Ski-ready snow turns into a traffic hell in Utah’s canyons

The weather gods smiled on Utah skiers last week with a Thanksgiving storm that blessed the season openers at three Cottonwood Canyon ski resorts with Champagne powder that could be measured in feet.

But the same storm cycle made for a devilishly dicey drive down those canyons Friday afternoon and evening, with numerous vehicles sliding off the roads, including a Utah Transit Authority bus and a food-delivery truck, according to the Unified Police Department.

Anyone who waited until after about 2 p.m. to head home spent four to five hours braking, slipping, crawling and white-knuckling in traffic. It didn’t matter what you drove or if you carpooled or took the bus; you were stuck, staring at the “red snake” of taillights winding toward the Salt Lake Valley.

Last weekend offered an auspicious start to the ski season, yet also a reminder that transportation solutions for Little and Big Cottonwood canyons are desperately needed — lest Utah’s reputation as a world-class ski destination lose its edge.

[Read more: UDOT outlines traffic vision for Little Cottonwood Canyon, but critics worry that agency is wearing blinders]

The resorts themselves, particularly Solitude, are taking bigger steps to encourage their skiers and staffers to carpool and ride the bus in an effort to reduce vehicular traffic in the narrow, avalanche-prone canyons.

But the car count is only half the story. Cottonwood traffic snarls often stem more from drivers’ lack of proper tires and experience, coupled with weather conditions that slow driving to a standstill and render road surfaces undrivable for two-wheel-drive vehicles whose tires lack aggressive traction.

“It was a mixture of all the people and the mountain of snow that couldn’t be removed fast enough,” Unified Sgt. James Blanton said Monday. Friday’s storm arrived at the optimum time to cause the most havoc. Dropping temperatures turned the pavement icy, then snow piled on that as skiers headed down the canyons. Even without the countless slide-offs, getting out is always slow going in such conditions.

(Suzanne Paylor | The Salt Lake Tribune) Motorists have trouble driving in Big Cottonwood Canyon during a storm Friday, Nov. 29, 2019.

The Utah Department of Transportation is preparing a traffic management plan for Little Cottonwood Canyon that aims to help prevent the gridlock that has become the norm on snowy weekends, but it won’t be implemented for at least a few years, and that’s assuming it wins approval.

While the plan’s main thrust explores road improvements, including avalanche sheds and wider pavement in places, UDOT is also looking at major transit infrastructure — such as a railway and an areal tramway — that would eliminate the need to drive to ski resorts.

For now, UTA has boosted bus service this winter. But buses can’t move many people if the traffic is clogged.

“The responsibility is on the driver to make sure they have the proper tread and the vehicle is equipped for those conditions. On Friday, we saw far too many people who shouldn’t have been in the canyon,” UDOT spokesman John Gleason said. “If you are stuck in traffic, the snowplows are stuck as well. When the snow is falling a couple of inches an hour, it doesn’t take much to pile up. We had to tow out a lot of vehicles.”

[Read more: After responding to nearly 600 accidents over five days, Utah troopers remind motorists to slow down in bad weather]

Police say is not practical to inspect vehicles for proper tires on busy powder days. Past attempts just created gridlock in nearby neighborhoods.

“If we were to stop every car and do a spot check, we would never get half the people up the canyon in the entire day,” Blanton said, “and we would have such a backup at the mouth of the canyons, it would be massive.”

This winter, UDOT implemented revised traction laws for two-wheel-drive vehicles on snow-prone canyon roads, like those climbing out of the Wasatch Front. Previously, drivers needed to equip their vehicles with dedicated snow tires or carry chains or some other traction device, regardless of the actual driving conditions.

This year, the rule applies only when the conditions warrant, and it’s not enough to just carry traction devices. They have to be on the wheels, explained Glenn Blackwelder, UDOT’s operations engineer for traffic and safety.

The idea behind the rule change was to align the traction requirements with how they are enforced, Blackwelder said. There is no reason to be equipped with snow tires if the road is dry and and temperatures are warm.

“In bad weather, [however,] you need to have the right equipment,” Blackwelder said. “Chains are inexpensive but a pain to install.”

Absent chains, tires must feature a symbol on the sidewall depicting a snowflake inside a three-peaked mountain, indicating they meet UDOT’s traction requirements.

UDOT notifies motorists of the traction requirement with large signs mounted at the entrances to the canyons and the resort exits. When the lights on the signs are flashing, the rule is in effect.

On Friday, UDOT turned the lights off during the day after the roads were cleared, indicating it was lawful for two-wheel-drive vehicles to head up to the Cottonwood ski areas without snow tires or chains — even though a big dump was forecast to hit that afternoon.

That bothered UPD’s Blanton, who wonders if the decision to deactivate the lights invited unequipped motorists to enter the canyons, only to get stuck when the weather turned severe.

“When we know [snowy] weather is coming on, we should keep those restrictions,” Blanton said. “They don’t want to give people the false idea they don’t need chains when the roads are nice. We always get those storms.”

UDOT is hesitant to require motorists to chain up their tires if extra traction is not needed.

“That ruins the road, it ruins their vehicle and it ruins the traction device,” said Jake Brown, who supervises UDOT roadway operations in the Cottonwoods. “We are careful when we put that rule in place. It’s only for severe conditions.”

Still, those traveling in the canyons during winter should carry chains to be safe.

“We want to encourage people to go to the Cottonwood canyons," Brown said, “but they have to be prepared to negotiate winter driving conditions."

Those up in the canyon without chains or proper tires when severe weather strikes are encouraged to stay put.

"If the chain law is in effect, shelter in place until [the road] clears out. That is always an option," Blackwelder said. "Once it stops snowing, [UDOT crews] work hard to get it out of chain restriction as soon as possible."

UDOT posts frequent updates on a Twitter feed dedicated to the Cottonwood canyons.

Skiers are welcome to wait out risky road conditions at Solitude’s Thirsty Squirrel and other restaurants, which are open until 9 p.m. weekdays, and 10 p.m. Friday through Sunday, according to spokeswoman Sara Huey.

“We saw some of that Friday,” Huey said. “In an overnight situation, we have lodging on-site if there are vacancies.”

In a move to get more of its skiers on buses, Solitude began charging to park this season. Huey said UTA bus ridership in Big Cottonwood Canyon showed a clear increase over last year for opening weekend.

“We are using every tool at our disposal to address those concerns. Our efforts are focused primarily to reduce number of cars and promote bus ridership,” Huey said. “It is hoped these steps will inspire our partners, including UTA and the nonprofit groups and other resorts, to take action within their sphere of influence.”

The Snowbird Center’s second floor at the Little Cottonwood resort is also good place to hunker down while roads are being cleared.

“We have a finite amount of space for overnight parking,” Snowbird spokesman Brian Brown said. “You have to be careful not to leave your vehicle in a place where it would have to be moved to do avalanche mitigation.”

He encouraged skiers with four-wheel-drive vehicles to use the Cottonwood resorts’ ride-share app to connect with people who need a lift to the resorts.

“If you drive a two-wheel-drive vehicle and there is snow in the forecast, I would beg people to look at the expanded UTA bus schedule,” Brown said. “The opportunities to ride the bus have never been greater.”

Resort pass holders ride for free, but the $9 round-trip bus fare is still a bargain if it spares you the hassle of pulling a car out of the snow and the citation that could go with sliding off the road.