Access Denied: New UDOT restrictions stir frustration in Little Cottonwood Canyon

Looking up the road into Little Cottonwood Canyon. [Photo] Epak

Looking up the road into Little Cottonwood Canyon. [Photo] Epak

On Monday, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) announced a new set of closure restrictions for Little Cottonwood Canyon and SR 210, the route that accesses Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Resort, as well as many go-to backcountry zones for Salt Lake City residents. The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) reported the new restrictions on their website and explained that, due to user conflicts, the comprehensive closure of all backcountry zones the night before any planned UDOT avalanche control measures.

New restrictions prohibit access to backcountry zones in the canyon between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., thus limiting early morning dawn patrol missions. And closures span the canyon from ridgeline to ridgeline. As the UAC explains, this means, “everything within 1 km of a target. This includes ridgelines and a portion of the backside.” And the consequences of breaking the rules are steep with violators being subject to arrest.

There has been an ongoing struggle to balance the needs of UDOT’s avalanche control work on the access road up Little Cottonwood Canyon and the desires of SLC’s backcountry community. These restrictions are motivated by the danger that backcountry skiers present if they are in the firing zone for any avalanche control work implemented by the state.

On his blog, Park City resident and renowned ski mountaineer Andrew McLean writes about some the causes and ramifications of this new policy.

“The road is controlled by artillery, which means that even a single backcountry skier can disrupt the shooting process by touring in a targeted zone, which will delay the road opening,” McLean explains. “As such, UDOT has now instituted a top-to-bottom, wall-to-wall backcountry closure on not only all of Little Cottonwood Canyon, but even a kilometer beyond the ridgeline in the overshoot area while they are controlling it.”

The UAC is clear in their desire to comply with these new restrictions that are meant to keep backcountry skiers out of harm’s way while perpetuating access for winter recreation along this corridor.

“If you don’t want your early-morning mountain therapy session to be shut down,” the UAC states in Monday’s report, “it would be wise to pay attention to UDOT activity this winter.”

And this winter “therapy” can continue, just after the hour of 8 a.m. when UDOT will be finished with their early morning avalanche mitigation work.

Below is a full list of the new UDOT restrictions as published on the UAC’s website.

  • In a typical storm scenario, all Little Cottonwood Canyon backcountry will be closed at 8 p.m. the evening before an anticipated 6:30 a.m. shoot. The most likely opening time will be 8 a.m.. 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. Violators are subject to arrest.
  • If the opening is going to be later than 8:30 a.m., UDOT will post updates.
  • Backcountry closures will be announced by 8 p.m. 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

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