Snow ought to be snow, but skiers from around the world have discovered it's just different, better, at Alta.
Weatherbank's Mark Eubank says he thinks it has to do with the salt in the west desert. It is the magic secret ingredient to the "greatest snow on Earth" that usually falls more heavily upon Alta than anywhere else because of the way Little Cottonwood Canyon is situated.Eubank, aka "Snowbank," can't say definitively that Utah's is the best snow on Earth, but, he says, "In Denver, their snow should be the same, but it isn't as fluffy. Professional skiers tell us Wasatch snow is somehow different, and the only thing I can think of is these salt particles."
Eubank's theory is that as storms approach, the winds kick up salt dust on the desert, and salt particles end up in the clouds. Salt is hygroscopic - it absorbs moisture - and the salt particles become the nuclei for snowflakes. "And then I think there's some physics involved that make these particular ice crystals the kind that are just super to ski on," Eubank says.
A study was done, he said, in which melted Wasatch snow was analyzed and found to contain more salt than most snow. "Not enough to affect drinking quality but enough to be noticeable," Eubank says.
Alta general manager Onno Wieringa looks at the "classic" Utah snowstorm as coming from Alaska down the Pacific Coast, pushing warm, moist air ahead of cold, dry air. The first part of a "classic" Alta snowstorm drops denser snow that, driven by winds, packs into depressions, self-grooming the runs. Then the dry fluff from the second, colder, part of the storm falls upon a smooth carpet of a base, leaving rut-free gliding for skiers.
"That combination is unbeatable," Wieringa says.
The Coast gets wet snow but little dry stuff. Cascade Concrete. Sierra Cement. Montana, Wyoming and Colorado get cold, dry snow straight out of Canada. "Quite often, they get lighter snow than we do," says Wieringa, "but you just ski right through it to the old base - you're still skiing on the hard snow underneath.
"You need the combination to put the cream on it."
Wieringa and Eubank both doubt that there is any difference in the quality of Alta snow and Snowbird snow because there is only a mile's difference between the two locations, but there is no denying Alta averages more snow per year (550 inches) than its nearest neighbor, or anywhere else in Utah. "It just snows more right in this little corner of the Wasatch than it does anywhere else," Wieringa says. "If it snows more, it covers up old tracks and bumps faster."
More means better.
It goes back to the "classic" style of Utah snowstorm that dumps on Little Cottonwood Canyon more than anywhere else. When storms come more from the south, says Eubank, Sundance and Park City and resorts on the east side of the mountains do better. When there's lake-effect snowfall, Bountiful gets as much as Alta. But the typical big snowstorm comes down the Gulf of Alaska and turns the corner somewhere between Washington and Northern California, preceding itself with winds from the south or southwest over Delta and the west desert.
"When a storm comes in and hits any mountain," says Eubank, "it's forced to rise, and the air cools and makes the clouds squeeze like a sponge. The escarpment is so steep on the East Bench the lifting is extreme so the squeezing is extreme, and we get a phenomenal amount of snow on the west-facing slopes."
Adds Wieringa, "At the speed a storm typically comes through, by the time it gets enough rise to where it starts to lose its precipitation, it just kind of falls about here. This is the epicenter of where it happens under most conditions."
This fact was noticed by Alta's forefathers. "Fifty years ago when they were picking out a spot to put the resort," says Wieringa, "they went, `Here's a place with a wonderful location, and it seems to snow more here than anywhere else - and we've got first pick.' "They could have put the ski area at Solitude, or where Snowbird is, or gone over to Snowbasin, but this is the spot here," Wieringa says.
**** First choice meant first headaches, too, because Alta was never a simple spot to get to, even if 8,000 miners did live there at one time. The miners traveled Little Cottonwood at their own risk, but the new ski resort had some obligation to those it lured up the canyon; besides, how could skiers get there to pay their money when the canyon was blocked by avalanches? Brigham Young's pioneers found Little Cottonwood a prime source of timber for housing, and logging operations sprang up all over the canyon, making snowslides inevitable on the barren slopes. The south-facing slopes above Alta were naturally treeless, but miners who followed the loggers in the 1860s cut all the trees on the other slopes, making the town itself vulnerable.
Of necessity, American avalanche forecast and control techniques were born at the top of Little Cottonwood, parented by the Forest Service and the resort.
Record-keeping, common-sense guidelines, use of explosives, artillery and mobile artillery, invention of measurement instruments, an avalanche study school . . . "It was all done here first," says Alta ski patrolman Mark Kalitowski.
Research at Alta has dealt with day-to-day and storm-to-storm factors.
The first area of concern was the road, and, "The initial method of avalanche control was closure," says Kalitowski. That didn't always work; it was hard to get people to realize it was dangerous to travel the canyon when the weather was beautiful after a storm.
C. Douglass Wadsworth was installed by the Forest Service as its first Forest Guard in 1939, charged with keeping a weather station and daily records and with authority to close the ski lift and recommend road closure.
Kalitowski says Wadsworth was the first to try explosives to bring down snow. He planted a bomb on the Superior slide path. No snow came down. The next day, the entire canyon slid, and the place where Wadsworth had stood looking for results the day before was completely overrun by snow.
That spontaneous next-day slide left 2,000 yards of the road under 14 feet of snow. It was estimated it would take 35 days to clear. Instead, they packed a track over it and kept Alta going.
Kalitowski says Alf and Sverre Engen were the next to do something about avalanches, Sverre being named Alta's second snow ranger. They made daily records and dug pits to study snow layers - their consistency, settling, creepage and the effect on them of the weather.
They, too, planted dynamite charges on Superior, burying them and setting them off later, when it seemed conditions would be right for a slide. This time, it worked.
World War II slowed Alta's avalanche research, but interest continued, and for the 1945-46 winter, Monty Atwater succeeded Sverre Engen as snow ranger when Sverre moved to ski school director. Atwater started what Kalitowski says is the "modern era" of avalanche control and observation. He published a list of "10 contributory factors" that became a national forecasting guideline.
In 1949, Alta was the site of the first use of artillery to control avalanches. Atwater and Felix Koziol, supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest, selected the targets, and a Utah National Guard captain did the firing of a 75mm French howitzer.
The gun, however, wasn't permanent, and it took much political wrangling to first allow a gun to be left at Alta and then to allow Atwater to fire it as he saw fit. Later, he tried a 105-mm recoilless gun and mounted it on the back of a truck to allow him to hit more spots. The 105, says Kalitowski, was very accurate and could be fired during storms with triangulation siting.
By then, the Alta Avalanche School was turning away applicants, and Atwater had acquired fairly sophisticated instruments to record data.
The Alta Study Center was moved by 1972 to Fort Collins, Colo., where it could be more closely aligned with the Forest Service research division, and about all that remains at Alta now is microfilm records and some files.
What's left is a legacy. And a pretty good safety record: Only three people have been killed in Alta avalanches in 50 years, and the first death, on Jan. 1, 1940, actually occurred outside the area boundary.