The Avalanche Program at Snowbird in the Early Days
Rumors of a new ski area to open in Utah began to spread throughout the skiing community in early 1970. Reportedly, the new resort would be called Snowbird, and it would be located just over the ridge from the iconic Alta ski resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The legend that was Alta, powder snow and avalanches, was in those days known to ski patrollers throughout the country. It’s famous powder snow (reportedly in a perpetual state of deep, light, and untracked perfection) and the stories of unparalleled, fantastic avalanches; huge, billowing dust clouds descending thousands of feet from all sides of the canyon, represented an alluring Nirvana to patrollers from Squaw Valley to Aspen.
To those lucky enough to experience what conditions really were like in Little Cottonwood at that time, it was understood that the legend that extended well past the borders of Utah, was mostly true. And some of them must have wondered if the attraction of the “new” ski area, and the exposure it was receiving would mark the end of their rather exclusive access to what truly must have been a skier and avalanche workers paradise. It might have been similar to how Sioux and Blackfoot warriors felt when they saw the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad that announced the eminent arrival of thousands of “outsiders”, and an end to their way of life. There was a now-famous, psychedelic art poster from that era that proclaimed “Utah Skiing, the Best Kept Secret on Earth”; all that was about to change.
Landing a job as a Snowbird Ski Patroller that first year was easier than one might think. Although several outstanding Alta skiers made the transition down-canyon to work on the Snowbird Patrol, one really didn’t have to be a very accomplished skier to get the job (something I can personally attest to). What was needed was a sense of adventure that allowed one to embrace this unknown entity, and an enthusiastic approach to pioneering a new ski area in a place that held a combination of snow quality, snowfall amounts, and terrain that was unrivaled in North America at that time.
So on November 1, 1971, thirteen fairly diverse individuals gathered at the only structure at Snowbird that was habitable at the time, and the Snowbird Ski Patrol was born.
Ted Johnson, the creator of Snowbird and legendary Alta skier, began buying up old mining claims in the 1960’s that would eventually allow for the development of the base village of the Snowbird resort. His long time residency at Alta gave him an appreciation for the serious nature of avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and his friendship with the likes of Ed LaChapelle, Ron Perla, Ray Lindquist, and Warren Baldsiefen, provided him with an arsenal of knowledgeable avalanche authorities that he could call upon for help. Ray and Warren (a.k.a. “Eagle” and “Baldy”) spent several years, prior to the announced opening, studying terrain and observing avalanches, laying the foundation of the Snowbird avalanche control program. During the fall of 1970, Kent Hoopingarner (Hoopie), formerly a patroller at both Alta, and Jackson Hole, joined the team that was charged with the task of determining the location of the three original gun mounts, and establishing the initial 12 hand charge routes. The winter of 1970-71 must have been truly memorable for this group; accessing Hidden Peak (future site of the Aerial Tram) by helicopter whenever the opportunity allowed, analyzing terrain, digging snowpits, observing avalanches, and skiing powder! Their concern for safety extended only to themselves, and their only responsibility was figuring it all out. By the time we (the new ski patrol) gathered at Snowbird in the fall of 1971, they had done a pretty good job of figuring it out, but not us, we were all VERY GREEN.
As most everything at Snowbird at that time was running well behind schedule, instead of doing those things ski patroller’s normally do that time of year, we were relegated to other tasks; shoveling snow, exposing lift tower foundations for a “reinspection” by the Forest Service, installing insulation, and about a million other things that didn’t relate to what we considered to be “ski patrol work”. All the while, the mountain, loomed in the background, suggesting challenges, and adventure, and the snowpack (the result of early snowfall in October, followed by weeks of little if any additional accumulation) slowly rotted. Our exploratory trips onto the mountain were few and far between. But under the guidance of Hoopie, the ski patrol director, and Baldy, a larger than life character to whom avalanches were an all-consuming hobby, we did develop a rudimentary feel for how to get from the top of the mountain to the bottom, following the recently developed hand charge routes. The overall feeling was that it was a very big place, and it was easy to get lost!
It was also steep, and this combined with low density snow, meant that if you didn’t know how to ski like an Alta skier, you were bound to experience numerous spectacular, crashes, the kind made famous in ski movies of that era. Initial observations by Hoopie of the skiing skills that some of us lacked (generally considered necessary to be a ski patroller), no doubt filled him with concern regarding not just our survival, but also of anyone unfortunate enough to get injured on the mountain and requiring a toboggan ride once the season finally began.
November dragged into December, and the mixture of hard labor, no days off, and very little skiing, began to take a toll on us. We released frustration by participating in recreational drinking bouts during off-work hours, where we recounted our past exploits, both real and imaginary, and fantasized about what we expected the next few months would bring. These well-established ski patrol traditions were to be followed fervently by our group of young and enthusiastic practitioners, and no matter how bad you felt the next morning, you ALWAYS showed up for work. Our dreary and arduous labors continued, and we all wondered when our sentence would be commuted, when just like that, during the second half of December, it started to snow! It snowed like legend suggested it could. Our spirits improved significantly, and we were filled with anticipation. We had been fortunate in the fact that although we had spent most of our time performing non-ski patrol tasks during the previous month and a half, we did upon occasion, have the opportunity to sit at the feet of Baldy, Ray Lindquist, and Bengt Sandahl (the head US Forest Service Snow Ranger in the canyon at that time) and hear stories of the “old days” when the canyon and all it’s occupants would be under siege from endless winter storms that would batter Alta with high winds and amazing amounts of snow, resulting in days of “hunkering down” until the storms ended. Then the Avalanche Hunters would emerge from their safe places of hiding (where they had spent their time playing Hearts, and drinking whisky) and with military weapons and hand thrown explosives, pursue the White Death with a sense of bravado that filled us with awe, and the desire that someday we would have the opportunity to experience those same sort of adventures ourselves. The lesson here is “be careful what you wish for.”
December 1971- Snowbird Opens!
Finally, after years of planning, frustration, and hard work, Snowbird opened on December 27, 1971, to mixed reviews. There were a few glitches, like if an accident was reported, the ski patrol due to their unfamiliarity with the mountain, would have to refer to trail maps to determine where the accident was and how to get there. There were a few stutters with the operation of the aerial tram and the three chairlifts, and the restaurants were perhaps a little slow, but in general, things went OK. That is until the early afternoon when we received a call that there had been an avalanche in an open area. A Snowbird employee, taking advantage of his skiing privileges, was caught and buried in upper Peruvian Gulch in what nowadays would be called a “post control avalanche.” Back then very few if any ski areas in the U.S. had avalanche rescue dogs, so any total burial had to rely on the traditional probe line for any chance of recovery. Both the victim and rescuers understood that the chances for survival were slim when after an hour of probing he still had not been located. But to everyone’s amazement he was finally found, alive! His major complaint being that he had lost his ski-gear, and was very cold. What an opening day performance!
About a week later, two more skiers were caught in a fairly large avalanche (once again in an open area), resulting in two partial burials, with one of the victims suffering serious upper body injuries. I’m sure people began to wonder, ‘what was going on’? As I recall, by that time we all felt as though we were somewhat outmatched by a huge ski area that we didn’t know very well, a weak snowpack, and a small number of skiers to provide the compaction that was needed to make operation of the area a little easier.
In some ways it was a good thing that so few people skied at Snowbird that year, or for that matter the first two or three seasons, as it gave us a little bit of a “cushion” in that if we missed an avalanche starting zone or two (there were dozens of them we didn’t know about in those first few years) during control work, no one else was likely to make it to that spot for several days. But that lack of skiers also had a downside. Due to the amount of terrain accessible from the Tram and lifts, and the lack of skier compaction, it was like trying to do avalanche control work in the Backcountry- a challenging undertaking. This made for prolonged closures of certain hard to deal with areas of the mountain, fairly large avalanches on a somewhat regular basis, and often scary conditions to run hand charge routes. To counter this we were very liberal in our use of military artillery and ammunition. It was not uncommon to burn through several hundred rounds of shells a month that first year, and one weapon fired over 100 rounds in one day, a virtual orgy of avalanche control work.
Snowbird was the first ski area to operate on US Forest Service land, where it stated in the special use permit that the responsibility for the avalanche program rested with the ski area, and not the USFS. In looking back that might have been a good decision on the part of the Forest Service (after all, what Federal Government agency goes looking for trouble?), and seemed to mark the beginning of the departure by the Forest Service from active involvement in ski area avalanche control work. With the responsibility for the avalanche program clearly leveled on the ski area, and the rough start to the season, Snowbird’s management decided (persuaded to do so by Baldy) that someone needed to focus just on avalanche issues. So a month into that inaugural season, a position was created, separate from the ski patrol, that allowed someone to do just that. That someone was chosen from the patrol, and although he was not particularly avalanche savvy, and had no experience with snowpack and weather conditions in Little Cottonwood Canyon, he had remarkable mentors, and was very eager to learn. By some strange twist of fate, that someone was me.
Prior to the opening of Snowbird, the ability to effectively control the avalanche paths above the middle portion of the Canyon road was non-existent. The 105mm recoilless rifle mounted on Peruvian Ridge at Alta could control the slopes from Mt. Superior eastward, including those that threaten the Town of Alta, but during prolonged storms, when an avalanche hazard developed in the mid-canyon area, the only option was to close the road. These closures often lasted several days until the avalanche cycle had run its course, natural stabilization could occur, or a pack howitzer could be towed down canyon in an attempt to hit some of the paths that might still threaten the highway (a fairly ineffective procedure, that thankfully resulted in few avalanches as the gun crew was often exposed to the possibility of being overrun by avalanches they might have initiated). The prolonged road closures were just fine to most of those who became stranded at Alta and had their own private ski area to enjoy until the road reopened. But with the advent of Snowbird, a 75mm pack howitzer was placed in a location that made it possible to hit most of the avalanche paths in the mid-canyon area that posed a threat to the road. This allowed for the road to be opened more quickly, and to remain open more often during storms, marking the end to the exclusive access which had been the private domain of those that could afford lodging at Alta (as well as all those underpaid, but very fortunate Alta Ski Lift Company employees). This clearly changed forever the face of skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and likely had and impact on skiing throughout Utah and perhaps the entire western United States. One era had ended, and another one had begun.
December 1973- The First Siege
Early snowfall in October 1973 was followed by near normal snowfall amounts in November. But the first three weeks of December were mostly dry with only a few small storms passing through the area. By this the third year of operation, we considered ourselves seasoned veterans, having survived the two previous ski seasons and enjoying all the drama and (apparent) glory that surrounded our positions. We were proud of the status of working at the ski area EVERYONE wanted to visit, and of our ability to go toe to toe with the mountain and all the fury Mother Nature could throw our way. It’s amazing how much a person, especially a younger one, thinks they know before being tested by the real thing.
The weather pattern of the late fall had resulted in a snowpack that suggested a mixture of very weak conditions in some areas and surprisingly strong conditions in others. Perhaps the real problem areas were those places that combined both aspects, weak lower snowpack layers and fairly strong upper ones. A series of fast moving storms raced across northern Utah beginning on December 21st, and over the next several days we saw moderate amounts of snow, strong winds, and only a few avalanches of note. As often seems the case when several storms arrive in rapid succession, with little time between for snowpack settlement, stabilization, or compaction, eventually things get scary. This was the case by the morning of the 27th when it really began to snow! As it was the Christmas holiday the lodges were full, and the road jammed with skiers from the Salt Lake Valley, enjoying the non-stop snowfall occurring during their time off from school and work. We had heard about storms like this from our predecessors, but very few of us had ever seen anything like it, I don’t think we realized how serious things really were until it was all over.
Little Cottonwood Canyon is different from most resort areas in North America in the fact that so many buildings (lodges, hotels, etc.) are exposed to an avalanche hazard on a fairly regular basis. It is the only place in the world (to my knowledge) where active avalanche control carried out with military artillery, is the primary and in some cases the only form of protection these buildings have. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” but in order to protect the Town of Alta, and the Village of Snowbird, it’s necessary to fire artillery into the slopes directly above the threatened buildings in an attempt to initiate avalanches before they can run naturally. In theory, regular avalanche control work with explosives or artillery, will result in numerous smaller avalanches throughout the winter instead of one or two large and destructive events capable of running into, over, or through inhabited buildings on their way to the creek at the floor of the canyon. This practice is usually effective, but every now and then it doesn’t work.
Heavy snowfall continued during the night of the 27th and all day on the 28th, but it seemed that things were somewhat under control. But since weather conditions were so severe, and we could see very little of what was actually taking place up high, we were really just assuming things were still OK… sort of. The wind was playing a major role in reshaping the avalanche paths above Alta and Snowbird, and the 50+ inches of snow that had been measured at the base over the past 36 hours equated to significantly greater amounts along the ridge-lines. Winds in the VERY STRONG category (average speeds in excess of 49 mph) along with significant amounts of blowing snow, prevented the gun crew at Alta from traveling to the P-Ridge rifle on the afternoon of the 29th, and the storm continued to rage through the night. By the time they were able to reach the weapon, mid-day on the 30th, the stage was set for the epic event that was to follow. Misinterpreted results from the first few shots fired led the gun crew to believe that nothing out of the ordinary was occurring, and so shots above the more populated section of Town were fired in rapid succession. The frantic radio transmission from the Alta Marshal dispatcher “We’ve been hit, Alta Central has been hit”, was the first indication that the shit had hit the fan! A large avalanche, released from Flagstaff Mountain had engulfed several structures including the Alta Lodge, tossing vehicles on top of buildings and inundating several guest and employee rooms. The miraculous results were, only one person buried in their bed (recovered in record time by the Alta Ski Patrol) and a lodge employee who had been in the kitchen when the avalanche hit, and sustained serious internal injuries. The latter was flown to the hospital while the storm was still raging, by a heroic helicopter pilot that had made his way up to Alta from the Valley by literally flying from one treetop to the next.
By the morning of the 31st, the storm had ended but the Avalanche Show would continue. Helicopter bombing and artillery fire produced numerous, spectacular avalanches, now visible to all those who had been subjected to limited visibility for the past several days. In some instances, avalanches ran from the ridgeline on the north side of the canyon, across the creek and ascended a short distance up the south side of the canyon. None of us had ever seen anything like this, and it made one realize that even though what we were seeing was truly spectacular, the potential for even larger events was recognized. The Village of Snowbird also took its licks during this period, but not quite to the extent suffered by the Town of Alta. There were many tales of heroism, good luck, and close calls from those few memorable days, including at least one amorous interlude interrupted by an avalanche that inundated Snowbird’s employee quarters, but as Rudyard Kipling said, “that’s another story”.
March 1977- The Drought Winter and Resulting Avalanche Fatality.
The infamous winter of 1976-77 was unlike any in recent memory. El Nino conditions allowed a monster high pressure ridge to park itself along the west coast of North America, and remain in place throughout the late fall, and much of the winter. This weather pattern produced record snowfall in parts of the eastern US, while a lack of snow in Utah prevented Alta from being open for Christmas for the first time in it’s nearly 40 years of operation. Needless to say, the snowpack in those areas that did manage to hold snow was incredibly weak. On those rare occasions when it did snow, small but surprisingly wide avalanches could be released simply by walking along the ridge above those areas just barely steep enough to slide. The Alta and Snowbird ski areas did finally open in January 1977, but conditions were truly grim! In February the Salt Lake Airport recorded twenty-one consecutive days without precipitation, a new record. Without much difficulty, observers could find depth hoar crystals (snow crystals evolved overtime to extraordinary size and shape, known to contribute to weak snowpack conditions, and unpredictable avalanches) of immense proportions, lying in wait for anyone who might dare to venture into the mountains following the storms we all hoped would eventually arrive. And eventually, they did arrive. The one thing about LCC that never changes, is that it always snows, sooner or later. It finally started to snow late in the day of February 21st, and although we only received about 6’ of snow in 5 days (by no means an unusually heavy amount for this place), due to the remarkably weak snowpack, the place came apart! There were avalanches everywhere, or almost everywhere. It was exciting, and more than a little scary. The good thing is that in most cases the snowpack was so weak, that avalanches either ran naturally, or were fairly easy to initiate with explosives. Nonetheless, several patrollers, as well as members of the skiing public went for “rides” during this period, none of which as I recall, resulted in any serious injuries.
We gradually got most of the mountain open by the 2nd of March, and we were enjoying that fact that winter had finally arrived, and that hopefully, we had made it through the worst of it. During the night of March 2nd, a foot of snow fell, with virtually no wind, and by morning, the sky was clear. Everyone anticipated a fairly epic day. On the tram ride up in the morning, the low density of the new snow that had fallen in the absence of any appreciable wind, made it so that ski tracks from the previous day were still visible under the new soft blanket of “The Greatest Snow on Earth”. It was felt that the snow that had accumulated overnight presented no significant avalanche hazard, and the fact that most of the mountain had been open the previous day, gave us what proved to be a false sense of security. The patrol headed out to run their hand charge routes with very few if any explosives, relying on ski cutting to release any of the fairly benign loose snow avalanches that might be expected. These efforts produced very limited results, and we all returned to the patrol shack on top of the Tram with descriptions of great skiing, and virtually no avalanche hazard. The mountain opened, and it was packed. The combination of 12” of new snow, sunshine, and the fact that everyone was “Jonesing” for powder skiing created a lustful frenzy, people were having a great time, and we were proud to have provided them with the opportunity.
Around 2 p.m. a skier dropped into a hanging snowfield in a portion of the steep, rocky area known as the Gad Valley Chutes. The area had been ski-cut by the patrol that morning, and since it had been open and skied the previous day it was considered to be “safe for public consumption”. His binding broke as the result of a fall, and he proceeded to walk back uphill in order to find a reasonable way down on his one remaining ski. This area was one of the few places that had not produced an avalanche during the extensive cycle of late February, and whereas we recognized the weak layer at the base of the snowpack that elsewhere had been the culprit behind most all of the avalanche activity, we figured that other factors were at play that allowed the snow to remain in place in spite of several explosive charges thrown here prior to opening this area to the public. The skier later reported that while hiking uphill he repeatedly “punched through the crust which was above the layer of weak snow at the bottom of the pack” giving him an increasingly uneasy feeling. We had some experience in dealing with depth hoar layers, as the winters of both 1973-74, and 74-75 had caused us considerable problems due to weak, early season snow conditions. But through a considerable amount of good luck and hard work, we managed to survive numerous difficulties and finished up both seasons with everyone accounted for. But this was a different situation entirely, the unusual weather conditions, had produced an unusually tricky snowpack, and all of our understanding and beliefs as to how snow behaves, was about to be severely shaken.
Before the unlucky skier reached the safety of lower angle terrain, he heard a loud “whump” felt the slope settle dramatically, and suddenly found himself being pulled downhill by most all of the snow that had been covering that slope. For him, there was nowhere to go but down, and down meant over a cliff, eventually landing on the slope below that also had released as a result of the impact of the snow falling from above. The event was witnessed by a ski patroller riding a chairlift a quarter mile away, and as soon as he could he sounded the alarm. Traveling to a reported avalanche is a bi-polar experience, on the one hand you fell the urgency to get there as quickly as you possible can, however you know you must proceed with at least some degree of caution because of the fact that one avalanche has occurred, and others might be lurking.
By the time the patrol got to the scene of the accident, they found the individual who had started the avalanche laying on the surface of the snow, alive, but with some serious leg injuries. Initially, there were no reports of any other skiers being involved, but as the avalanche had occurred in an open area, a thorough search effort was required. As it happened, a young, local skier, traversing the slope below where the avalanche started, was hit, carried into a stand of small trees, and buried. It had all happened so quickly, that the other members of his group who had been ahead of him, didn’t even know the avalanche had occurred, or that their friend was missing. Hearing reports of the avalanche when they arrived at the bottom of the mountain, and the fact that their friend was nowhere to be seen, prompted them to notify the patrol of the situation. Before the ski patrol dispatcher received notification, he was found. Out of prudent necessity, as well as the fact that skiing with an avalanche rescue beacon (or transceiver as they were called) was in those day’s a mark of ones frequent ventures into avalanche prone terrain, a significant number of skiers at Snowbird carried these devices with them regularly. Sparks (the victims nickname) and the infamous group of local skiers he hung out with, always skied with transceivers, and that’s how he was found. His beacon however must have had very weak batteries, as the signal it sent out was only detectable from about 25’ away in comparison to the usual distance of 100’ or more. Had his transceiver been working properly, he might have been found sooner, whether that would have made any difference in the outcome is unclear.
It was a sad day. Everything that we had worked so hard for over the past 5 years seemed to be of little consequence in the face of what had happened. Someone had died in an area that we had determined to be safe, and allowed the public to access. Family and friends were devastated, but so were we, even though we didn’t know him. It didn’t seem fair, but yet it had happened. My mentor Ray Lindquist (the “Eagle”) had told me a few years earlier, “something bad is bound to happen in a ski area like this, there is just too much we don’t know about avalanches. But even though it is inevitable that eventually lives may be lost, if you work as hard as you can, and believe that you have done your best to prevent it, when it does happen you can look at yourself in the mirror the next morning and go back to work.” I don’t know how much that statement helped at the time, but it’s something that over the years I have come to believe, and I’m glad it was someone like him that told me.
Many years have passed since the early days of Snowbird, and the world has changed in many ways; we now have snowboards, fat skis, climate change, high speed quad’s (chairlifts), and a widely held belief by the skiing public that all ski areas, regardless of the ridiculously steep and rugged terrain they contain, should be as “safe” as Disneyland. It’s an unfortunate fact that allowing resort skiers access to avalanche terrain will now and then result in accidents, and those accidents will occasionally result in injuries and possibly death. This is because what the “Eagle” said to me, years ago is still true, “there is just too much we don’t know about avalanches”. Nonetheless, ski areas still operate in potentially hazardous avalanche terrain, and in spite of all the challenges and risk, the safety record is remarkably good. That’s due to the fact that ski patrollers, like the men and women of the Snowbird Ski Patrol and their colleagues throughout the ski industry, throw themselves into harms way on a regular basis to make things as safe as possible for their guests, most of which have no idea as to what it takes to open complex avalanche-prone terrain by 9 a.m. every day.
So hats off to ski patrollers everywhere, may you continue to pursue your dreams in spectacularly beautiful mountain settings, appreciating the unique challenges you face, and enjoying the thrill and camaraderie your chosen profession provides, whether it lasts a lifetime or only a few exciting years. Although the world has changed, the feeling must be the same now as it was nearly 40 years ago when a few dirt-bags assembled at Snowbird and embarked upon what was to be a truly Great Adventure.