Avalanches and an egg run: What was it like to be trapped in Little Cottonwood Canyon?

UDOT workers felt urgency to open SR 210 so stranded skiers could get home.

(Dave Fields | Snowbird) Snowbird employees dig out the resort during the first week of interlodge at the resort in April 2023. UDOT shut down State Route 210 through Little Cottonwood Canyon for the better part of two weeks because of the risk of avalanches crossing the road.

The powder cloud towering over the pine trees told Steven Clark all he thought he needed to know. The avalanche that had just rumbled down the Maybird area of Little Cottonwood Canyon had been substantial and, in addition to burying a loader, it had blocked the highway leading further up the canyon toward the Snowbird ski and snowboard resort. Clark and his five colleagues, who were deployed in the canyon the night of April 4 by the Utah Department of Transportation to try to mitigate the risk of avalanches crossing State Route 210, needed to turn around.

Heading back down to the mouth of the canyon, though, Clark, who is UDOT’s avalanche program manager, saw shards of tree trunks, pine boughs, big rocks and other evidence of avalanches in places where he wouldn’t typically see slides. It became clear he might not have the full picture.

“I think that was the point when I realized, ‘Whoa, this situation is getting a little bit out of hand,’” Clark recalled. “That’s typically how these avalanche events happen: They all happen faster and bigger than you tend to think they’re going to happen.

“[We] needed to try and get out of the canyon as fast as we could.”

Except there was a problem. Another avalanche had already broken off and crossed the road below them. Clark estimated it was 8 to 10 feet deep and at least 100 feet wide. They were trapped.

UDOT A loader is partially buried under the snow and debris from an avalanche in the Maybird area of Little Cottonwood Canyon on April 4, 2023.

Though their situation wasn’t nearly as dire, the residents and ski resort guests and other workers who were caught in the canyon during the first two weeks of April can sympathize. A heavy snowfall followed by a sudden heat wave caused avalanches to besiege SR 210 and forced UDOT to cut off travel in the canyon during most of the first two weeks of April. Twice it ordered complete shutdowns, one stretching across five days and another across three. The closures stranded more than 1,350 people in the canyon, blocked skiers and snowboarders from patronizing Snowbird and the Alta Ski Area and cost UDOT roughly $200,000 in labor and equipment to clear up.

Even those who were frustrated by the closures understood them. Nature is unpredictable, especially in a winter that delivered more snow than the Wasatch Mountains have ever seen, and lives were on the line. That didn’t make it any easier for those on the inside.

“There’s no upside to it,” Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager, said of the closures. “Guests can’t come here to ski. Employees can’t come to work. And it really brings everything to a screeching halt.”

Here is what it looked like on the inside.

All your eggs in a basket

The window was small but welcome. After days of closures, UDOT said it could open SR 210 for two hours for a truck from Snowbird to make a supply run.

What did the resort need? Everything.

A delivery truck hadn’t come through in at least a week. General Gritts, the commissary inside the Snowbird Center, looked as though it had been looted. Beer and bread had been sold out for days and some desperate parents would likely have paid the price of a lift ticket for a pack of diapers. Cooks at the few restaurants that were open were testing the limits of their creativity.

But there were limits to what Snowbird could get during this supply dash. It had to be something versatile, portable and quickly acquired. It apparently had to be eggs.

“They bought every carton of eggs sold at Smith’s on Bengal Boulevard,” Fields said.

More than 850 people ended up trapped at Snowbird for at least five days, and some even longer. UDOT first closed the canyon the morning of April 2 because of a storm that would drop 67 inches in the span of 48 hours. At the time, the agency advised that road closures could extend from that Sunday until Wednesday. Meanwhile, Snowbird and the property management companies overseeing nearby condos warned their guests that an interlodge — an order to stay indoors — could be imminent and advised them to bring enough food to last them at least two days.

(Dave Fields | Snowbird) A worker carts in rations during a days-long interlodge at Snowbird ski area in April 2023.

Two days came and went. Then a third and a fourth and a fifth, making it the longest interlodge Fields said he’s seen in nearly three decades at the resort. Aside from concerns about basic supplies, people were becoming stir crazy. A person can take only so many games of cards or episodes of “Succession” before needing a break. And while it technically might have been a vacation at a ski resort, it wasn’t the getaway many of the guests had envisioned. Fresh powder abounded, but the interlodge order kept them from dipping even a toe out into it. Plus, depending on who they booked through, they could be asked to pay for anywhere between all or none of their extra nights of lodging — even though they had nowhere else to go.

It was certainly no vacation for the 170 or so Snowbird employees — from retail workers to lift operators to lodge staff to ski patrol — who got stuck on the mountain. While management organized video game tournaments and, according to Fields, kept them well-fed, they still had to work and often were asked to pull double shifts.

“You used to look forward to vacations. And then you used to look forward to days off,” Fields said. “And now up here in Little Cottonwood Canyon, we’re just looking forward to sleeping in our own beds.”

That coin had another side, though. While those employees were wondering when they could go home, those who couldn’t get up the canyon to work were wondering how they were going to make rent. Those concerns became even more urgent when, after four days of allowing but sharply limiting travel in the canyon, UDOT closed SR 210 again from April 11-13. Fields said Snowbird worked with employees to ensure they would still get at least a partial paycheck.

When the weather lifted, so did the interlodge order. The road closure stayed put, however, as the threat became the more unpredictable “wet avalanches.” That left the resort managers with a conundrum. They had the staff and snow to open, but no one to open for besides the stranded guests, off-duty employees and themselves. That, both Fields and Alta general manager Mike Maughan decided, was enough.

Maughan said he saw the “country club” days partly as a mental health initiative.

(Dave Fields | Snowbird) A tram operator at Snowbird resort waits out a multi-day interlodge in April 2023.

“Financially it doesn’t make a lot of sense to run a ski area for 300 to 500 people,” Maughan said. “This is kind of a community outreach, a way to keep everybody sane and doing something rather than being cooped up and stir crazy during those testing times.”

Fields, who is a strong proponent of building a gondola up Little Cottonwood Canyon to help alleviate its traffic congestion, said opening Snowbird wouldn’t have even been a question with a gondola in place. He believes it would have also allowed supplies to be delivered quicker and guests to leave earlier.

Since they were stuck there, though, he opted to let them ski.

“If we can ski, we’re going to go ski. That’s what we do,” Fields said. “The guests want to go ski. Our employees want to go ski. I want to go ski. If you’re going to be stuck up in the canyon for eight of 11 nights, you might as well go enjoy some good skiing.”

Fresh powder, sunshine and no lift lines might have been enough for people to forget why they were stuck at the resort to begin with, at least for a while. But on April 6, the canyon sent a reminder.

That afternoon, a chunk of the lower part of Mount Superior the size of an office building broke off and slid across the road and onto the Chickadee trail, one of Snowbird’s most popular beginner runs. Ski patrol searched for several hours for anyone who may have been buried on the trail, which was open that day, but eventually declared no one was missing.

The slide was an eye-opener for skiers at the resort. For UDOT workers, though, it was just one more mess to clean up — more than 30 slides would cross the highway during that two-week span — and one of many reminders of how avalanche-prone Little Cottonwood Canyon can be.

“I think it exposed how vulnerable that place is to a lot of real hazards,” said Clark, the UDOT avalanche program manager, “how vulnerable we as human workers are to real hazards.”

A brush with danger

While the skiers and snowboarders were playing yet another hand of Go Fish or worrying about whether they’d be home in time to give that big presentation, a couple handfuls of UDOT workers were plowing roads, chopping up fallen trees and tossing hand charges in their effort to get SR 210 open.

Kendall Draney, a UDOT district engineer, estimates the agency had 14 people working in the canyon basically nonstop, not to mention the police patrols at the mouth and those working behind the scenes. Six of those in the canyon worked on Clark’s avalanche mitigation team. They employed old Korean War-era howitzers, a smaller and more mobile avalauncher, Remote Avalanche Control systems like Wyssen towers and dynamite charges thrown by hand or from a helicopter to force unstable areas to slide. Then a crew of eight from the maintenance shed would come in with their two bulldozers, a loader, a grater, multiple snowplows, an industrial-sized snow blower and chainsaws to try to clear a path through the debris.

If it was a less arterial road, the crew might have just closed off the canyon for a few weeks and then come back once it had finished throwing its tantrum. Instead, they were pinched between the demand for access to the resorts and the onus to evacuate those who were stranded as quickly as possible.

“We all feel the pressure of, like, ‘We need to restore access to this place,’” Clark said. “We realize that people are literally trapped in there. No one was starving and no one was homeless, but we realized that there is pressure to make the right decision but then also to try and restore access as soon as reasonably possible. And that’s probably what particularly made this event hard.”

So workers put in 16-hour days, clearing paths through house-high drifts only to see them fill in again when conditions shifted.

Clark had been up before dawn the day he and five others found themselves caught between two slides. It was after dark when they started back down the canyon and the road had begun to ice over, making it slow going. A bulldozer led the way, followed by four trucks.

The radio crackled as the bulldozer driver informed the others that they were trapped. Moments later, it sounded like their trucks were being pummeled by hail. Clark said he couldn’t see the headlights of the truck in front of him and his own suddenly had an inch of snow stacked atop it.

It wasn’t an abrupt storm. It was the powder cloud from yet another avalanche. And they didn’t know if the bulk of the slide was headed their way.

“Often you’ll get hit by a powder cloud before you get hit by the actual flowing debris,” Clark said. “So it was just a very intense second of realizing we are definitely in the run out of these avalanche paths. Just because that avalanche just happened doesn’t mean another avalanche isn’t going to come down.”

They had to get out and the only way to do that was to dig a hole through the debris. So Clark and the rest of the crew moved their trucks into what they believed to be a fairly safe zone. Then for more than an hour they watched as the bulldozer driver, who remained in the avalanche path, expertly carved out a route to the other side.

They passed through a few more avalanche zones, which they crossed one by one, before they reached the mouth of the canyon.

“It felt like a pretty real sigh of relief that we all made it out of there,” Clark said. “It definitely felt like we had just gotten very lucky.”

UDOT A UDOT worker stands in front of a slide in the Seven Turns avalanche path that crossed State Route 210 through Little Cottonwood Canyon on April 13, 2023. The agency had to close the canyon completely for eight days in an 11-day stretch at the beginning of April 2023 because of high avalanche danger.

They had little time to count their stars, though. By then it was after midnight. They’d all be back at the canyon the next morning at 5, and the next, and the next.

Two days after that ordeal, UDOT opened the highway to both uphill and downhill traffic in the early mornings and late evenings, allowing those who were trapped to escape. It would be another 10 days, however, before it opened fully.

The work in the canyon isn’t done, though. Draney, the UDOT engineer, pictures more avalanches and more closures in the future.

“We still could have avalanche risk because of the heat up and we’ve been getting a little bit of snow these last few days and it’s just building more weak layers,” Draney said. “There’s still the risk of avalanches occurring over the coming months.

“We’re not out of it in these canyons.”

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