LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON An avalanche swept a SUV with nine people, including five children, off the main canyon road and over the edge here Thursday and carried it 100 feet before the vehicle came to rest on its hood.
"Just driving down the road and . . . ," said Michael Thomas, the driver, while smacking his hands together. "It was surreal."
Without warning, the avalanche hit the vehicle about 6:30 p.m. near the White Pine Chutes about halfway up the canyon, pushed it on its side and carried it over the edge as the passengers, including children ages 3 to 10, held on for the bumpy ride.
Everyone in the SUV was wearing a seat belt. Adam Thomas, 10, said he helped unbuckle his brothers who were left strapped in their seats upside down, once the vehicle came to rest.
"It was the worst nightmare I ever had," he said.
Michael Thomas said everyone in the SUV was a "little shaken up" and some of the children were crying, but otherwise everyone was OK.
The Thomases are from St. Louis and had been in Utah all week learning to ski for the first time. On their way down the mountain they picked up two teenage employees from Alta Ski Resort. The teens were able to kick out a window of the vehicle and help everyone get out, Michael Thomas said.
Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Todd Griffiths arrived at the accident just in time to see the faces of little children, three boys and two girls, climbing up over the edge back onto the main road.
The avalanche was estimated to be 6 feet deep and 100 yards wide, Griffiths said. Crews had been conducting avalanche control work on the main canyon road all day, he said. This natural slide surprised them, he said.
Wind, rain, snow and slush impaired commute times along the Wasatch Front and shut down classes at one university and dumped 4 inches of snow on Provo. The National Weather Service, however, forecasts a break in the clouds today.
"We're going to recover pretty nicely and we'll bounce right back into the mid-50s," said NWS meteorologist Randy Graham. He said the weather will shape up for a nice weekend.
A two-day winter storm warning for the Wasatch mountains and higher Wasatch valleys ended at 6 a.m., after blanketing ski resorts and peaks throughout the state with heavy snow. The Cottonwood canyons were the main beneficiaries of the storm, reporting as much as 28 inches at Brighton and Alta. Snowbasin in Ogden received 22 inches in 24 hours.
A plow from Snowbird was able to clear a path through the slide so cars could make it down the canyon. But the wet snow made avalanche danger extremely high Thursday night.
"Life elevated," Michael Thomas joked about the adventure while making light of the state's new slogan.
Thomas said overall his family had had a great week and this incident wasn't going to deter them from a return visit. A hotel shuttle picked them up at the base of the canyon.
"I figure our chances of getting hit by another avalanche are like getting hit by lightning," he said.
The Utah Highway Patrol responded to more than 90 crashes and 11 slide-offs in Salt Lake County. In Utah County, there were eight crashes and three slide-offs. UHP spokesman Jeff Nigbur said most of the incidents were blamed on weather, but were more likely due to poor driving.
Graham said Salt Lake City set a new record for the wettest April 6 in history. More than an inch of rain fell in the capital city, breaking a 1929 record of 0.62 inches for the day. It was also one of the top 10 wettest April days on record.
University of Utah shut down early Thursday due to more than 11 inches of new snow, closing classes at 5 p.m. and canceling many evening programs.
"With the heavy wet snow, it's being problematic in clearing parking lots and roads and so we can resume with normal class schedule tomorrow, we just needed to get the campus emptied out," U. spokeswoman Coralie Alder said.Utah will have a chance to dry out, and Graham said the next storm won't show its face until early next week. He said the state should witness a "nice slow melt" this year, as thick snowpack will stay in the high elevations.