well, not here. I snaked up the canyon at 9 P.M. just before lockdown Friday night. Saturday dawned bright and glorious, shining down on a foot of new powder with mere handfuls of us lucky enough to already be in Alta.
Then the real storm hit and hit hard, and suddenly the situation became serious. Sunday was interlodge—you don’t go outside, at all, for any reason. I moved to Alta full-time in 2016, and I grew up skiing here as a local, so I was familiar with the safety measure. The Alta marshal’s office literally requires chains across your door. To an outsider this might seem an extreme measure, but the slides in Little Cottonwood make it the most hazardous highway in the United States for avalanche danger.
I got a sense of just how dangerous things were before the storm even hit. Just a week before, a nine year old boy was playing outside an Alta home when the adjacent roof slid, burying him. This wasn’t fluffy powder—it was more like a pickup truck dropping onto you from ten feet above. The desperate family called 911, and it was their good fortune deputy marshal Ted Spencer was on duty and arrived a scant few minutes later. After making sense of the scene and bewildered family he set to work trying to rescue the boy.
“He wasn’t responsive when I found him but did have shallow respirations when we got him out,” Spencer told me. A former ski patroller, Spencer located the buried child with his avalanche probe on his sixth probe strike. The family was spared a tragedy, thanks in a large part to a competent team response by all the town’s first responders, and in particular Spencer’s expertise.
There’s a high potential for devastation when you incorporate 2,000 feet of steep mountainsides and hundreds of tons of snow barreling down a slot canyon, and Little Cottonwood has 64 of them. It’s why avalanche science and mitigation are such serious pursuits for the professionals responsible for mountain public safety.
Sunday night delivered more powder, but the huge dump left my plan to ski fresh snow in peril, as sometimes the resorts close entirely when the snow gets too deep. Fortunately, Snowbird opened on Monday, so I slapped on the boards and was at the tram in five minutes. Fifteen minutes later I dropped into the iconic double black diamond Mach Schnell. Not only that, I had it to myself. Untracked. Four runs in a row.
Each half-filled tram load was occupied by those who know they’re experiencing a once in a lifetime day. Snowbird general manager Dave Fields and I found ourselves together amidst enthusiastic grins. “How many people are on the mountain today do you think?” I asked, wiping the snow off the top of my goggles and pulling it from my beard.
“Well, 700 total people are in the resort, but that includes all our employees,” he said. “So, I can’t imagine there’s more than a few hundred spread across the runs we have open.”
We both smiled.
“So, as a favor, would you mind keeping it at that number for the rest of the week?”
He smiled again before replying, “I don’t think we have a choice.” He’s a good man.
Outside the moving tramcar the snow was falling relentlessly. By 4 P.M. when the resort closed, Snowbird was closing in on its previous all-time accumulation record of 782 inches. That’s when Alta town marshal Mike Morey issued his first public announcement. All people within Alta and Snowbird boundaries needed to be indoors by 8 P.M. and there would be no anticipated lifting of interlodge.
Thus began 50-plus hours of bad food and boredom. The avocados had gone in the first lockdown along with the apples, so it’d have to be Grape-Nuts and burritos. I’ll spare the details, save one. Wednesday morning it was still relentlessly snowing. Snowbird had passed its all-time record with 785 inches, and I was staring out at Mt. Superior across from Snowbird like a dog looking out the window longingly watching the neighbor’s puppy playing in the yard.
Meanwhile, Alta’s avalanche forecaster Dave “Grom” Richards and his team of howitzer gunners were lobbing 105-millimeter shells at Superior hoping to dislodge the unprecedented amount of snow that was sitting atop an already unprecedented amount of snow. At 9:15 A.M. reverberations began to rattle the house. Large avalanches have a distinctive signature, a cross between roaring wind and a sense of vibration that’s terrifyingly haptic. I dropped my umpteenth breakfast burrito and rushed to the window to peer through the snow. A monster slide roared down the mountain, its cloud obscuring everything. When the spindrift cleared, I could see it had flowed over Highway 210 and crushed its way into Snowbird’s parking lot stopping just short of their power plant. It was a staggering display of natural power.
I texted Grom: Congrats buddy. I think you destroyed Snowbird.
Great for him, his job was to make avalanches, but I was still trapped and each day not skiing meant one less country club day. I ski Alta perhaps 100-120 days every year, but I seek these mystical crowd-free days out like an addict.
It’d been six days of storming yet only two clubs. Like love, you only get so many chances for them in your life. Fortunately, the snow tapered off in the wee hours on Thursday with an incredible 65.5 total inches. But that doesn’t mean we’re let out into the playground; there’s always the avalanche mitigation to wait on.
I called Grom to inquire about his plan to manage Alta. “What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m gonna issue bombs like they’re candy,” said the 30 year veteran. Succinct, that’s Grom.
Still, Snowbird fired up before Grom opened Alta so I hopped in my 4Runner and drove the 1.5 miles down the highway. Unfortunately, their snow, while deep, had pancaked and the skiing on the lower slopes, while untracked, was, frankly, no good for skiing.
So, it was back in the 4Runner and a dash to Alta, where three lifts were running. As I transited, I passed Superior’s lower south ridge and crossed the monster’s detritus. I couldn’t believe that much snow could flow that far but I didn’t have time for contemplation, the Alta country club awaited.
I opted to skip the resort’s first lot, Collins, where a total of perhaps a dozen cars sat. I could see the lucky few hopping on Collins lift, heading for Alta’s legendary High Rustler and Greely runs. Instead, I thought I’d drive to the upper Albion lot to seek a wee more solitude. Elitist snobbery? Yeah, of course. No friends on powder days and all that.
I was unprepared for what awaited me there. As I crested the low hill leading down into the lot I was met with… nothing. No employees or crew vehicles. No cars. Not one. I rolled to a stop by the ticket office and found marshal Mike Morey.
“Did I miss the apocalypse announcement or something?” I queried.
“The zombies are coming over Emma Ridge any moment,” he deadpanned.
“Seriously, where are the people?”
“Fine by me,” I said, grabbing my K2 Waybacks. Mike and I share a history of military service and a mutual disdain for too many humans. “See ya.”
I’m now going to share with you a closely guarded secret to Alta ski area. When everyone is rushing to High Rustler and Greely, head to the Sunnyside lift. No one goes there on big powder days. Therefore, you can have Vail Ridge all to yourself, as I did on that glorious third country club day.
That is until two hours later both resorts closed down completely when the Superior south ridge I’d been transiting slid naturally and buried the top portion of Snowbird’s Chickadee lift. Fortunately, no one was buried along with it but it was back indoors for the rest of the day. Sigh.
The next day the avalanche danger only accelerated so when Marshal Morey opened downhill traffic from 5 to 9 A.M., it was time to make my exit, but not before Grom called me out when he saw the early morning line of cars making their escape.
“You leaving? I feel like that last scene in Platoon when Charlie Sheen gets on the helicopter and leaves everyone behind in Vietnam,” he asked.
Sorry buddy, when the country club closes it’s time to go. Besides, a man can only eat so many breakfast burritos.
Author note: As I write this one week later, Little Cottonwood remains closed and both resorts passed their all-time records.