Warm temps create high avalanche danger in Cottonwood Canyons

Apr 10, 2023, 5:15 PM | Updated: 6:44 pm

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS, Utah — Getting up and down Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons will continue to be a challenge this week due to unprecedented avalanche danger.

The heating of the sun on the snow is preventing travel during the middle of the day.  According to the Utah Department of Transportation, avalanche crews have never seen anything like the dangerous wet avalanche activity underway this week.

“When the danger is as considerable as it is right now, we just don’t want to take any chances,” John Gleason, UDOT Director of Communications said.

Wet avalanche on state Route 210

A wet avalanche covered state Route 210 Monday morning in the White Pine chutes area of Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Utah Department of Transportation)

A wet avalanche hit the road in Little Cottonwood Canyon Monday in the White Pine chutes area which is down canyon from Snowbird.  It deposited a large volume of snow on the road, causing more cleanup work for crews.

UDOT closed the canyon until approximately 4 p.m. Monday.

“Up until this point, the concern has been the tremendous amount of snow that we had,” Gleason said.  “Now it’s the sun, and it’s melting some of the snowpack, and it’s creating these wet slides that can essentially look like lava coming down the mountainside.”

An avalanche forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center said that as the heating of the day warms the snowpack, individual grains of snow melt away from each other. They lose strength as they loosen from each other and the snowpack becomes unstable and slides. That’s what causes a wet slide.

“We want to avoid that from happening when people are traveling through the canyons. That’s the reason for the closures in the canyons right now,” Gleason said.

Big Cottonwood Canyon will be closed from 11 AM until four PM each day through Thursday. 

Wet avalanche on state Route 210

A wet avalanche covered state Route 210 Monday morning in the White Pine chutes area of Little Cottonwood Canyon. (Utah Department of Transportation)

“That’s when the sun really heats up, and we have the increased chance of these what we’re calling wet avalanches,” Gleason said. 

There is still no estimated time to reopen Little Cottonwood Canyon.  That canyon remains closed entirely because the slide paths are bigger and large avalanches are still hitting the road.

“All of the people that are working up in those canyons, they’ve never experienced this before,” Gleason said. “So, we’re doing the best that we can to stay on top of the situation, and make sure it’s the same situation for everyone.”

The UDOT avalanche team is monitoring the conditions.

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Warm temps create high avalanche danger in Cottonwood Canyons