Little Cottonwood Canyon finally opens, but for how long?

Skiers eager to get to Alta and Snowbird after nearly two weeks of road closures find ‘crazy’ amount of avalanche debris along SR 210

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon near the Lisa Falls trailhead, on Friday, April 14, 2023.

For the first time in nearly a week, skiers from the Salt Lake Valley and beyond could get their Alta Ski Area fix Friday. First, though, they had to pass through the eerie aftermath of one of the busiest stretches of avalanche activity Little Cottonwood Canyon has ever seen.

Trees and their remnants littered both sides of the road in places, as if an army of Paul Bunyans had marched through, chopping down or simply pushing over anything in their way. The branches and needles often mixed with piles of snow more than seven feet tall and churned like chunky mash potatoes, the spotless State Route 210 spitting them into helpings. Occasionally a yellow road sign — as well as the gate to the bypass road by Snowbird — lay on the shoulder, mangled either by snowplows or the force of wet slabs of snow crashing down a mountainside.

“There was a forest before,” Kristen Messenger of Salt Lake City said she remembers thinking while driving through the Tanner Gulch area, about halfway up the canyon. “And now there’s not.”

Hundreds of skiers like Messenger traveled SR 210 Friday, the first time in nearly a week and just the third time in the past 11 days that the Utah Department of Transportation has opened it to uphill traffic. Many said they wanted to take advantage of what might be a narrow window to ski Alta one more time before the resort is scheduled to end its season on April 23. Equally motivating, however, was their curiosity about what was left of the canyon after a barrage of avalanches had come crashing through.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon near the Lisa Falls trailhead, on Friday, April 14, 2023.

It was so impressive, so changed, that Tom Hudachko of Salt Lake City called his 19-year-old son and told him he needed to make the drive.

“I was like, ‘Just come up here. Just drive up the canyon and look at it,’” Hudachko said. “‘You’re 20 years old and this is probably a 100-year cycle. It’s crazy.’”

One of the most notable of the slides broke off of Mount Superior and rumbled across the road and onto Snowbird’s Chickadee trail. The avalanche occurred while skiers and snowboarders who were stranded at the resort because of the road closures were out skiing on the trail. That sent the resort into interlodge — meaning no one but rescue personnel could go outside — and prompted a search effort involving a probe line and avalanche dogs. After a couple of hours, ski patrol declared no one had been buried in the slide.

On Friday afternoon, the Malkemes, a family of snowboarders from Seattle, gathered at the top of the Chickadee lift to enjoy a few last runs together at Snowbird. The road closure had actually worked in their favor. They had booked a week at The Cliff Lodge and were able to arrive during last Saturday’s brief road opening and expected to be able to leave this Saturday without issue. In between, with the road closed, they basically had Snowbird — which was open every day except Thursday — all to themselves.

“We both grew up here and have lived here,” Brian Malkemes, 47, said, “and it’s something we’ve never gotten to experience: to have this mountain alone.”

For the most part the Malkemes said they weren’t worried about more slides coming into the resort. However, Brian admitted to getting a knot in his stomach one day while riding up the Peruvian chair after he had left his 8-year-old daughter, Charlie, on her own to make laps on her snowboard down Chickadee.

“About halfway up, I did go, ‘Am I a bad parent?’” Malkemes said. “But in reality, no. Because I’ve watched this hill [on Mount Superior] fall apart over this past week, and there’s nothing left. [And] I trust UDOT, I trust the resort. If they open this run up, I trust my daughter can ride on it.”

Georgie Knox, a 27-year-old Salt Lake City resident and Alta ski team member, said reminders of how much effort went into opening SR 210 were all over the canyon. She said she makes the drive up the canyon about five times a week during the winter. None of them have been like this one.

“I wish I was a passenger,” she said. “Really, just looking up all of those chutes, it’s just crazy. And the amount of snow removal that they’ve had to do in the past week. … The amount of work that they’ve had to put in to open things up, it’s been pretty remarkable. Like, this was such a crazy reminder of how much snow has really fallen.”

Not only has Alta has gotten more snow than any other ski area in North America this winter, last month it snapped its all-time record for snowfall in a season (748 inches in 1981-82). The precipitation has kept coming since then, however, including a surprise flurry of flakes Friday afternoon. By the end of the day, Alta’s season total was 878 inches. The forecasting site OpenSnow.com predicts another 20 inches within the next 10 days, which could put the resort near the unheard-of 900-inch mark.

All that snow began to melt during this week’s heat wave but froze again Thursday and Friday. While that cold snap helped set the snow, lower the avalanche risk and open the canyon, it did nothing for ski conditions. Even the fresh coat of snow couldn’t make up for the ice sheet underneath.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers make some turns at Alta Ski Resort, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

Messenger and her skiing partner only went down one run before deciding to head home.

“The skiing,” she said, “it’s not good.”

Still, the drive made up for that, as did the chance to get on the mountain one more time before it closes. Alta and Snowbird will both be open Saturday, but another heat wave is expected Sunday, which could lead UDOT to close the canyon again as a safety measure.

Alta spokesperson Andria Huskinson said the forecast looks favorable for a few more days of skiing before the lifts stop turning. After spending most of last week cut off from the rest of the world, however, management is keeping in touch with UDOT and taking it a day at a time.

“It’s supposed to get warm again Sunday-Monday, and then it’s going to get cold again,” Huskinson said. “So honestly, it’s just a day-by-day thing it seems at this point.”

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