LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON — They get up in the middle of the night and clear one of the nation’s most dangerous roads so the rest of us can enjoy “the greatest snow on Earth.”
Now the snowplow and avalanche control crews of the Utah Department of Transportation are getting their due as stars of a TV show on the Discovery Channel — and bringing the state some revenue at the same time.
The last of three episodes of “Snow Men” will air Friday at 11 p.m. and Saturday at 4 p.m. The first show pulled 1.2 million viewers, while numbers for the second dropped off slightly, according to UDOT spokesman Nile Easton. The ratings for this weekend’s show could determine whether it will be picked up for more episodes.
State Route 210, winding up Little Cottonwood Canyon, carries up to 8,000 vehicles a day during peak season to the resorts of Snowbird and Alta, just beyond the treacherous middle section surrounding the White Pine and Little Pine slide areas, a 2006 UDOT study found. Snowbird opens on Saturday, and Alta is scheduled to open Nov. 19.
UDOT’s control program — including shooting old Army artillery rounds to initiate planned slides — keeps the risk from the canyon’s 35 avalanche paths down to a 10th of what it otherwise would be, but the danger is still high.
“I think people, particularly Utahns, really don’t know how much work it takes to keep that canyon open,” Easton said. “It’s a big priority for our department and our guys do an incredible job of doing it, so getting that story out has been very positive.”
The Discovery Channel contributes about $13,000 per episode to the state’s transportation fund, which in turn invests in supplies to keep roads clear, Easton said. The show takes viewers inside the typically hectic days and nights of the snowplow crews as they dealt with heavy storms in March and April.
“These guys are literally plowing in the dark, often with their lights off because they can see better without the lights on,” Easton said. “To be on that little two-lane road with a cliff on one side and a mountain on the other, it’s a tough job.”
According to the UDOT study, realigning the road would have environmental impacts, while building snow sheds over the road would cost tens of millions of dollars. The most efficient way to protect people from avalanches and allow quicker responses is to reduce traffic by carpooling and using park-and-rides, the study said.
In 2002, the Utah Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit from a man who said UDOT failed to properly manage a 1998 avalanche that seriously injured him near Alta.
To see clips from the show, visit http://dsc.discovery.com
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company