Winter just wont’ quit in Salt Lake. This week saw another massive storm that dumped multiple feet of snow in the Wasatch. While this generally means deep turns, at this stage of a record-breaking season, it also can poses logistical quandaries as heavy snowfall and avalanche danger close down canyon roads where slide paths make travel too dangerous. The Utah Department of Transportation crew has been working round the clock to mitigate the snow conditions and keep everyone safe.
If you’re not familiar with the topography of Salt Lake and its surrounding resorts, two of the most popular areas for daily laps are Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, home to Brighton and Solitude in Big and Snowbird and Alta in Little. With this winter’s deep snowpack, the avalanche paths in Big and Little Cottonwood have been “greased” according Mark Staples, the executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center (watch the whole video here), which means that even if slides are small, they still can run far and fast. For UDOT, the winter unprecedented.
“One of the very simple rules of thumb we have is more snow equals more avalanches,” said Staples, talking to local news station KSL. This week’s storm system brought over five feet to the already incredibly deep snowpack, measured at Snowbird Resort in Little Cottonwood (the count is similar throughout the area). Big Cottonwood Canyon had delayed openings on Monday and Tuesday and was closed for the entire day on April 5th as UDOT performed avalanche work–the canyon closing for a full day is a very rare occurrence. Today it reopened and Brighton and Solitude welcomed boarders to untouched trails.
Over on the other side, Little Cottonwood Canyon is riddled with slide paths. Snowbird is located on Highway 210, also known as Little Cottonwood Canyon Road. From the UDOT website:
There are 64 slide paths in Little Cottonwood Canyon alone, with over half of SR-210 threatened by avalanches. Over 50 buildings and 76% of the road passing through Snowbird and the Town of Alta are in avalanche paths.
Highway 210 has a UDOT Highway Avalanche Hazard Index of 766, which is the highest in North America. Because of this, Snowbird has thorough avalanche mitigation protocol for both the resort and surrounding roadway. During the most severe storms, the resort will institute an Interlodge to keep everyone safe.
What is an Interlodge? This is the official explanation from the Snowbird website:
An Interlodge event is when snow levels are so great and avalanche danger is so extreme that patrons and employees of Snowbird are confined to resort buildings while avalanche work is being done. During Interlodge, road access to Snowbird is shut down as well while UDOT performs avalanche work on it. An Interlodge situation, while a rare occurrence, is performed in the interest of everyone’s safety. During an Interlodge event, travel outside of the buildings at Snowbird is illegal. This includes being in your vehicle.
Depending on snow conditions, an Interlodge event can last anywhere from an hour to an overnight stay. Most Interlodge events last only a few hours and are pre-planned, controlled situations between Snowbird and UDOT. Much of the pre-planning for Snowbird involves notifying guests so that those who need to leave the canyon have time to do so. Snowbird has multiple systems in place to notify guests of an upcoming Interlodge.
While it’s not a common occurrence, it does happen from time to time, but often will just be for a day’s duration. Rarely, an Interlodge will keep people in the canyon overnight. But this week, the unheard of conditions have kept everyone Interlodged at Snowbird since Sunday.
During this time, Snowbird passed their all-time snow record.
On Thursday morning, the Interlodge was finally able to be lifted and the resort was opened for skiing and snowboarding. Unexpectedly, an avalanche released on Mount Superior, across Highway 210 and onto the edge of inbounds terrain at Snowbird. The Interlodge was reinstated. Here is the official word from Snowbird: