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Accessing the Goods

Image: Chris Segal
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Wasatch Adaptive

Accessing the Goods

What it Takes to Keep the Canyon Safe

You know that Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) produces some of the most perfect snow on the planet. It’s not something you overthink: it’s light, fluffy, plentiful; you float through it and it’s fun. The steep, narrow canyon receives a yearly average of over 500 inches of snow, almost an embarrassment of riches (if skiing pow weren’t 100% guiltless joy). But stop and think why LCC delivers extraordinary conditions and how you can access them: the amount of teamwork and science that make it possible may make those powder turns extra-special.

Snowbird Avalanche Mitigation

“This place is totally unique,” says Matt McKee, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) highway avalanche safety supervisor.

He attributes it to the Great Basin, the Great Salt Lake and orographics. McKee says Utah is inland across the Great Basin, but not so far that storms can weaken or snow is so light it lacks “body” (so you hit crust). It’s also far enough from the coast that the snow doesn’t have the moist density of the Sierras. “We’re Goldilocks, perfectly in-between,” says McKee. Secondly, the Great Salt Lake may not be a swimmer’s paradise, but its salt contributes to Utah’s snowfall and long season. Salt provides the nucleus needed for snowflake formation. It also prevents the lake from freezing, so this process can happen any time of year. This long lake points directly toward LCC, which means bigger snow totals than in surrounding canyons. Lastly, there’s “orographic enhancement,” the beautifully nerdy way McKee says “mountains.”

He summarizes: “God’s a powder skier and put the lake, desert and orographics funneling up LCC – and added some really fun terrain.” The blessing presents commensurate challenge.

Snowbird Car Buried from So Much Snow

Snowbird Winter Operations Manager Peter Schory considers what it takes to safeguard the canyon. “It’s pretty amazing that the road gets opened, or closed,” he says. “It’s a massive joint effort including snow safety, ski patrol, public safety, UDOT, Unified Police Department, Fire Department, Alta Marshal, Utah Transportation Authority, Canyon Transportation, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and resort employees using rideshares.” Schory stresses that these agencies – plus use of artillery, Remote Avalanche Control Systems (RACS) and other equipment – make the canyon as safe as possible.

Snowbird Snowcat

The work doesn’t start and stop. It’s a continual process of observing weather and snowpack. McKee starts his day digging snow pits, examining how the snow heals or weakens. He checks with the Utah Avalanche Center, LCC forecaster and National Weather Service. Based on a snow study plot, he decides on road closures, then contacts Schory and others to form a plan. McKee or another crewmember stays overnight up the canyon to watch the storm. The road is closed, plows are called, public safety effects interlodge (no one is permitted outside) and before sunrise, control work begins.

Snowbird Interlodge

Master Gunner Todd Greenfield says snow safety uses various ways to test stability or create avalanches while the road and resort are clear. Snowbird uses two military 105mm howitzers, hand charges and RACS (gas exploders). RACS include several Gazex and one O’Bellx. The high-tech exploders can be operated from the comfort of an office and quickness of a computer.

Snowbird Avalanche Artillery Gun

"The work doesn't start and stop. It's a continual process of observing weather and snowpack."

Snowbird bought the 1,400-pound O’Bellx in 2015, one of three on the continent. It looks like an adorable spaceship but hides high above the Snowbird village to protect it. The O’Bellx exploder has two containers inside. It mixes hydrogen and oxygen to trigger an avalanche under the pod. It has an autonomous grip for heli retrieval for refuels. Similar to the O’Bellx, the DaisyBell RACS will be used for heli-bombing in 2016/2017. Snowbird also added Gazex along Blackjack to protect the bypass road.

Snowbird's Obellex avalanche work

During gunfire and explosions, McKee watches for activity from the road. He uses thermal imaging binoculars when possible and “dances around” in his truck to avoid runouts. “We’ve got pretty cool toys,” he says, referring to binoculars but also infrasonic sensors buried in the snow near White Pine that send messages to his smartphone. RACS and newer technologies are quickly becoming the best choices for protecting LCC. Literally, it’s a burden, but a skier would never say there’s too much snow.

O’Bellx Fast Facts

  • The O’Bellx in LCC weighs 1,400 pounds.
  • Available for use 24 hours a day, regardless of weather conditions.
  • No handling of explosives or human intervention is needed onsite.
  • System is operated fully remotely and can be installed in very inaccessible sites.
  • Very rapid implementation: 13 seconds per firing, no waiting time between firings, possible to synchronize firings for several devices.
  • No polluting residue produced by the explosion.

About the Author

Dawn Cardinale grew up skiing the mountains of Upstate New York. She started her career in Manhattan, proofreading for Sullivan & Cromwell and Standard & Poor's. Now she's a writer in Utah so she can ski the Wasatch. Her favorite things include stylish proofreaders' marks, blizzards, and telling people's stories.

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