Avalanche chaos causes Cottonwood Canyon closures, strands thousands

Little Cottonwood Canyon is expected to remain closed to traffic until Thursday morning at the earliest. Alta and Snowbird visitors and staffers have been stuck since Sunday, during one of the longest interlodges on record.

(Utah Department of Transportation) This aerial photo shows an avalanche slide in the White Pines area of Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. The highway has been closed since Sunday night due to high and unpredictable avalanche danger and deep snow.

Day 3 of interlodge at a condo near Snowbird resort, and rations were running low.

David Cohen and his two teenage sons had dutifully packed two days-worth of surplus food, as they were directed to by the property management group that had rented them the condo for their spring break vacation. They knew a storm was coming and with it the threat of being interlodged — ordered to stay inside because of high avalanche risk. Yet, as the Utah Department of Transportation sent out the message Wednesday morning that State Route 210 through Little Cottonwood Canyon would be closed for an unprecedented fourth day, the food situation was looking dire.

Well, depending on the point of view.

“We have an extra thing of ice cream that we can eat for dinner if we want to have an ice cream dinner,” David Cohen said in a phone interview Wednesday from his condo near the Snowbird Lodge. “But we don’t have another dinner.”

The Cohens aren’t complaining, though. Neither seem to be most of the couple thousand other people who have been caught in an interlodge that has affected the entire canyon, including the Alta and Snowbird resorts, since Sunday night — making it one of the longest interlodges on record. They’re not airing their gripes on social media, anyway. And if they’re like David Cohen, they understand that greater dangers than a rumbling belly lurk outside their doors.

Utah Department of Transportation/contributed Utah Department of Transportation crews clear State Route 210 up Little Cottonwood Canyon on Wednesday, April 5, 2023. The highway has been closed since Sunday night due to high and unpredictable avalanche danger and deep snow.

“I know they’re working as hard as they possibly can. I do not fault any of the workers,” Cohen said. “This is unprecedented and they are doing amazing work to try and get everyone safely out.”

Unprecedented, UDOT spokesperson John Gleason acknowledged, is a word that’s been thrown about a lot in reference to snow and avalanches the past couple of seasons. Yet it’s not hyperbole when it comes to the effects of this past storm in both Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons — both of which were closed to traffic all day Wednesday.

Big Cottonwood was reopened Wednesday evening, officials announced. But Gleason said Little Cottonwood would likely not open until Thursday morning at the earliest.

The Utah Avalanche Center has classified all the mountains between Provo and Logan as being at a “High” avalanche risk — one step down from the almost never used “Extreme” rating. Gleason said the one UDOT supervisor who had worked in the canyons for decades told him the avalanche risk there now is the highest he’s seen it “by far.”

Last spring, the risk of avalanches rose after a large amount of wet snow fell on top of an unstable base. That increased the likelihood of a slide in areas already prone to avalanche. This year is more chaotic.

“The thing that’s a little bit different this year is just the amount of snow that we’ve had in the Cottonwoods,” Gleason said. “Slides that are coming down in areas that they haven’t come down.

“It’s the volume. It’s been relentless.”

This week’s storm even made avalanches an issue even in Big Cottonwood Canyon, which tends to be less steep and see fewer closures during a winter than its neighbor. It has been closed four times this season, Gleason said, compared to 32 times for Little Cottonwood Canyon. Yet after receiving 32 inches in two days and 70 in a week, according to Brighton Resort’s snow report, its mountainsides also began to slide. That prompted UDOT to close SR 190 around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and keep it closed all day Wednesday — something Brighton spokesperson Jared Winkler said he can’t recall seeing in his more than 20 years working at the resort.

“I know there were a lot of natural slides happening yesterday evening when people were driving home,” Winkler said. “They felt unsafe, and it was just kind of one of those glad-everybody-got-out-of-there scenarios.”

UDOT’s team has employed the howitzer cannons it has installed at both Alta and Snowbird as well as its mobile avalauncher cannon, and hand charges to bring down snow in the areas it anticipates could slide. It also has called in a Department of Public Safety helicopter to deploy explosives in areas too difficult to reach in both canyons.

Gleason said UDOT only has essential personnel working in the canyons because of the elevated and unpredictable avalanche risk. He did not have an estimate of how many people that included.

The Cohens, who live in Philadelphia, got to ski Monday morning while Snowbird was under “straight line interlodge.” That allows guests to ski and to go directly from building to building but otherwise not congregate outside. The resort went into full interlodge Monday night and even required some guests Wednesday to go into “max interlodge,” in which they must move to a building’s basement. In their days in lockdown, David Cohen said, the family has played a lot of card games, read and watched Netflix. They’ve also spent a lot of time staring out at the beautiful, fluffy snow accumulating outside their windows — snow they couldn’t actually touch, much less ski.

While acknowledging the family could be in much worse situations and was privileged to be at the resort to begin with, Cohen said being at a ski resort on a powder day and not being able to enjoy it is particularly agonizing.

“We are all looking out the window and longing to ski,” he said.

At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Cohens got the equivalent of a smorgasbord. Snowbird switched to straight line interlodge, meaning the 1,500 people stuck there could treat themselves to heaping piles of powder — perhaps followed by a dinner of ice cream.