Trapped In A Powder Paradise At Snowbird
Words: Daniel Cochrane
Photos & Captions: Andrew Miller
*As featured in the October issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine. Subscribe Here!*
It's officially named Utah State Highway 210, but everyone in Salt Lake City just calls it Little Cottonwood Road. A beautiful, scenic drive most of the year, the seven or so miles from the base of the canyon to the main entrance of Snowbird Resort can be a white-knuckled fear-fest during the winter months. The road is full of twists, turns, avalanche zones, sketchy cliffs, and to top it off, Highway 210 boasts a Utah Department Of Transportation (UDOT) Highway Avalanche Hazard Index of 766, the highest in North America. To put that into perspective, any score above a 100 is considered high danger and neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon scores a very high rating of 151.
When you get down to it, the only thing little about Little Cottonwood Canyon is the fact that it's only half the length of its 14-mile-long neighbor Big Cottonwood Canyon. It's no wonder that this seven-mile stretch requires constant avalanche control work by The UDOT, and that a long line of cars waiting at the bottom is a common sight during large winter storm cycles. All of this may sound foreboding and like a giant pain in the ass, but it's also the cause for one of the greatest events that can ever happen to you as a snowboarder in Salt Lake City--a Snowbird Interlodge.
An Interlodge event is when snow levels are so massive and avalanche danger so extreme that patrons and employees of the resort are confined to resort buildings while avalanche work is done. Many times, road access to Snowbird is shut down, too, while UDOT performs avalanche work on it. When this happens, Interlodgers wait for word that the coast is clear, followed by a magical window of time where the resort is open for business, but only accessible to the lucky few people who were onsite during the brief quarantine..
I sat down with Snowbird Communications Director Brian Brown, as well as Bird locals Forrest Shearer, Mark "Deadlung" Edlund, and Aaron Biittner to get the some insight on Interlodge events and what it's like to be trapped in paradise.
Brown explains to me how road closures for avalanche work are a routine part of day-to-day operations at Snowbird. In fact, most of the time closures don't stop operations on the mountain. An Interlodge situation, while a rare occurrence, does shut down the entire resort in the interest of everyone's safety. "Avalanche control work and conditions above the Snowbird Village often require Interlodge status, meaning guests and employees must remain in buildings during the control work. Interlodge can be an hour or overnight, depending on conditions" says Brown. He notes that normal 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. However, massive storms and rogue avalanches have resulted in multi-day Interlodge conditions, and it's these unplanned episodes that have become the Holy Grail at Snowbird. "Legendary, but extremely rare, an Interlodge event does provide Snowbird guests with immediate and unprecedented access to the mountain once snow conditions are deemed safe and the lifts and tram resume operation," says Brown. "A small convoy of key resort personnel may be allowed to travel up the canyon at this point, but chances are the greater public will be delayed from arriving at Snowbird as Highway 210 is prepared for safe travel."
Growing up in SLC, both Deadlung and Biittner had parents who worked at The Bird (Deadlung's mom still does). Getting stuck up at Snowbird was something they looked forward to. "It is always a welcomed experience to be up at The Bird when the roads close," Biittner recalls. "Usually it's due to high wind loading and dangerous avalanche conditions for the roads, but that always has to do with lots of snow as well. I have very fond memories from when I was a kid and my dad worked at Snowbird. We would always hope for the roads to close on school nights so we could stay up there and trade a day of school for a day of pow shredding. Being up there when nobody else can make it up the canyon creates prime conditions to get the goods in areas that normally would get tracked out right away. It's very surreal to be out on the mountain during big storms with a much smaller amount of people than a normal 'powder-panic' day. Everyone has space to spread out on the tram, and the vibe is so much more laid back."
Deadlung agrees that the snow can be amazing, but remarks that for those caught unaware, an Interlodge may not be a "chance of a lifetime" scenario. "Weekend warriors aren't as stoked as the locals when that happens," he says. "Snow nights aren't for your Average Joe. Be prepared. Have spare clothes and an avy shovel in your car, especially if the forecast is looking scary, because in Little Cottonwood, you have no idea how hard the storm could hit."
These Interlodge episodes of legend are the ones that Forrest Shearer had heard rumors of even before he became a full time Salt Lake resident. "It's part of the myth and lore of the mountain's history," he says. "Snowbird is this place where it snows so much and the shape of the canyon is unique to anywhere in the US. There are just avalanches on the road all the time. You get a couple feet of snow and you start hearing rumors on hill of the road closing, and you either have to be prepared or you have to bail. You know it's going to be insane when you're stuck up there, it's early the next morning, you hear those bombs go off, and they are shaking the windows. It's definitely one of those things as a snowboarder that you have to experience. You have to check it off the list, you know. 'Yep, I got to stay at Snowbird on an Interlodge.' It's that cool."