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Avalanches close Little Cottonwood Canyon, trapping ski visitors for 2nd day

Alta Ski Resort, Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014.
Alta Ski Resort
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

ALTA — Nearly 3 feet of new snow typically creates conditions that ski vacationers can only dream of. But thousands of guests staying up Little Cottonwood Canyon this week got more than they bargained for.

Since Thursday, the town of Alta has been “interlodged,” a cabin fever-inducing ordinance that requires all employees and guests to stay inside while crews from the Utah Department of Transportation conduct avalanche mitigation.

Both Alta and Snowbird resorts remained closed since Wednesday, while the canyon has been closed the majority of the past two days. And for good reason.

“The conditions are about as extreme as we’ve seen, especially this year,” said John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation. “There are areas up there where avalanches are covering the road that haven’t seen avalanches in almost 15 years.”

At least three natural avalanches slid across the road Friday morning, and in some places the debris is almost 15 feet deep, Gleason said. Video of one slide at Alta showed a wall of snow rushing down a slope and over a parking lot there.

An avalanche warning is in effect there and across northern Utah through 6 a.m. Saturday, even at low elevation. And the risk in Little Cottonwood Canyon may potentially reaching a level of extreme, according to the Utah Avalanche Center.

“It doesn’t make any sense to have the general public up there traveling,” Gleason told the Deseret News. “We opted to do the safe thing and close down the canyon.”

This means any vacationers who were planning on flying home Thursday or Friday were stuck in Utah for a little longer than expected. Marshall Cummings, a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont, missed his flight on Friday.

“It’s a bummer how much of it is out of your hands,” said Cummings, who is staying at the Gold Miner’s Daughter Lodge at Alta with a group of friends.

Cummings was hoping to take a later flight back to Vermont, but UDOT crews confirmed late Friday that Little Cottonwood Canyon would likely remain closed until noon Saturday as crews continued clearing slide debris.

“It’s been fun, but not as much skiing as we would’ve liked,” Cummings said about his stay at Alta. “We’ve been playing a lot of pool, ping pong, a lot of cards.”

“No one likes missing great, world-class skiing when you’re at a place like this,” said James Gallatin, a guest staying at the Rustler Lodge at Alta. “But you know what? No one also wants to go out and get hurt.”

His third time staying at Alta, Gallatin said the experience is a little unorthodox, but has been nothing but positive.

“You can sleep, you can use Wi-Fi, you can get a hot tub or a steam room. They haven’t run out of food yet,” Gallatin said. “I’m not sure what’s not to like.”

“Glasses of beer, bathrobes and smiles,” said one Rustler Lodge employee. “That’s what you see as you walk through the lobby.”

One Salt Lake rental shop is doing its part to make sure no one perishes in other potential slides over the weekend.

Salty Peaks Snowboard Shop has mostly stopped renting split-boards and avalanche gear for the time being to deter people from venturing into hazardous areas, said Dennis Nazari, the shop’s owner.

“In fact, the only people we have rented to in the last 48 hours were doing a class and weren’t even going to be going out in the backcountry or anything like that,” Nazari said. “If somebody comes in to rent something and it’s a high avalanche danger, we do quiz them about their knowledge and we have shut people down before. It’s just like, ‘Dude, you’ve got no business being out there today.’”

He urges anyone going into the backcountry to take avalanche safety classes and stay home when the forecast is not favorable.

Contributing: Andrew Adams