They call it the Red Snake. This crimson serpent is the dread of all skiers and snowboarders in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and has a cruel tendency of only emerging on epic days when perfect Utah snow falls on the Wasatch. Overnight storms bring powder hounds to the canyon bottom in droves, yet what they seek is held at bay. Like a troll under a bridge, the Red Snake blocks all travelers trying to gain access. The Red Snake, of course, is the never ending line of tail lights formed by thousands of cars that slowly creep up the icy canyon road. Traffic accumulates from the closure of Highway 201, when UDOT shuts everything down to conduct avalanche control work. The irony is that the Red Snake is a consequence of our own protection. Despite this, we feel consumed by it as we sit in our cars, waiting for UDOT to open the road. We curse in frustration, desecrate UDOT’s name, and cry out, “why the hell is this taking so long?” The answer is that avalanches are the true monster here, and UDOT is the protector that keeps the “White Dragon” at bay.
Snow days mean we get to call in sick, or skip school and head to the mountains and play. But for the men and women at UDOT, their work begins before dawn. While we’re snuggled up in our warm, idling cars at the mouth of the canyon to intently watch the flashing lights of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s vehicle for any sign of movement, avalanche and snow removal crews are hard at work in the canyon’s cold, upper reaches. Most skiers and snowboarders don’t understand why it takes so long to open Little Cottonwood Canyon, or what an intricate, careful operation avalanche control work can be. It takes a small army to open the highway (and keep it that way) when snow is puking from the sky, yet their efforts often go unnoticed as we safely drive to Alta or Snowbird en-route to a sick powder day.
“Little Cottonwood Canyon has a very high risk of avalanche danger. If we are not very thorough in our job, the results can be close to catastrophic,” says Liam Fitzgerald, UDOT’s Highway Avalanche Safety Program Supervisor. He’s been on the front lines battling avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon for almost 40 years, and says keeping the canyon open on powder days could potentially put thousands of lives at risk. “Because of the density of traffic, because of the number of avalanche paths that affect the road, and how close the starting zones are to the road, if you open the road to the tune of 5 or 6 thousands vehicles, a small avalanche can come down, block the road, and now you have hundreds of vehicles sitting stationary under these other avalanche paths, and it does turn into a catastrophic situation very quickly.”
The decision to close the road begins with the 65-year-old Fitzgerald, as he monitors the weather and snow pack situation from his small office on the first floor of a nondescript building that squats on the southern slopes above the Town of Alta. In this threadbare avalanche command center, he sits at a computer and gathers data. The monitor illuminates his silver hair and face weathered by decades spent in harsh mountain elements. The walls are covered with maps, graphs, reports on clipboards, and aerial photos of Little Cottonwood Canyon’s slide paths where 160 or so targets are listed on charts. When Fitzgerald talks about his work controlling avalanches, and the dangers the canyon poses, he is quick to remind that Little Cottonwood Canyon is one of the most avalanche-prone roads in the country. He should know, as he’s been working in the canyon for 40 years. His experience began at Squaw Valley, California in 1968, after which he moved to Snowbird in the summer of ’71 to help construct the Aerial Tram. After that, he joined the ski patrol and quickly became the Snow Safety Director where he oversaw the avalanche program until 1998. He was then given his current position with UDOT.
“Little Cottonwood Canyon has the highest highway avalanche hazard index of any major road in the United States,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s the combination of the number of paths that affect the road, the frequency with which they hit the road, and the volume of traffic are the three things that makes this such a hazardous road,” Because of the monumental task of keeping the road clear and safe, many more agencies than just UDOT jump into the fray on snow days. “It’s a collaboration. UDOT couldn’t do this alone. It’s working with the ski resorts, with the Town of Alta, with the Forest Service, with County Sheriff – there’s a lot of people that make this thing work.”
After the canyon road closes, this collection of agencies spring into action. First, UDOT determines which avalanche start zones, or targets, they want to hit. Many factors go into this decision, including recent avalanche activity, wind speed and direction, amount of snow, slope angle, slope aspect and if any slide zones have been unruly in the past few days. All of this information is gathered before a single shot is fired. “It’s not just bang-bang then open the road,” Fitzgerald says. “We go through quite a mind-wrenching process trying to figure out if we want to let those 6,000 cars up here because of the consequences that if we haven’t done our job, or if we have underestimated the situation, it just turns into a really, really bad deal.”
After targets are identified, UDOT sends information to ski patrol teams at Alta and Snowbird. They are the ones who man the guns, each situated on high points in the resort boundaries. Little Cottonwood Canyon has four weapons: one 105mm Howitzer at Alta, a 105mm Howitzer and 105mm recoilless rifle at Snowbird, and a 75mm Howitzer on Pink Pine ridge down canyon. Surprisingly, Fitzgerald says aside from the Pink Pine gun, UDOT crews aren’t involved in the actual firing. “We don’t usually go on the weapons to fire them. It’s probably more important that we observe, so we can determine if the results that we’re getting matches what we feel we should be getting based on our avalanche hazard forecast. And then we’ll make a decision as to whether or not we want to open the road.”
Timing is everything however, as a delayed opening means both skiers and ski resorts start to get frustrated. UDOT tries to complete their work by no later than 8:30 in the morning, or else the situation can get really bad at the mouth of the canyon. But caving to the pressure of powder-hungry skiers and the resorts that sell those skiers expensive tickets could invite disaster. “Avalanches are a life threatening situation,” Fitzgerald says. “If we aren’t thorough with our job, then we would be very irresponsible to all these people. On the other hand, the financial well being of the resorts are at stake if we are too conservative. So it’s a very thin line that we’re asked to travel on, and we don’t really like that. We’re much more comfortable with a wider line because it’s such an inexact science.”
On a powder day, avalanches are one thing, but keeping the road clear of snow is another huge job that also falls on UDOT. The Region 2 Maintenance Operations Crew jumps into the fray at the first whiff of a falling snowflake, and drive their snow plows well before dawn in both Cottonwood Canyons. On a snow day, up to 15 bright-orange plows can be found in the canyons at one time, but if the roads close, things get dicey and only three trucks are allowed in the canyon at a time. “We’ll open the gates and go through, but on the way up, we’ll call all the sites so that we know we’re clear and haven’t been hit by an avalanche,” says George Priskos, UDOT’s Region 2 Maintenance Operations Supervisor. “Once we get on top, we get the okay to work certain sections of the canyons at certain times. We’ll work in between the shots, around the shots, and then we’ll proceed to get the road open as quick as we can so we can get the skiers up.”
The snow plow drivers are in constant contact with the avalanche team, so they know where there’s slide activity, what areas to avoid, and the timing of the weapon shots. The danger of being in the Cottonwoods can’t be understated, illustrated by the fact that the plow drivers wear avalanche beacons on snow days. Although it’s a rare occurrence, snow plows have been hit by avalanches before. “You learn to respect the canyon, because it can be awfully mean,” says Shawn Wright, a UDOT plow driver who was once buried inside his truck. While helping people get down Little Cottonwood Canyon road on a particularly dangerous night, an avalanche came down on top of him. “We’d stopped, and all of a sudden it was dark. It was a blanket of snow and when we finally did get out, I’d say it had lifted the vehicle about three feet off the ground, and it had overturned two other vehicles.” Luckily, nobody was hurt and Wright got out unscathed. “The avalanche hit the side and the roof. We were able to get out the other side, thank God. It’s something I don’t want to have happen again.”
Although snow burial on the highways almost never happen, avalanches do cover the road from time to time. According to Priskos, that’s when UDOT has to bring out the big snow removal machines. “In each canyon we have a grader, we have a blower, and we have a snowcat. The blower does most of the work. It’s neat to be inside the cab, just to watch.” Of course a frozen wall of snow dozens of feet deep takes time to remove, and pushes back the canyon’s opening. But for Priskos and the guys at UDOT, getting the road back open is the most gratifying part of the day. “In the end, it’s something everyone loves to see.”
Surprisingly, despite all the avalanche danger UDOT crews face in the Cottonwood Canyons, the biggest threat they encounter is powder-hungry skiers and snowboarders. “The amount of traffic that goes up and down those canyons, it’s unbelievable,” says plow driver, Kevin Morford. “They all have one thing on their minds, and that’s getting to the slopes. They don’t care about anything but that.” In fact, snow plows are involved in crashes all too frequently because of drivers attempting to pass. Each plow driver has a story to tell about being sideswiped, clipped, or watching vehicles slide off the highway. If there’s one thing Morford want everyone to know, it’s this: “Be patient. You’re going to get up there just as fast following us as if you end up in the creek someplace. So be patient and we’ll get you where you want to go.”
Once blasting stops, the roads are plowed, and the floodgates are opened, skiers and snowboarders get to drive up to their favorite resort and drown in powder heaven. But for UDOT, the work never really ends because as long as storms continue to roll in, guys like Liam Fitzgerald have to keep monitoring the avalanche hazard. From his small Alta office, a photo of several buildings buried and destroyed by avalanches hangs on the wall. Fitzgerald says the shot was taken one winter in the 1880s after a night of avalanche terror completely destroyed the Town of Alta. “Conditions are the same that caused those devastating avalanches in the 1800s, except for the fact that we now have artillery and can mitigate the hazard to some degree.” The picture is sober reminder of what could happen here if avalanches are left unchecked, and underscore the importance of UDOT’s rigorous control efforts. “This is a very unique place. I don’t know of anywhere in the world where there is as much of a challenge to carrying out avalanche control work as in this canyon.”
Considering the vast avalanche danger in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we’re lucky to have a Red Snake. As terribly frustrating as being trapped inside a car on a powder day can be, it helps to know that UDOT’s untiring efforts will get us to the resorts safe and alive to ride another day. The Red Snake always disappears eventually, and Fitzgerald hopes that everyone will stop, look at the big picture, and understand that the Red Snake is for the greater good.