Travel Stories

Utah Snow: Too Much Of A Good Thing?


Words: Aaron Jacobs
Photos: Will Wissman

As snowboarders – and particularly British snowboarders living hundreds of miles from the mountains – we are often shuttled to our chosen resort on a package holiday conveyor belt. With a few short days in which to pack all the riding we can, we’re often too focused on the next run to pay much attention to the history of the town or the way the place gets managed. As long as the lifts run smoothly and nothing has gone drastically wrong in the way of accidents, the guys in red and yellow kind of fade into the background. Yet at any given mountain there’s a whole crew of locals who work day-in, day-out to patrol the area and make it safe for your visit. Aaron Jacobs took a trip to one small resort in North America to find out more about their jobs, and the way in which the local geography of a ski area adds unique challenges to the role.

It took less than thirty minutes to cross the flat expanse of suburban sprawl between the Salt Lake City airport and nebulose crags of the Wasatch Range. The van hugged the pitching earth beneath us as we crossed the seamless transition from Salt Lake Valley’s residential tracts into the vertical hollows of Little Cottonwood Canyon.

The gray threads of dying roadside snow at the mouth of the tunnel told an entirely different story to the overstuffed pillows of powder on the roofs and bonnets of downhill traffic. As we climbed further up and into the canyon, we passed road signs identifying avalanche hazards: Tanner’s Slide Path — No Parking; Snow Avalanche Area — Next 2 Miles. With more than 30 major avalanche paths converging on only nine miles of highway, Little Cottonwood Canyon Road earns the highest avalanche hazard rating of any road in North America. The same abundance of dry, low-density snow and steep terrain that make the road so sketchy also make it well worth the risk.

Little Cottonwood Canyon Road is the only way to get to Snowbird Ski Area, a massive tangle of bottomless chutes and chiseled spines, wooded steeps and gaping bowls deep in the nitty-gritty of Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Forty minutes after picking me up at the airport, the van dropped me off outside one of the stout, concrete buildings at Snowbird’s base.

My fifth floor room at Cliff Lodge, the largest of the resort’s four slopeside lodges, faced directly out onto the snowy folds below the double-black-diamond heights of Peruvian Gulch. The silver shimmer filled the panoramic windows, and even though the chairlifts would not open for weeks, skiers and riders were taking advantage of the cable car’s year-round weekend service to get up the hill and do curvy laps in the shallow, mid-October snowpack.

Utah is the only state in the United States with a picture of a skier on its license plate. The plates, standard issue since 1985, also say “Ski Utah” and bear the state’s slogan, “Greatest Snow on Earth.” It was a clever way to market Utah’s biggest source of tourism revenue — skiing and snowboarding — while simultaneously making a bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. But there is science behind the claim.

After drying out over the dry Nevada desert, cold air and storm systems from the Pacific Northwest pass over Utah’s Salt Lake. The relative warmth of the lake adds lift and increases precipitation, and the lake’s salinity prevents freezing. When the resulting air meets the drastic vertical rise of the Wasatch Range, winter storms unload massive amounts of dry, fluffy snow. In little Cottonwood Canyon, the process — known as the Great Salt Lake effect — is intensified as the box canyon holds the storms in place; the heavy snowfall can last for days. Measured from the mid-mountain weather station, Snowbird averages over 500 inches — that’s 12.7 metres — of snowfall a year, while twenty-five miles away, Salt Lake City’s average annual is just 62 inches/1.5 metres. In November 2001, Snowbird received 100 inches of snow in 100 hours, or eight feet in four days. More recently, in March ‘07, while many of us over in Europe were swapping global warming theories and stumbling around in rotten snow, Snowbird was blasted with 70 inches in seven days.

Since opening for business in 1971 with three lifts, a cable car, a single lodge and a small complex at its base, Snowbird has expanded constantly to make the best use of the quality weather and terrain. In 2000, expansion into east-facing Mineral Basin added five hundred acres of rideable terrain to the resort. Two years later, further expansion made it possible to link Snowbird to neighbouring Alta for a combined skiable area of 6,000 acres. Every year since, Skiing Magazine has named Alta-Snowbird the number one U.S. ski resort, but the combined ticket is worthless to me – Alta remains one of four American resorts that doesn’t allow snowboarding. Ironically, as an invaluable testing ground for Dimitrije Milovich’s pioneering ‘Winterstick’, Alta actually allowed snowboarding before snowboarding even existed!

In addition to 2,500 acres of steep, challenging inbounds terrain, Snowbird maintains an ‘open-boundary policy’. So while liability concerns prompt most American ski areas to prohibit entering the backcountry from lift-served terrain, Snowbird allows access to the unchecked depths of Wasatch-Cache National Forest through 125 gates. Most of the gates can be opened and closed at the discretion of the snow safety department; two remain permanently open. With a seemingly endless supply of powder and nearly 1000 metres of vertical rise, Snowbird is a colossal playground. She also has the honor — along with Telluride in Colorado and Jackson Hole in Wyoming — of being classified a ‘Class A’ avalanche area.

To understand this region’s long history of bad blood between man and snow – not to mention why I was visiting the place in October – you have to go right back to the start. Brigham Young and the first Mormon pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and soon scouts were sent into the adjacent canyons in search of timber. Following the discovery of silver deposits in 1864, and assisted by the completion of the transcontinental railroad, mining camps and thousands of prospectors joined the canyon’s logging mills, and the town of Alta was established at the top of the canyon. The treeless south facing slopes presented an immediate threat to canyon dwellers, and throughout the 1870s and ‘80s, continued deforestation weakened the defenses of the north-facing slopes as well; soon avalanches ravaged the canyon from all sides, tearing out much of the remaining vegetation and repeatedly demolishing telegraph poles, railroad sheds, mining facilities and homes. On March 11, 1884, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 143 people had been killed by avalanches in the 14 years since the mines opened at Alta.

As the silver reserves dried up, the canyon was vacated by all but a few hopeful miners. At its peak, Alta was a boomtown of 8,000 people, seven restaurants, two schools, four doctors, three breweries, twenty-six saloons and even a Chinatown. By 1887, one building remained in a sea of avalanche debris. Eleven years later, an avalanche with a crown fracture four miles wide became the canyon’s largest slide ever, a record that still stands.

Following a second, short-lived silver boom just after the turn of the century, the next major resource drawing waves of people into Little Cottonwood Canyon was the snow itself. Prompted by skiing’s rising popularity in the 1930’s, local landowners, including Alta’s self-appointed mayor, sold their property to the Forest Service for the development of a recreational skiing area. A chairlift was eventually constructed out of retired mining parts, and when Alta Ski Area opened in 1938 lift passes were priced at $1.50, and single rides went for 25 cents.

The Forest Service was immediately faced with the burden of reconciling its policy of keeping the land accessible and safe for public use with the canyon’s harsh, unpredictable disposition. The result was that Alta became the site of North America’s first official avalanche study centre. In the late ‘40s, having observed the use of artillery to trigger avalanches for both offensive and defensive warfare while serving with the 10th Mountain Division in WWII, Alta snow ranger Monty Atwater began experimenting with explosives and studying the avalanches around him. Atwater was soon joined by glaciologist Edward LaChapelle, who brought methods he’d learnt during a year’s study at the Avalanche Institute in Davos, Switzerland. LaChapelle’s dog, Cola, became the first dog used for avalanche rescue in the U.S.

The snow study program that developed in Little Cottonwood Canyon evolved into a national program, the National Avalanche School, and it was this annual event – the legacy of 150 years of avy carnage – that had brought me out to Snowbird in October… without a snowboard.

The misery of watching dudes carve long, silver lines on the empty terrain outside my window waned throughout the afternoon as the white blanket of pre-season snow became punctuated with rocks. Besides, beginning on Monday morning, lectures, slide shows and workshops would have me confined to the fluorescent sterility of the hotel from 8am until well into the evening.

Despite the long hours, the overwhelming load of information, and scores of complex math equations and weather terminology to memorise, I was stoked to be a student at the oldest and most respected avalanche school in America, learning about snow from the continent’s all-star avy hunters and snow geeks. On Thursday morning we had two lectures on rescue fundamentals and technology. After a short break, Dean Cardinale, Snowbird’s assistant director of snow safety, gave a presentation on training and handling avalanche rescue dogs. In the months running up to the course, as I’d worked through the required reading, I must admit I’d found the sections about dogs particularly irritating. There were plenty of topics that didn’t have much practical application for me, but nothing seemed more ridiculous than having to read about puppy selection, scent mechanics and crate training, when I all I wanted to learn was how to carve massive lines in deep pow and not die.

Now, I’m still not looking to find myself a puppy with an impressive attention span and begin a career as a dog handler, but I was spellbound by Dean’s talk about the intricacies of training and using dogs to locate buried avalanche victims. When it comes to finding a buried person, a single dog team is as effective as several hundred people with probes. To receive the ‘Level A’ certification required to respond to backcountry emergencies, a dog must pass a test in which two people and several loose pieces of clothing are buried between three and six feet deep in a simulated avalanche site at least 100 yards wide and 100 yards long. The dog must find both subjects and exhibit clear body language within twenty minutes and remain undistracted by nearby people and noises.

As is the case whenever a buried victim cannot be located immediately and without outside assistance, it is likely that the victim will be deceased by the time a dog team arrives at the scene. Nonetheless, trained dog teams make it possible to recover the body without sending large search parties into dangerous terrain, or forcing the victim’s family to wait until the spring thaw. Swiss statistics suggest that rescue dogs successfully locate the buried victim in eight out of every ten incidents they respond to. When a rescue dog is unable to locate a victim, it’s often due to the carelessness of humans at the rescue site. That means: don’t spit or piss near an active search site, and certainly don’t start tossing tennis balls around.

Three weeks later, I returned to Snowbird to learn more about the mountain I’d only glimpsed, and — hopefully — to poach a few turns in the final days before the lifts open and the crowds arrive.

Since my initial visit, the canyon received only modest patters of new snow, and October’s leftovers had settled and thinned. Although the base would have been adequate to open the resort at many mountains, Snowbird’s rocky terrain requires thicker coverage; I would not be carving any turns. I arranged instead to have dinner with Dean Cardinale, Snowbird’s avalanche pro who’d spoken about rescue dogs. I hadn’t actually met Dean, and I’d completely forgotten what he looked like – but of all the people scattered around the hotel lobby, only one was accompanied by a German Shepherd in a ski patrol vest. I introduced myself to Dean, and he introduced me to Midas, one of four ‘Level A’ rescue dogs at Snowbird, and thirty employed by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. Now ten years old and close to retirement, Midas began training with Dean as a puppy after he was rejected by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for lacking the necessary aggression. Midas was, however, perfectly suited for avalanche rescue; he can smell a person from 100 feet away, and an avalanche victim beneath 10 feet of snow.

Dean and I sat down to talk over Mexican food; Midas sprawled out below the table, getting up occasionally to sniff around the restaurant.

Even in the casual chitchat we swapped as we studied the menu, it was evident that Dean is an unassuming superstar of all things radical. Dean joined the Snowbird Ski Patrol in 1993; now, at 38, he’s an avalanche forecaster and the assistant director of snow safety at Snowbird. He’s also president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and a certified avalanche instructor with the American Avalanche Association. Since climbing Mt. Everest in 2005, Dean has reached the peaks of Denali, Mt. Elbrus, and Kilimanjaro, and is gearing up to charge the remaining three of the ‘Seven Summits’. In the off season, Dean leads guided trips to some of the world’s most remote destinations through his own company, World Wide Trekking. Even more impressive than Dean’s achievements, however, is the casual and offhanded way he relates it all — he mentions summiting Everest as if it were on par with fixing a tyre.

Dean’s speciality is imposing safety in the most challenging of environments. The dangers associated with Snowbird’s extraordinary avalanche risk and abundance of steep, complex terrain are compounded by its close proximity to a major metropolitan area and international airport. Dean’s team use a vast array of resources to combat the various risks associated with the local terrain and relentless snowfall. After collecting and analyzing weather and snowpack data, the next step is delegating manpower. Ski Patrol and Snow Safety director Peter Schory insists that it must be the right kind of manpower, and that skills and experience are worthless unless they are the “appropriate” skills and experience. He cites the case of a patroller who transferred to Snowbird this year after nine years patrolling at Stowe, Vermont. Although his experience is infinitely valuable, the guy is starting his career at Snowbird on the trail crew, as would any newbie. In Little Cottonwood Canyon, unique circumstances demand a unique approach.

Many of the 85 patrollers on Snowbird’s payroll live right in the canyon, at the resort, ensuring around-the-clock preparedness. One of 20 rotating doctors is always in uniform, with radio, to provide medical assistance whenever necessary. The Fire Department has a complete fire station right in the canyon, while Air Med, Life Flight, and Wasatch Powderbird helicopters can evacuate patients from various landing sites on the mountain.

With four avalaunchers, five military-issue howitzer and recoilless rifles, and a handsome cache of explosives hand charges, Snowbird’s avalanche control capabilities amount to one of the largest non-military arsenals in the United States. This winter, Snowbird tests its newest addition, two remotely triggered Gas Ex propane exploders plumbed into the canyon walls adjacent to the resort. Both Alta and Snowbird use the artillery and explosives to protect people and property within resort boundaries, as well as to control areas above the highway. Several times every season, during heavy snowfall – when the snow safety department begins to observe natural avalanche activity, or a predetermined time arrives and the snow has not let up – Snowbird is put on ‘interlodge alert.’ While this restriction is in place, travel between buildings is prohibited and Snowbird’s concrete buildings effectively become another valuable line of defense: avalanche shelters. Once staff are sure that the resort is secure, they can begin sighting the guns and blasting at the slide paths along the canyon walls.

“You can’t wait until something happens,” Dean says, addressing the often complicated process of confining the public indoors. Road travel is restricted well before conditions are dire enough to warrant ‘interlodge alert,’ but resort guests can be unbelievably stubborn and find all sorts of reasons to insist on travelling between buildings. Someone confined to a restaurant in one building will argue that he needs to be with his family in another; someone else might try to insist on retrieving something from their car, refusing to believe it could be dangerous. Dean has seen as many as 80 vehicles parked in Snowbird’s carpark written off by a single slide.

Snow safety and patrol work is not always as spectacular as bombarding snowy bowls with explosives and heavy artillery, or as dramatic as locking thousands of vacationing skiers and resort workers in concrete buildings. Much of the work involves routine accidents on groomed trails and first aid work, or ensuring that obstacles are clearly marked and that signs and boundary markers are visible and accurate. Subduing the avalanche threat can even be as simple as blocking access to unsafe terrain, or requiring appropriate equipment (beacon, shovel, probe, partner) to pass through access gates into the backcountry. Snowbird is among several Utah resorts that have posted signs that emit a loud signal when they detect a working transceiver. Funded by the Forest Service with the help of a donation from the family of a Chilean snowboarder who was killed by a Utah avalanche, the ‘Are You Beeping?’ signs reduce the number of accidents involving people with faulty beacons, dead batteries, or no locator device at all.

Another innovation is the fully automated avalanche training facility at the base of the resort. The facility, the first in North America, uses buried transmitters to simulate single and multiple burials and responds with electronic feedback and timed results. Users select the number of ‘victims’ and can test and hone their transceiver skills throughout the season and at no charge even without a lift pass. The facility is one of many programmes provided by ‘Wasatch Backcountry Rescue’, a collaboration of professionals from local ski areas. When the County Sheriff is called to respond to a winter-related accident in the backcountry, WBR is notified and each resort sends a team of three — rescue dog, handler, and rescuer — to respond. All of the teams train together, ensuring that rescue efforts are as deft and systematic as possible.

Dean is the President of WBR; he and Midas have responded to over 20 backcountry emergencies as a team. Having responded to 15 fatalities — with Midas and the three dogs that preceded him — Dean found himself increasingly disheartened. “I’m a rescuer,” he tells me, “but I’m not rescuing anyone.” After a particularly dispiriting incident in which he and Midas helped locate the dead bodies of two teenage snowboarders in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Dean became convinced that the best time to save lives is before the accidents happen. The two boys had only been buried beneath a shallow layer of snow and, had they been wearing transceivers, the nine friends who survived could easily have found them without having to wait for a rescue team. The site was laden with obvious clues to the extreme avalanche risk. As a result, Dean became involved with the ‘Know Before You Go’ programme. This programme sends avalanche educators to Utah’s public schools to give presentations on safe winter travel, identifying snow instabilities, and basic equipment and rescue technique.

In my last conversation with Dean before catching a ride to the Salt Lake City airport, he asked if I’d ever been to Snowbird during the winter. We agreed it was ridiculous that I’d been back twice in two weeks, both times to learn about the area and its snow, but I’d never actually been snowboarding there. When I mentioned that I had done quite a bit of riding in the popular Park City area, he said, “Park City gets our leftovers.”

So I have no stories about plunging down Snowbird’s steeps in chin-high fluff, or getting locked indoors while the howitzers blasted at the avy paths. I’m hardly qualified to give advice about where to find secret powder-stashes, but I can suggest that when you do visit Snowbird, resist the urge to grab a cheap room in Salt Lake City: if it snows — and it probably will — you’ll be stuck downtown. Dish out the cash for one a room in one of the resort’s four slopeside lodges instead. You’ll thank me when the bombing stops, the storm clears and you’re finally allowed to go outside – while everyone else is stuck at the mouth of the canyon.


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