Skiers at Alta, Snowbird stranded by unusual midday interlodge

A 300-foot wide avalanche that crossed State Route 210 near one of the Snowbird entries triggered the closure.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Valley from Alta ski resort, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. A naturally triggered avalanche that crossed State Route 210 near Snowbird caused the entire Little Cottonwood Canyon to go into a rare mid-day interlodge on Friday, March 24, 2023.

Skiers and snowboarders at Snowbird and Alta Ski Area were required to remain inside lodges and shelters for several hours Friday afternoon after an avalanche estimated to be 100 yards across slid across State Highway 210 near one of the entries into Snowbird.

Utah Department of Transportation spokesperson Mitch Shaw said he has not received any injury reports from the avalanche, which slid toward Entry 1 at Snowbird. UDOT worked for more than five hours to clear the road and open it up for people to get out of the canyon. The interlodge order was lifted about 6:45 p.m., but UDOT planned to close the highway again at 10 p.m. for further avalanche mitigation.

“We have safety obviously in mind,” Shaw said Friday evening. “Those people that are stuck up there, that’s a huge inconvenience for them. But we’d rather have people be stuck for a couple hours than have a serious injury or death. Obviously we want to avoid that at all costs.”

Residents of the Hellgate area, located between Alta and Snowbird, were required to interlodge at 11:21 a.m., according to the Alta Central account on Twitter, which disseminates “public safety, road and interlodge information” for the Town of Alta. People within the Town of Alta, including the ski area, were ordered into interlodge by Town of Alta Marshal Mike Morey at 2:10 p.m., according to the account. Morey later tweeted that about 1,160 people were “sheltered in the base area facilities in Alta.”

Alta spokesperson Andria Huskinson said that ski area at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon had received 16 inches of snow in 12 hours as of 3 p.m. Friday and was experiencing sudden, gusting winds that afternoon.

Interlodges are a fairly common occurrence at Alta, which has one of the highest average snowfall levels of any resort in North America. In 2021, the town experienced its longest ever interlodge, which lasted 60 hours. Still, having one called in the middle of the day is unusual, Huskinson said. In fact, she said that in 29 years of working at Alta, this was the first time she had to interlodge.

“This is definitely an unusual circumstance, I can say that,” Shaw said, “especially for this time of the year.”

During interlodge, everyone in an affected area must seek shelter in a permanent structure. No one is allowed outside until the interlodge is called off.

Alta visitors were directed to find safety in one of the town’s lodges, including the Goldminer’s Daughter, the Alta Lodge, the Rustler Lodge, the Snowpine Lodge, the Peruvian and the Albion day lodge.

“We weren’t, like, jam packed to the gills today, and I think a lot of people left before the midday closure” of the highway, Huskinson said. “But we definitely had a good amount of people here.”

The Utah Department of Transportation had announced Friday morning around 10 a.m. — prior to the slide — that it would close SR 210 to uphill traffic at noon and downhill traffic at 1 p.m. to perform avalanche mitigation. It ended up closing traffic both ways around 12:30 p.m.

The Utah Avalanche Center said avalanche danger for the Salt Lake area on Friday was “considerable,” one of its highest designations. Its forecast said the danger could rise to high “if forecasted snowfall amounts pan out.”

Jim Steenburgh, a University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences and an avid skier, said ultrasonic sensors mounted at Alta showed the resort got a lot of snow in very little time. He said the sensors showed that between noon and 1 p.m., the depth of new snow doubled from 5 to 10 inches and that it was at a foot by 2 p.m.

Another couple of hours like that, and Alta will surpass its all-time record for snowfall in a season. That record is 748 inches, set in 1981-82. As of 3 pm. Friday, the resort had 738 inches on the season.