Several of us from the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton had to head
down to a conference in Utah, which was fortunately being held at Snowbird
Resort.  Since it・s only about a 7 hour drive to Salt Lake City, six of us
were going to head down in one of the government vans instead of flying.
With the number of people and gear we would have, we decided that the big
15-passenger van would be the best bet.  The way the weather had been in the
Wasatch however (tons of snow) I was concerned about the van・s ability to
make the trip, as well as its ability to get up into Little Cottonwood
Canyon.  I checked in on the specifications for the van, and found that
although it was set up to pull the lab・s HazMat trailer and had plenty of
power, it was not really equipped for winter.  It was only rear wheel drive,
and didn・t even have snow tires on it.  There was no way I wanted to try to
get that thing down to Utah and up the canyon; you almost couldn・t ask for
a worse combination of vehicle options.  So, I asked if we could get snow
tires, and four new studded snows were put on.  I also informed our
administrators about the potential for chain requirements in Little
Cottonwood Canyon, especially due to the forecast, and they quickly got
chains as well.  It was nice to see that not everything in the government is
held up by bureaucracy, the response to our needs on the van was lightning
fast.  They did everything short of buying us a new four wheel drive van in
which to make the trip.

It seemed like the chance of us ever needing to use the chains for the van
was pretty remote, but Gerry, Roger, and I decided that we・d better do a
test fitting of the chains on the van.  This was both to make sure that they
fit, as well as make sure we knew how to install them.  The last thing we
wanted was to end up trying to put on chains in the middle of a blizzard,
and find out that they didn・t fit, or to waste time because we didn・t know
what we were doing.  The chains that had been bought for the van were the
big ol・ traditional ones, not those nice snazzy cable ones like I・d bought
for my Subaru.  The big drawback with the traditional chains is that they
are a bit more difficult to install, and you have to move the vehicle during
the installation.  Our test installation was successful, and fortunately we
discovered that they chains were missing rubber fasteners.  We picked up a
set of fasteners and we were good to go.  Gerry, with wisdom gained from his
dad, pointed out that we should also have some large pieces of cardboard in
the van to put down on the ground during installation.  If you have to put
chains on the vehicle, chances are that the ground is going to be a mess.
It always pays to have a Canadian in the group  !  We also found out that
the van was not gas, but diesel.  I sent an email to everyone letting them
know this was the case, and asked them all to do their best to remind
everyone else when we stopped for fuel.  From what I・ve read, it sounds
like screwing up with either gas in a diesel engine or vice versa can lead
to problems if the incorrect fuel is more than a certain fraction of the
total fuel.  Whatever the case, we didn・t want to start any field
experiments on the government van.

The forecast for the trip was a bit ominous.  The Wasatch had a chance for
as much as 2-3 feet of snow in the days leading up to our trip, and they・d
already had a ton of snow in recent days.  Although there was the potential
for snow along the lower elevations of our trip (I-15) through Idaho and
Utah, the forecast only called for a few inches of accumulation.  Despite
the potentially bad news about the driving conditions, those of us with
skiing on our minds knew that there might be fantastic conditions on the
slopes.  I was hoping that in my fourth ski trip to Utah, I would finally
get some of the snow that everyone talks about.  My previous best Utah day
was one at Alta, where we got a foot of snow.  However, it was somewhat
heavy, and not all that impressive compared to what I・d heard everyone talk

Tuesday, January 11th, 2005

Our planned departure of 8:30 A.M. went fairly smoothly, and we knew we
would have plenty of time to get to the resort for the keynote address by
our boss Bruce, even if we were hampered by some slower driving in snowy
conditions.  The Montana leg of the journey went by really fast.  With the
engine that the van had, it was able to accelerate up the steepest of hills
even beyond 75 or 80 MPH.  I drove the first leg and was able to make
excellent time through the Big Hole Valley of Montana, and down to the Idaho
state line.  Once we hit the Monida area (an area/pass near the state line,
which seems to be a combination of MONtana and IDAho), the roads turned
crappy.  This area seems to be a little higher (elevation 6,823・) than some
points on the interstate, and picks up more snow.  The fact that they have
extensions added to the reflectors along the edge of the highway is usually
a clue that the snow can get deep.  Whether Idaho maintains their roads
differently than Montana I don・t know, but as soon as we crossed the
border, the road changed from clear asphalt to heavily packed snow and ice.
I had to slow the van down to the 60-70 MPH range, but the studded tires
were certainly doing a great job.  I wouldn・t have wanted to tackle this
section of road without them.  The clear skies we・d had through much of
Montana were gradually giving way to thickening clouds, and judging by the
forecast, we expected snow to be in our future.

Gerry took over the driving in Idaho Falls, and by the time we・d reached
Pocatello, the snow had started.  Around the Idaho-Utah border, the snow
really began to come down hard.  For at least 20 minutes, we passed through
an area that had snowfall in the range of 2 inches an hour.  Absolutely
HUGE, silver dollar-sized snowflakes were coming down in buckets, and it was
hard to see more than 50 feet in front of us.  Gerry did a great job of
getting us through this treacherous section, and although the snow continued
toward the Ogden/Salt Lake area, it diminished substantially, and eventually
turned to mostly rain.  It sounds as if our timing through the snowy area
was good, because another colleague from the lab was driving her own car
about 5-10 minutes behind us, and had to get around a jackknifed truck that
was nearly blocking the road.  Later, when we heard the weather reports, we
found out that parts of northern Utah had picked up about 3 feet of snow by
the next morning.  The way that snow had been coming down, I wasn・t

As we approached the Salt Lake area, Roger got a call on his cell phone from
our Irene, our department secretary.  She relayed a message that due to
heavy snowfall, they were going to close Little Cottonwood Canyon to all
traffic at 4:00 P.M. so they could perform avalanche control work.  We were
about 30 minutes away from the Canyon, and it was already 3:45 P.M.  We knew
there was little chance of us making it in time, but we still wanted to give
it a shot and be turned back by the actual officials.  It would have been
lame to not give it a shot and find out that somehow the closure had been
delayed.  In any event, we would then be at the mouth of the canyon and
could look for a close lodging option.  Gerry did his best Mario Andretti
impression on the highway, but it was still around 4:15 P.M. when we got to
the mouth of the canyon.  There was a large electronic sign indicating that
the canyon was closed to all traffic for avalanche control, and a smaller
sign with flashing lights indicating that 4x4 or chains were required for
travel.  We continued past this sign so we could talk to someone official,
and hopefully get the word on when the road would re-open.  Less than a mile
later, we came to a few police cars, and we spoke with an officer in charge
of turning back the traffic.  Unfortunately, he said that the road wouldn・t
open until the next morning, but that they・d be there bright and early.  We
didn・t know quite what time that meant, but we knew we・d have to stay in
the valley for the night.  As it turned out, about half the conference
attendees were in a similar boat.

We :dieseled; up the van, and got advice on the nearest place for lodging.
  We found a place just a few miles away in Sandy, an :Extended Stay;
brand motel with very reasonable rates.  We all went out to dinner at
Outback Steakhouse, actually managed to finish off a :Bloomin・ Onion;
appetizer along with our meals, and headed off to bed so we could get an
early start.  We・d be missing the keynote address by our boss Bruce that
evening, but he・d already let us know not to worry about it.  Safe travel
was the priority.  I was rooming with Gerry, and even in the valley, we
could see moderate snow throughout the evening.  With snowfall in the
valley, it was exciting to think about what was going on up in the
mountains, although I hoped it wouldn・t lead to even further road closures.

Wednesday, January 12th, 2005

At 6:00 A.M the next morning, I called the Cliff Lodge at Snowbird, and they
informed me that the road was scheduled for opening between 8:00 and 8:30
A.M.  I let everyone (including myself) catch a few more winks, and called
at 7:00 A.M. to fill them in on the road situation.  I went out to start up
the diesel, and found that last night・s snow had left a few inches of
accumulation, as well as a bit of glaze in the parking lot.  I let the
engine run a while, Gerry worked on cleaning off the windows, and I ran next
door to get a snack at Crispy Cream.  They gave me a free sample donut,
which was WOW, the best Krispy Kreme I・d ever had (never had one fresh
before).  People told me that they were best fresh out of the oven, and now
I know for sure.

We made our way back up to the mouth of the canyon, and parked along the
side of the road in the growing line of cars waiting for the road to open.
Around 9:00 A.M., the electronic sign changed from :Closed, Avalanche
Danger etc.; to something like :Chains or 4x4 required;.  We were
wondering if we・d actually have to put on our chains, but since there was
an official in the road checking everyone・s vehicle, we were pretty sure
the chains would have to come out.  The few folks that weren・t in 4x4 cars
either had to park their car and take the bus, or put on chains.  He checked
out our van, and said that we had to put on chains if we wanted to go up.
We pulled into the parking lot, and the installation went very smoothly.
The only issue was that we had a bit of extra chain hanging off the inside
of the tire, and it clanged on part of the wheel well if we went very fast.
I pulled over a couple of times to let traffic through, and eventually we
made it up.  Of course, the road was clear all the way, and putting the
chains on had been much more of a big pain in the butt than a real
precautionary measure.  Whatever the case, we took them off when we got to
the Cliff Lodge and didn・t have to mess with them anymore.  I hadn・t been
up Little Cottonwood Canyon in quite a while, so I・d forgotten just how
dramatic and in your face the mountains were.  With all sorts of fresh snow
from the storms they・d been having, it was easy to see why so many people
loved the place.  They had been under interlodge conditions until about 7:30
A.M. that morning, and that is usually a pretty good sign that there had
been serious snowfall.

Although I・d skied at Snowbird before, I・d never really explored the Cliff
Lodge.  I・d checked out the prices for staying there with E and Ty last
April, and even during relatively low season, it was still pretty expensive.
  Anyway, that・s where the conference was held, so we were happy to be
staying in the same building.  It・s a massive place, with a huge 10-story
atrium area that is all glass and gives you fantastic views of the slopes.
They have all the amenities of a fancy hotel, like a big spa complex, a
number of restaurants, and shops etc.  They also have great ski lockers in
which guests can store their skis, with a little electronic combination that
you program yourself.  The most unique aspect of the Cliff Lodge rooms was
that one wall of the shower was made of glass, creating a window into the
rest of the room.  I・m not sure whether it・s to provide light, a view, or
what, but I did enjoy watching the Weather Channel each morning while I took
my shower.  Although the Cliff Lodge wouldn・t reimburse us (in this case
our employer) for the night we had missed due to road closure, they did give
us that amount in credit that we could spend at the resort.  This included
everything like services, foodK and even lift tickets.  Since we・d arrived
just in time to miss the morning session of talks, all we could do was get a
bite to eat and go skiing.  Oh well.

We could purchase special all day lift tickets for only $41 with our
conference badges, so Gerry and I got some lunch at the Rendezvous Cafe and
headed out for some turns.  We eschewed the tram line and headed up the
Peruvian Lift.  The powder had been cut up by this point of course, but
there was still a lot of fresh snow to be had.  Since Gerry only skis on
average every other year or so, I wanted to find him some nice low angle
powder to enjoy.  I spotted some down near the base below Chip・s Face, but
unfortunately we had to pass through some pretty steep terrain with chowder
to get there.  In places where I checked, there was 1-2 feet of fresh
powder, not super light, but maybe ~8%.  Surprisingly, the Alta snowfall
statistics (mid-mountain study plot at 9,664・) indicated snowfall with
water content of 13% or greater for the previous three days.  So, either
their hydrology numbers were off, or the snow managed to dry out real nicely
to feel as light as it did.  Anyway, it was good skiing and my Volkl CMH fat
skis were doing their job.  However, Gerry was struggling.  I could see that
the skinny-waisted parabolic skis they・d given him at the rental shop
weren・t helping the cause, so as soon as we got down, we went in and
upgraded him to some fat skis.  They had 3 levels of rentals at Christy
Sports, sport (~$30), premium (~$40), and the level that had fat skis
(~$50).  It seemed like a pretty steep price for fats, but since it was
afternoon, he got a substantial discount on the upgrade.

We headed back up the Peruvian chair, and generally worked our way around on
blue terrain so Gerry could get a better feel for the ungroomed snow.  The
fats seemed to do the trick, and Gerry quickly became more sure and stable
in the chowder.  I was enjoying the soft groomed snow, and sometimes jumping
into the trees along the sides of the trails.  Most areas had seen some
traffic by this point, but the groomed runs were still composed of what I
would call :bottomless packed powder;, where you can dig your edge in and
never hit anything hard, and the ungroomed areas were mostly chowder.  We
worked our way skier・s left to the Wilbere chair, and finally over to the
Mid-Gad chair.  As we roamed around I was reminded of how big Snowbird
really is.  Eventually we wound up on the Gad 2 Chair, and found some of the
most exciting terrain of the day.  There were some nice steep shots that I
could hit while Gerry worked in and out of the cut up snow and groomed on
the blues and blacks.  One of the most interesting sights we saw was a slide
just out of bounds to the skier・s left of the resort.  It seemed to have
taken out a couple of large trees so it must have been pretty big.  The area
I was most interested in visiting was Mineral Basin, since it wasn・t part
of the resort the last time I・d visited.  It wasn・t open yet, since they
were still doing control work.  At least it gave us a chance at fresh tracks
if they opened on Thursday or Friday.  Due to the schedule of our
conference, we had afternoons free for skiing, so hopefully the timing would
be right for an afternoon opening of Mineral Basin.

Thursday, January 13th, 2005

On Thursday, we had a big crew skiing, and we finally got to ski with Jon,
who had come over from his lab in Wyoming.  Due to our late arrival the
previous day, we hadn・t had a chance to meet up with him, but he was pretty
familiar with the mountain and had done lots of additional exploring.  After
meeting at the Rendezvous for lunch, we headed right up the tram.  There was
a one car wait for the tram, which wasn・t too bad, and soon we were up on
top of Hidden Peak at 11,000・.  The first run of the day was one of my
favorites.  Bruce・s son Eric suggested an area just below the tram (on the
map it looks like Silver Fox).  While much of the area near the top of the
mountain was hit by strong winds associated with the departing storm, he・d
found the snow here to be quite soft.  It wasn・t quite powder of course,
but it had a nice carveable consistency that made turning on the steep face
a total blast.  It was already evident that conditions weren・t quite as
good as the previous day.  Even though the trails didn・t feel crowded due
to Snowbird・s extensive area, you could tell that a LOT of people had been
here.  Almost everything that had been open was well skied, and we could
already see the formation of those crazy Utah bumps that often don・t have
any rhythm.  It was frustrating to think that the conditions had gone from
great to only so-so in just one day.

The saving grace for the day was the opening of Mineral Basin.  We didn・t
catch it right when it opened, but we got there soon enough for some
untracked snow.  It was nice to know that we didn・t need the tram to get to
Mineral Basin.  We took the Gadzoom high-speed quad and then the Little
Cloud lift, which dropped us off above the skier・s right of the basin.  As
we dropped in, we found the snow pretty crappy in this side of the bowl,
apparently due to the wind.  The tracked out nature of this side of the bowl
was also apparent, and surprising within just an hour of opening.  In search
of better snow, we traversed to the left underneath the Mineral Basin
express lift, and the snow improved dramatically.  We found the best snow in
the area of :Not Quite Corn; and :Double Down;.  The snow was relatively
unaffected by the wind, and there were only a moderate amount of tracks.  We
had a great time blasting through the powder.  It was only ~6-12 inches deep
in most areas, but we didn・t encounter the base much.  Around the middle of
the run, the terrain steepened and dropped out of sight.  This was due to a
cliff band that stretches across much of the basin and creates some great
chutes.  Having never been in the basin before, I approached the area
cautiously until I could actually see the terrain below me.  Then, I was
able to catch a thrilling ride down a chute in the Double Down area.  The
snow was plentiful, and Jon and I commented on how it let you take the chute
at a pretty good clip with plenty of cushion to slow down if needed.  Our
large group had splintered into a foursome comprised of myself, Jon, Gerry
and Byron at this point, and we easily agreed on a second run in the same
place.  The second time through was just as nice, and we might have gone
again if it hadn・t been closing time for the basin.  I enjoyed Mineral
Basin a lot.  Not only did I finally get a chance to visit an area that I・d
been excited about since it opened, but I also got to experience pretty nice
conditions.  They had still not opened the other lift in Mineral Basin, the
Baldy Express quad, so there was a chance of catching more good snow over
there on Friday.

Friday, January 14th, 2005

On Friday, Jon・s wife Christy joined us, and along with Bruce・s family we
headed back up to the Little Cloud area.  The snow was definitely beaten
down by this point into the more typical conditions I・ve experienced in the
Cottonwood Canyon and Park City areas (at least between storms).  The
:bottomless packed powder; conditions I・d found on the groomed slopes on
Wednesday, were replaced by scratchy surfaces that required at least some
sort of edge.  Most ungroomed areas were now packed down hard with irregular
bumps and/or chunky snow.  We remembered the nice snow we・d found in the
center of Mineral Basin, and decided to head back to that area in hopes that
it was still there.  Unfortunately, the snow in this area had also
deteriorated quickly (whether by Mother Nature or skier traffic it was hard
to tell) into harder, chunkier snow.  The chute Jon and I had skied on
Thursday was now much more challenging.  You couldn・t fly down it with
reckless abandon anymore; you really had to concentrate, reduce your speed,
and stay in control.  The skier・s left of the bowl had opened earlier in
the day, but we heard the conditions were similar to what we were
experiencing in the center.  After one run, it wasn・t hard to reach a
consensus that the group should search elsewhere for better snow.

Our travels took us over to the Gad 2 lift, especially since it had been
closed all day on Thursday for some unknown reason, and hadn・t re-opened
until some point on Friday.  Between hearing gossip in the lift line, and
finally riding the lift, we were quickly brought up to speed on why the lift
had been closed.  A huge in-bounds avalanche (yes that is correct, this
slide was in-bounds unlike the one that occurred out of bounds near the
Canyons resort) had taken place on the slope underneath the Gad 2 lift.
Resort personnel told us that the slide released on Wednesday night, and
that fortunately nobody was injured.  They also said that the slide was
natural.  The fracture was at least 4 feet in places (pictures are available
through the link at the bottom of the report), and had partially buried one
of the towers on the lift.  Jon said this event was a bit disturbing, since
he had been skiing that very same slope on Wednesday before it slid.  I・m
not sure how often this type of stuff takes place, but it・s a bit scary to
think that such a big slide can happen in a controlled resort.  One local
said it was the first time he・d seen that area slide in 25 years at
Snowbird.  What was also strange was that the slope was still open to the
public.  They had lots of signage, but people would come down the slope,
have to jump off at the fracture, and then they・d land on a steep icy
surface full of tree stumps to finish off the second half of the trail.  We
saw one guy almost blow it after he jumped the fracture, only coming to a
stop after substantial sliding.  Obviously the patrol felt the slope was
safe, but it was hard to see why other parts of the remaining snowpack
couldn・t break off and slide.  In any event, none of us wanted to take a
chance on skiing it.

The skiing we did do off Gad 2 was actually a bit better than Little Cloud,
but not much.  The surfaces had been spared by about 1 day less traffic, but
untracked lines were still hard to find on the common slopes.  The best snow
we hit was through one of the gates that warned of :Experts Only; or
something like that.  Having experienced plenty of cliffy areas as Snowbird,
I worried about exploring too much and holding up the group due to
impassable areas, but Jon had explored this section on Wednesday.  He
brought us to about 50-100 vertical feet of nicely pitched powder, the best
turns I・d had all day by far.  The very best turns of the day came on our
way back to the Little Cloud lift.  Before reaching the base of Little
Cloud, we were able to cut to the right where the safety ropes had ended,
side step up a bit, and catch about a 100 vertical feet of powder on a slope
with a pitch around 40 degrees.  I only got about 4 turns out of it, but the
bottomless powder on such a pitch basically made my day.  This also
suggested that the powder was actually holding up fine under the
environmental conditions of the past few days, and that the heavy skier
traffic was to blame for the hard conditions in most places.

Bruce wanted to head back into the sun and do some more laps off of Little
Cloud, but I・d had more than enough hard snow for the day.  Jon and I had
been separated from the rest of the group after our powder foray anyway, so
we decided to at least hit some steeps before the day ended.  We headed out
along the Cirque Traverse, and chose a steep drop into the cirque area that
we had scouted the previous day.  Many of the drops into this area are
pretty intimidating, since there is often a 10-foot vertical wall of
corniced snow that must be negotiated to get to the terrain below.  Below
this wall, the skiing is not exceptionally steep, but unless you・re going
to straight line your way into the bowl, most people are going to want to
check their speed.  The spot we had chosen had a nice cut into the cornice
that allowed one to traverse in without a massive drop, but you still had to
scrub speed below.  Jon had watched a guy blow his first turn on Wednesday,
and slide down the chute and into the bowl on his back.  Fortunately for
him, that was soft, Wednesday snow.  Today we were facing harder, Friday
snow.  Blowing our first turns wasn・t quite as much of an option.  I could
see some rocks in the area where I wanted to check my speed, but I though I
could navigate around them.  So, after weighing the pros and cons (pros
being that we could see the snow was pretty nice in there, we・d get a few
good steep turns, and we・d be able to catch the high traverse in the
Cirque) we decided to drop in.  It was actually much easier than I・d
expected, despite the daunting entrance, and I was able to miss the rocks
and catch some sweet steep turns on smooth chalky snow.  Jon enjoyed his
turns (tele of course!) as well, and we were glad we・d made the right
choice.  We caught the high traverse, and eventually were able to work our
way over to the other side of the ridge in the Gad Chutes area.  Technically
I think Jon said we were beyond the Gad chutes area, but what we hit was
pretty darn steep (a couple of people said it might have been South Chute).
Whatever it was, we were in a huge slide path that dropped at least 1000
vertical feet, and started at a pitch of somewhere in the 35-40 degree
range.  It was steep and exposed enough that stopping to take pictures was a
fairly sketchy experience.  But, the snow was good and we had a memorable
run.  We・d certainly found that the steeper areas were holding better snow
than most places, presumably due to reduced traffic.  I・d love to go back
and hit that long run with fresh snow, it must be fantastic.

So, overall, I・m really glad we caught the tail end of the series of storms
that hit the Wasatch, because the fresh snow made such a huge difference.
I・m amazed at how quickly much of Snowbird・s terrain was reduced to having
rather firm and bumpy conditions, in just 3 midweek days!  Having missed
most storminess in previous visits, I just figured the conditions I・d
experienced were the way things were after a couple weeks without snow, but
those conditions seem to come on more quickly.  However, you can・t knock
Snowbird・s awesome steep terrain that just goes on and on and on.
Sometimes I・d look up from my Hotel and wonder, :How can that be only
~3,000 vertical feet?;  It looks like there should be even more!  The
dramatic views must do it, but the pitch of the skiing certainly lives up to
the view.

If I had known better, I would have put away my fats and pulled out my
midfats for day three (on day two they would have been the choice as well
except for the stuff we hit in Mineral Basin).  I definitely would not have
paid to ski a fourth day for the conditions, but would rather have gone into
the backcountry if I had stayed (although I wasn・t about to head into a
backcountry I didn・t know under those avalanche conditions anyway).  I
guess it just takes a bit of adjusting to the rate of snow use at a popular
place like Snowbird, when I・m used to the powder preservation at places
like Lost Trail in Montana or Sugarbush in Vermont.  With such amazing
steeps and a world-class resort, there is a price to the popularity.

Saturday, January 15th, 2005

On Saturday, we headed home under blue skies.  The roads were great almost
all the way, except for some icy packed snow once again in the Monida area,
and a little fresher snow in Montana at Lost Trail/Chief Joseph passes.
Northern Utah was surprisingly white and beautiful after all the recent
snowfall, even in the valley.  I snapped a few photos since I wasn・t sure
when I・d get to see that again.  Lisa drove the entire way home, so the
rest of got to rest and catch up on other things (like reviewing notes from
the meeting, writing up ski trip reports, or organizing our pictures!).
Thanks Lisa.

Selected pictures from the trip are available at:

If the above address doesn・t work yet, please try:


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