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LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — The lake effect from the Great Salt Lake means Little Cottonwood Canyon gets more fresh powder annually than anywhere else in the lower 48 states — a statistic that makes the road through the canyon one of the most treacherous in the country.
Add the tricky, avalanche-prone terrain to the more than 500 inches on average picked up every year at Alta and Snowbird, and you can see why people who live in the canyon are so grateful to see the plows coming.
- On average, Utah experiences 25-40 winter storms annually
- UDOT's snow team includes 503 full-time plow drivers
- 499 snowplow trucks, 11 self-propelled snowblowers and 4 TowPlows statewide
- 18,000 lane miles of roadway for which crews are responsible
- 79 primary maintenance stations (staging areas) throughout Utah
The Utah Department of Transportation plow drivers who keep that road clear are among the best of the best — one reason they were featured in the Discovery Channel’s reality series “Snow Men.”
George Priskos, supervisor of the Cottonwood sheds for UDOT, said there’s no such thing as “typical” in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
“Every storm is different, with the winds that they get up there and the amount of snow. There is no such thing as a typical storm,” Priskos said. “Everything is unique.”
Priskos’ crew applies a different grade of salt in the canyons than on the valley floor — a red salt provided by Redmond (makers of Real Salt), which is coarser and grips the road better.
No complaints from the town of Alta.
“That highway is the lifeblood of our community up here,” Mayor Tom Pollard said.
Alta only has 380 permanent residents, according to the most recent census, but on a “fresh powder day” — once a big storm clears out, that population grows by about 10 times.
“The greatest snow on earth is really true up here, and on a day when we get a large amount of new snowfall, the appeal to get up here is even greater,” Pollard said.
It takes a small army of people to make that happen, between Priskos and his crew of UDOT plow drivers, avalanche control experts, forecasters and first responders — from Unified police personnel making sure the vehicles entering the canyon are equipped for the weather to the firefighters who help drivers like Shawn Wright dig out when they’re caught in a slide.
That danger is high enough that every driver is required to wear an avalanche beacon in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Priskos says sooner or later, it happens to every driver.
“It’s kind of a wait situation to see,” Priskos said, “because you don’t want to put anybody else’s life in danger. As long as you’re in your truck and you have your beacon, you’re secured and they’ll get to you as soon as possible.”
He added, “The avalanche guys are very good at what they do.”
Slides or not, Wright wouldn't trade his job for any other.
“(It’s) something you don’t get to do,” Wright said as he recently drove his plow up the canyon to clear the road. “Four o’clock in the morning up here, you’re going through — you know, the average is a foot to two feet of snow with no tracks. It’s pretty neat up here, that’s for sure.”
For some like Wright, dealing with the greatest snow on earth is the greatest job on earth.