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What I Learned Driving Little Cottonwood Canyon on a Powder Day

You’ll want more than Google Maps if you’re coming from Salt Lake City to Alta during a storm—namely intel, patience, and a pee bottle.

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I was visiting Salt Lake City for a trade show when I heard that Little Cottonwood Canyon was expected to get 10 inches of snow overnight. Might as well drive up to Alta to get the goods, I figured. I’d already spent one day there, making pleasant but unremarkable turns on terrain that had hardened between storms, and by returning for powder, I’d only be answering skiers’ call of duty. But when I mentioned my plan to an Alta employee, she frowned.

“You’re staying in Salt Lake?” she asked with obvious skepticism. I nodded. “They’ll probably close the canyon tonight,” she continued. I nodded again, feigning knowing agreement, but in truth, I had no idea what to do with this intel—or with the cryptic clues that followed.

“Show up at the base of the canyon by 6:30 tomorrow morning,” directed my informant, who lives in the valley and knows the tactics for a successful commute. “Don’t take Wasatch. Take 95th. You’ll see the line of cars pulled over beside the road.”

Little Cottonwood Canyon traffic
Is there a method to the madness that ensues on a powder day in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon? We still don’t know. (Photo: Lee Cohen)

That was my mission, should I choose to accept it. Apparently, one does not simply drive to Alta on a powder day: Believing so had been a naïve assumption, like expecting to walk up to the U.S. Mint and blithely haul away money. No, a powder-day trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon requires savvy sleuthing–and a cruelly early start.

At 5:00, I peeled back the covers on my hotel bed and doubted that any powder turns could possibly be worth this rigmarole. But with Alta reporting 14 inches overnight, I groggily filled my insulated mug from the lobby’s coffee urn and steered my car toward Little Cottonwood Canyon.

Highway 210, which snakes through Little Cottonwood to link metropolitan Salt Lake City to the Alta and Snowbird ski areas, ranks as having the highest avalanche risk of any road in North America. Safety closures are common, and my informant’s prediction proved accurate: On its website and Instagram account, Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) announced that early-morning slide mitigation would require Highway 210 to remain closed to traffic until 8 am.

Related: $10 Roundtrip Buses Up This Crowded Canyon Begin Soon, But Will They Ease Traffic?

By 6:15, I was cruising south on US Route 89, peering into the pre-dawn darkness for 95th Street, which didn’t seem to exist. Instead, I found a 9400 Street that ran east-west into Little Cottonwood Canyon. Was that my road?

It was. Rolling east on 9400, I saw the line of parked cars and pulled over to join them. A lighted highway sign announced that Little Cottonwood was closed. More lights twinkled from the cars lining up on Wasatch Boulevard, beyond the wooded ravine that divided my road from theirs. It reminded me of my sunrise hike to Macchu Picchu, where I watched trains of headlamps glimmering along the trail approaching the monument. Except we skiers were waiting for UDOT to drop the green flag that would start our race up Highway 210.

My mind wandered while I waited. Would we all maintain this orderly line once we got the cue to go? Or would drivers start jockeying for pole position? A few latecomers staged their vehicles just ahead of me at GK Gilbert Geologic View Park: What were they up to? And what should I do about my increasingly urgent need to pee?

Alta Snow RG23
Is there anything more satisfying than getting the goods that you just worked so hard for? (Photo: Courtesy of Alta Ski Area)

Having emptied my coffee mug, I badly needed to empty my bladder. But no one from the line of parked cars was stepping outside to water the bushes—perhaps, I thought, because our street bordered a residential neighborhood where windows glowed. Parents don’t want people peeing on their kids’ school bus stop. Yet when I imagined waiting till Alta, I envisioned my ski boots filling up with an uncontrollable flood of urine.

My salvation was the WAG bag that I keep in my glove compartment for road-trip emergencies. Squatting above the floor mat, I opened the bag and did what would have been unthinkable with companions in the car. “No friends on a powder day,” I murmured in blissful relief.

But UDOT was late. At 8:25, it looked as if several hundred cars had joined the various lines of cars below the canyon when the lead-off vehicles apparently got the OK to roll. Cars parked at GK Gilbert viewpoint thrust themselves into the fray. A Sprinter van sped ahead from somewhere in the back. But my line of drivers quickly angled onto 9400 and I started my final approach to Alta. Passing through the intersection with Wasatch Boulevard, I noted how that queue had to yield to us, which slowed its progress (I whispered apologies to the harried face that waited in vain for an opening).

Finally, I was rolling steadily up Highway 210. Pulling into the Alta parking lot, I joined about 30 cars already there, then hustled into my boots and into line at the Wildcat Lift (I was ninth). Like UDOT, Alta’s ski patrol was also late in opening the mountain to skiers, but when we eventually loaded onto the lift—four and a half hours after my quest began–I surveyed acres of untracked lines off the chair to my right.

It wasn’t airy pow that tickled my nose as I trenched first tracks through knee-deep snow. The warm, windy storm had deposited an unusually dense layer that pelted me with snowballs. Not that I cared: Freed from my car and thirsting for speed, I barely turned my skis across the hill to brake my descent.

Sliding into line at the Collins lift, I felt high on more than powder euphoria: This operative had aced a seemingly impossible mission. Even without the congratulatory video-call from top brass at HQ, I knew I’d attempted one of the toughest commutes in American skiing—and won. A single victory lap hardly seemed like enough. And so, flushed with glory, I boarded the chair for more.