Blog: New Avalanche Explosives Work Backcountry Closure Procedures Going Into Effect

Monday, November 28, 2016
Paul Diegel

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is implementing a revised policy for backcountry closures in Little Cottonwood Canyon this winter to help get SR 210 open quickly and safely, keep it open, and to reduce the likelihood of backcountry travelers exposed to avalanche explosives work. UDOT has thousands of people waiting on them to reduce the avalanche hazard and safely open the road and the sighting of a single person or even evidence of a person near their artillery targets can delay opening for hours. For this reason, they will be enforcing a complete closure of all backcountry in Little Cottonwood Canyon the night before any planned avalanche mitigation work. If this revised plan does not work, more restrictive closures may be needed. 

If you don’t want your early-morning mountain therapy session to be shut down, it would be wise to pay attention to UDOT activity this winter.

Details of the new policy:

  • In a typical storm scenario, all Little Cottonwood Canyon backcountry will be closed at 8 PM the evening before an anticipated 6:30 AM shoot. The most likely opening time will be 8 AM. This includes areas on both sides of the road accessed from White Pine trailhead.
  • The closure includes everything within 1 km of a target. This includes ridgelines and a portion of the backside. A closure is not a recommendation. Closures are enforced by Salt Lake County Ordinance 13.12.010 - Closed or unsafe areas and Town of Alta Ordinance 5-4-1: AUTHORITY TO PROHIBIT OUTDOOR TRAVEL. Violators are subject to arrest.
  • If the opening is going to be later than 8:30 AM, UDOT will post updates.
  • Backcountry closures will be announced by 8 PM the night before anticipated closures. Sometimes the weather serves up surprises, and it’s possible that a planned closure won’t happen or that plans will change in the middle of the night. But every effort will be made to finalize a plan the night before and stick with it.
  • Announcements will be made on Twitter (#UDOTavy)
  • The Utah Avalanche Center  (#UACWasatch) will retweet the UDOTavy message.
  • Backcountry road closures will be announced in the SLC advisory and in the Dawn Patrol Hotline
  • A bright red UDOT message will appear on UAC pages

Some suggestion for avoiding closed backcountry terrain:

  • Subscribe to the UDOTavy and the #UACWasatch twitter feeds and receive them via text Instructions to get either Twitter feed via text
  • Call the UAC Dawn Patrol Hotline before you go out (888-999-4019 option 8, generally updated by 5 AM)
  • Check utahavalanchecenter.org before you go out
  • On days that you have any reason to believe that control work will be done, plan to ride somewhere besides LCC.  Big Cottonwood Canyon avalanche explosives work will be required occasionally and will be communicated in the same way.  Much less often, though, and typically with more advance warning.
  • When closures are in effect, stay away from the LCC ridgelines, regardless of where you start your tour

UDOT is committed to keeping the road open to provide safe canyon access to all of us. Evidence of anyone in a target area brings all avalanche explosives work to a halt. To say the military weapons used for avalanche explosives work are extremely dangerous is an understatement. One accident involving explosives and the public will likely shut down all highway avalanche explosive work in the US. Living so close to the Greatest Snow on Earth is a big part of why so many of us live here, but sometimes the weather, terrain, and number of other people creates a challenge.  Be smart and let the highway crews do their job.

Region:

Comments

What happens if you are on a overnighter or multi day tour and you entered the backcountry when it was open, then UDOT closes the backcountry. Are you then forced to exit the mountains? Will you then be ticketed upon exiting? Any ideas?

The short answer to both your question is no. UDOT closes backcountry ACCESS the night prior to control work. If you are camped in areas south of the road (such as the white pine/red pine areas), you are fine staying there. What you cannot do is exit the canyon after the road has closed. You'd have to wait in White Pine parking until the road opens after control work. UDOT typically makes note of cars parked overnight and blocks exit from the parking lot prior to shooting. If you were camped in upper BCC, you'd just need to stay 1 KM away from the LCC ridegline while control work is in progress.

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Does this now mean that when a storm is on the horizon "overnighting" is highly discouraged and/or possibly illegal?

I think the answer to your question is explained above.

I'm confused. In the first paragraph, it says that the ban affects ALL backcounty use in LCC from the night before at 8:00pm until they tweet an all-clear later the next day. Later it says that the closure includes everything within 1km of the target, plus a portion of the backside. Is this going to be an entire canyon ban on BC skiing, or just zones? What if you are camping?

I recently had this clarified - ALL of Little Cottonwood Canyon will be closed to backcountry skiing, PLUS a 1km overshoot buffer on the backside of ridges.

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I don't really understand why the south side of the road from White Pine would have to be closed.

I'd be more impressed if I thought this was actually going to get the road open quicker. If UDOT was serious they'd start control work earlier rather than implying that BC skiers are the cause of their poor performance. Sorry UDOT I'm not buying your story.

You really want them shooting off the big guns when they can't see???

For better or worse the Canadian Armed Forces can fire under any conditions to do control work in Rogers Pass, British Columbia. Permanent launch sites (concrete pads) at preset targets allows them to keep the Trans Canada Highway rolling as much as possible. I've personally only been there once so I can't speak to its overall effectiveness for either the highway or backcountry users. Their system would likely not work well for LCC as there is permitting process even for day use of terrain with avy paths to the road. Given the orders of magnitude greater population in SLC a passive mitigation system seems like a more prudent approach for the long term. More info about 1/2 down the link below: http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/glacier/visit/AvCon2.aspx

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This seems excessive and heavy handed to the average BC skier. Maybe it would be helpful if a report of incidents where possible back country skiers delayed control work was published along with this post and along with some supporting back story pr explanation as to why areas like Twin Lakes Pass or the Red Pine drainage needs to be closed. This might get more public buy in. If the overall goal is to keep people from getting killed by a howitzer then getting their buy in should be important and blanket closures without supporting facts are not likely to accomplish this goal.

Ben, regarding Red Pine area, read my answer above. Regarding Twin Lakes Pass, UDOT does have targets above Grizzly Gulch and the pass is within the 1km buffer. You can be in upper BCC while control work is in progress, just not within 1km of the pass or ridgeline.

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This is excessive and seems to benefit helicopter operation for anything with in the eye shot of the resorts. Although I do not know all the landings for Powderbirds, it does seem a bit beneficial for them to be able to hit spots before anyone by foot can have a close to fair chance of getting up onto the ridge line. Without data on the human factor delaying avi control, this seems ridiculous.

How many more years of ammo does Udot have stock piled? I don't see Udot changing their mitigation strategies anytime soon, unless the just run out of ammo.

This is bullshit, catch me if you can, i'm going skiing. How is it that a state entity has jurisdiction over federal lands beyond the state road like this????

UDOT does not, but the Sheriff does. Unfortunately, the blog post does not that make that point clear. The sheriff when advised by UDOT will issue the closure.

Thanks for clearing this up. You are correct, UDOT closed the backcountry under the jurisdiction of UPD and the Salt Lake County Sheriff. The closure is enforced under the same Salt Lake County code that Ski areas use to close areas in their boundaries. Paul lists these codes in his post.

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@Utarded your strategy is unfortunate and will get you arrested or killed and will hurt public access for all of us. You can go skiing, just go in BCC or anywhere else in the Wasatch during these times. While I don't like the blanket ban, I do recognize that WE, the users of the backcountry, have created a problem. Mark Saurer gave a talk at USAW this year to discuss the steps that UDOT has taken to avoid having to implement the blanket ban and to ensure they do not kill us. UDOT has Infrared Binoculars that can spot touring parties from across the canyon, but this technology does not work in a snow storm. There are tweets, posts on UAC, signs with flashing lights and sheriffs patrolling the road. Yet, with all of these measures, Saurer mentioned that there are increasing numbers of people wandering into their target zones and/or the run out zones. These parties often started from the same trailheads that include safe tours. While it may not have been you personally or me, there are plenty of people who let Stoke override their judgment and traipse into whatever area they please, regardless of the blinking lights and warning signs.... maybe this is out of oblivion, or maybe it's due to "this is bullshit, catch me if you can"... Case in point.

Thanks all for the comments.  A more detailed response with some clarifications and possibly some adjustments is in the works.  Some quick points - Andrew is right, the 1 km separation is in addition to the closure area and is a US Army rule, reflecting the fact that that shrapnel doesn't stop to ask if you started your climb in Big or Little Cottonwood.  Nobody is running out of ammo - the weapons currently in use are modern and well-stocked. The jurisdictional part about SL Unified Police issuing and enforcing closures was edited out but is correct. This policy change is based on actual problems, not hypothetical ones. The Canadian example raises a good point - we are trying to head off a need for permits to enter the backcountry. And the "catch me if you can" is the strategy that could push us closer to a permanent closure or permit system.

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