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Crews hoping to reopen Little Cottonwood Canyon sometime this weekend

LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — Mud 15 feet deep. Boulders the size of cars.

A wild rainstorm Thursday night resulted in massive mudslides across the Wasatch Front, shutting down highways, forcing evacuations, and stranding some people overnight in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Crews continued to work nonstop through Friday to clear debris and reopen the roads affected by the slides. By evening, U.S. 6, U.S. 89, and Nebo Loop Road in Payson Canyon were all reopened, though officials urged drivers in Payson Canyon to use caution.

Crews remove debris from U.S. 6 between Spanish Fork and Helper on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, following mudslides on Thursday night.
Crews remove debris from U.S. 6 between Spanish Fork and Helper on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, following mudslides on Thursday night.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

Little Cottonwood Canyon was still closed, however, and some drivers were still stuck at Snowbird Resort.

Jill Caree was one of them. While driving down the mountain Thursday, Caree and her brother and sister encountered a mudslide and "just booked it back up the mountain," away from the slide.

Despite the stressful situation, Caree said, the crowd at Snowbird, where she ended up for the night, were in high spirits.

"It’s been awesome just bonding with people who were here through the night," she said Friday.

While the stranded motorists got to know one another, heavy equipment was being used to clear nine slides spread out over most of the canyon. The largest slide was about 100 yards long and up to 15 feet deep in some spots, according to Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason.

"Boulders the size of hoods of cars right in the middle of the road," said Jake Brown, the roadway operations manager for the Cottonwood canyons. "I've never seen anything like this in my 18-year career. Guys who have been up here 20 years have never seen it this bad. The whole draw up above us where this equipment is working, just completely emptied out. It's unbelievable how much material was moved by water coming out."

UDOT crews first arrived in the canyon about 8 p.m. Thursday.

Crews remove debris from Little Cottonwood Canyon Road in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, following mudslides on Thursday night.
Crews remove debris from Little Cottonwood Canyon Road in Little Cottonwood Canyon on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, following mudslides on Thursday night.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

"We've worked nonstop ever since trying to get the road open," Brown said.

Approximately 35 vehicles were trapped between two slides. No vehicles were hit and no injuries were reported, but the drivers were unable to go up or down the canyon. Brown said Alta Ski Resort used one of its snow removal machines to "punch a hole" through one of the debris fields, and then Snowbird transported the stranded motorists back to the resort to spend the night.

UDOT crews were able to get enough of the road cleared by 9 a.m. so that motorists could retrieve their cars and get out of the canyon.

The canyon was not expected to reopen to the public until Saturday at the earliest, Gleason said. Only essential employees of Alta and Snowbird were allowed to drive up the canyon.

Brown said all of the smaller slides had been cleared by Friday morning. But there was still a lot of work to do before Little Cottonwood could be reopened.

"We just have a lot of material to move," he said. "This is just something we don't experience too much in the summer."

Brown noted that "the hillside has been alive all night," as crews could hear rocks still moving as they worked to clear the road.

The mudslide also exposed a gas line along the side of the road. Brown said there were no leaks or damage to the line and crews were working to bury it again.

A sense of camaraderie was also present in Elk Ridge, where neighbors rushed Thursday night to help protect one another's houses from flooding. At least a dozen homes in Loafer Canyon were evacuated due to a flash flood.

Mud damaged a number of yards and got into one house. The damage could have been worse, however, were it not for the sandbags lining Loafer Canyon Road.

"Our preparation paid off big time," resident Ron Herbert said.

Don Shallenberger's home wasn't immediately in danger. But he was one of many in the neighborhood who leapt into action to help divert the flooding.

"When you’re OK, you start to wonder, how’s the canyon going?" Shallenberger said. "It was just a river down here and the mud was everywhere."

A section of U.S. 6 near Tie Fork Rest Area was closed Thursday night due to a mile-long mudslide near the Thistle area that was up to 3 feet deep. UDOT reported that mud was still flowing on the road as of 9:30 a.m., but by 6:30 p.m., the highway had reopened.

Nebo Loop Road in Payson Canyon was also reopened Friday after a mudslide was reported the previous night above the Grotto, about 7 miles up the canyon. A closed section of U.S. 89 near Birdseye was opened Friday as well.

Contributing: Mike Anderson, Sam Penrod