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 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.



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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

@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.

Stand by - UDOT is listening.

I think it'd be a shame to close the rest of LCC down the road from the major slide paths that UDOT is trying to control. For instance, I'm not sure the ice climbing areas in LCC get the snowfall and I've never heard of any avy control on the Great White Icicle for instance. On any given day, and time, there's cars parked at the trailhead for the GWI. Folks routinely climb after work and before work. Not having access to that resource especially if there's no control work within a few miles wouldn't be great. Thanks for the update, Paul!

Just to clear things up, typically BC access is closed above the B gate near mile marker 6 at 8pm the night before a shoot. The road itself closes at B Gate at 0530. There are some exceptions where the road will be closed at A Gate when control work in Coalpit 4 is needed.

Thanks Paul for the sober tone on this subject. This change in protocol really shouldn't constitute a significant impingement on most of our BC skiing use. The White Pine trailhead opportunity was rarely utilized by dawn patrol skiers and the more nuanced, detailed closure notifications ("Tanners thru Monte Christo closed," etc) seem to have added confusion. How many of us are really lapping it up in Cardiac Bowl during an artillery control mission? How many folks are squeezing in a quick Little Pine on days when Superior thru Grizzly Gulch needs avalanche control work? How many of us are noodling Flagstaff Shoulder at 8 PM the night before a control mission, even in the spring when the light lingers? Camping underneath Two Dogs during a big snow storm? OK maybe underneath West Bowl would be nice camping during a storm. The fact, though I cannot personally substantiate it with statistics, is that conflicts with prospective tourers and control work missions in Alta and even down-canyon are very common. This is our opportunity to lose. LCC road provides access to residents, folks getting to their jobs, and millions of recreationists a year, and public safety is unlikely to take a backseat to BC skiing access, nor should it. Paul, I think the PR focus could be on getting bc users to sign up for @CanyonAlerts and @UDOTavy, though UAC does a good job promoting that already.

It has become clear that there is much confusion and emotion surrounding the revised UDOT LCC closure policy. The UDOT Avalanche Safety Program is preparing a revised public statement that will be released on this forum soon. The policy will also be explained and discussed at the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance membership meeting on Tuesday December 13. We appreciate everyone's passion toward the Wasatch backcountry as we are also backcountry users and skiers. We are committed to crafting the right policy that ensures safety while minimizing the impact to all users.

I have to reinforce the tidal response that this policy is Draconian. I understand that closures are necessary and safety is paramount. I also understand that a few ignorant or impulsive BC travelers can delay opening. However, closing areas not in the immediate area of control work is at least silly and at worst, stemming from an ulterior motive. There is absolutely no reason to penalize someone skiing in the mid elevation trees in Red Pine because of control work 6 miles away in Middle Pine Slide. It's on a different aspect with a different runout and no possible chance of impacting UDOT operations. Discretion and judgment is at the heart of BC travel and it is the responsibility of the individual to assess risk and make choices. In order to preserve the rights of public access while balancing operational safety, it is better to establish a restrictive space in a minimalist way. BC travelers are impressively aware of terrain, route finding, and changing conditions. I suggest using a more specific boundary for the restrictions based on specific slide paths and their runout zones. Add in some room for "bad shots" (let's exclude the incident in Orem a few years ago or we'd have to close Cottonwood Heights, too). I encourage you to use modern messaging (like the Twitter feed you already have) but BE SPECIFIC about what is being closed. It is wrong and unnecessary to close unaffected areas. This goes against the very long standing policy of open access that separates Utah from Colorado. It works in Europe and Canada, it can work here, too. Let's be better... no, let's be THE BEST.

While I can understand UDOT's perspective on this since backcountry skiers with powder fever are not always blessed with an abundance of sensibility or magnaminity towards other canyon users, the policy is complete overkill. I highly doubt this policy will stand up to legal challenge, and if I were placing bets, I would say that there will most certainly be a legal challenge if someone is cited under this ordinance for skiing the Pink Pine trees while UDOT is shooting Superior. This policy is simplistic and excessive. It is like amputating a leg because an ingrown toenail MAY lead to risk of infection. While we're at it, let's close all of the trail heads in BCC so that we can be sure no one is within 1 km of targets on the backside. Really? A public agency is going to close public land (and a tremendous amount of it) without providing transparency and statistics as to how many times a backcountry skier has caused a delay in the road opening and the average length of the delay? Lawyers must be salivating. Also, the comment that White Pine is rarely used for dawn patrols is absolutely prepostorous and reduces the credibility of this policy's argument even further. Even when arriving at 5:30 AM 10 years ago midweek I would ALWAYS see other touring parties. Today, this trailhead is even more well loved and absolutely should not be closed just because UDOT needs to shoot something on the other side of the road. By the logic of this policy (just close everything to make it easier for UDOT), we should also close the road because sometimes when it snows, a car runs into another car or slides into a ditch. Sometimes, this happens even on sunny days because someone is texting while driving, so we should ban cell phones too as they are a danger to the public. When a vehicular crash happens, it delays the opening of the road, prevents people from being able to access public land, and causes economic losses as well as emotional distress of those stuck in traffic (Siegfried and Jensen are you out there?). So, let's just close the road permanently or at the very least, we most certainly should ban cars because I can guarantee that more time has been lost due to car accidents than backcountry users. The automotive ban will make everything so much more streamlined and we won't have to worry about those pesky people accessing THEIR land anymore, and no one will have to get up early in the morning to shoot artillery or drive plow trucks. See? It will be so much easier! Hopefully based on the comments UDOT is beginning to understand that this approach is untenable.

December 14th at 7pm UDOT's Matt Mckee with present on the new backcountry closure policy during the Fireside chat held at Black Diamond Retail Store.

Keeping emotion out of the feedback. I've done dawn patrol many times from White Pine trailhead and patiently waited for UDOT to open the road on our return. UDOT does an excellent job keeping LCC and BCC safe, and enhancing our quality of life through BC access, but I think this well intended policy should be revised. If you're off the road and out of the way - ie Pink Pine, Red Pine, etc. - during control work, you should be able to get in and out before and after.

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) is responsible for managing the threat of avalanches affecting Utah’s state highways. This is to ensure the safety of the travelling public along with the cities and communities that those highways connect. Many of the threatened highways lead to popular world class skiing in the Wasatch Backcountry. As the backcountry population increases, so does the risk of encounters between skiers and artificially triggered avalanches. Also, it increases the risk of a skier coming into contact with artillery shrapnel used for avalanche control. Recently, in collaboration with the Utah Avalanche Center, UDOT began the process of adjusting our backcountry closure policy for avalanche control. The goal was to make the messaging less confusing and more consistent to reduce the growing numbers of touring parties attempting to enter areas targeted for avalanche control. The UAC blog post “New Avalanche Explosives Work Backcountry Closure Procedures Going Into Effect” was released prematurely and without final UDOT approval. In addition, the public wasn’t given a chance to provide comment on the revised policy. Since then, many have reached out to voice objections to a closure of all Little Cottonwood Canyon Backcountry. We’ve heard the feedback and are in the process of crafting a revised policy. The new closure policy will pull back from “all backcountry” to just areas “north of Little Cottonwood Creek, between Lisa Falls and Grizzly Gulch”. We will allow access to the south side of the canyon from the White Pine parking lot with the understanding that if we encounter any abuse where a party crosses into closed terrain on the North side, the White Pine parking lot may become part of the closure. The overnight closure will begin at 10 p.m. and extend until control work is complete, usually at 8 a.m. the next day. Avalanche control is conducted in mountain areas all over the world and it is standard protocol to ensure complete evacuation of affected areas prior to the use of explosives that trigger avalanches. Along with this, programs like UDOT’s that use military artillery have the extra responsibility to clear all areas that are subject to flying shrapnel from the exploding ordinance. U.S. Army regulations state that the safe standoff distance for 105mm artillery rounds is 1,000 meters. The Wasatch poses some unique challenges to this industry with its proximity to two million residents and relatively easy access to world class skiing and recreating. The avalanche safety program in Little Cottonwood Canyon has been utilizing military artillery since 1949 with great success. In the early 80’s UDOT took over the role of stewarding this avalanche safety and, since then, the numbers of backcountry users has steadily increased. It is imperative that we do everything we can to reduce the chance that someone is injured or killed in the process of us trying to prevent people from being injured or killed. The avalanche problem in Little Cottonwood Canyon is a serious challenge in and of itself, exacerbated by the issue of having to manage the large number of people recreating in the area. Communicating with every individual skier prior to conducting active control measures is a complicated process. It resembles a multi-layered safety net designed so at least one strand of netting sits in the path of someone wandering into the blast zone. We post Twitter and Instagram messages @UDOTavy and tweets @CanyonAlerts, roadway message signs, use trailhead closures, make UDOT and UAC website announcements, post to popular local web forums and use thermal imaging to scan starting zones. As an extra precaution, we station a team of avalanche forecasters along the highway overnight and through the morning picking up those that make it through all the first layers. Despite these efforts, with every avalanche control mission, we still see multiple parties attempting to find a way through. This is just not acceptable or sustainable. This policy revision is an effort to tighten things up before an accident happens. Over the last decade, under the authority of both the Town of Alta and Salt Lake County, UDOT has enacted backcountry closures prior to and during control missions. Prior to this recent change the boundary consisted of the areas targeted for artillery above the highway between Lisa Falls and Grizzly Gulch, from the road to the ridgeline. The closure normally began at midnight the night before a 7 a.m. shoot and lasted until about 8 a.m. The overnight start time is in place to attempt to eliminate early morning dawn patrol ski touring in target zones. This closure has been mostly effective, but over the last few winters we have seen an increased number of parties attempting to skirt around the closure - both knowingly and unknowingly - to start a ski tour. UDOT simply doesn’t have the resources to patrol all the likely starting points for backcountry tourers and must do something to eliminate these loose ends. One important addition to the closure is the 1,000 meter buffer zone along the ridgeline into Big Cottonwood Canyon. This is the high hazard zone that is subject to potential shrapnel from anti-personnel artillery rounds. It is not, as some have suggested, a buffer zone for an overshoot. While the chance remains extremely small that a person in this area could be hit by shrapnel, it is absolutely mandatory that we make the risk known and take steps to ensure the area is clear. UDOT plans to explain the revised closure policy to the Wasatch Backcountry Alliance executive board on Tuesday Dec. 13 and also participate in a public discussion on Dec. 14 at the Utah Avalanche Center Fireside Chat at the Black Diamond retail store at 2092 E. 3900 South in Salt Lake. After these meetings we will post the details of the revised closure policy on the UDOT Avalanche website where there will also be a place for public comments. At UDOT, safety is our top priority. To keep everyone safe, we ask that you please understand our position in trying to balance the difficult work of safely conducting avalanche control with the freedoms of backcountry recreationists. We simply cannot allow an accident involving the two.

UDOT's draft backcountry closure policy can be found here and they will welcome comments through January 6th.