GRANITE — Winter isn't over yet and with more storms approaching, Utah Department of Transportation avalanche crews explained the equipment they use to control avalanches Tuesday outside Little Cottonwood Canyon.
"Usually the springtime produces a number of good storms," said Damian Jackson, UDOT's avalanche safety supervisor based in Little Cottonwood Canyon. "We're expecting the next couple of weeks will be fairly busy snow-wise."
The National Weather Service has put a winter weather advisory in place starting Tuesday night, warning of 6 to 8 inches of snow mainly above 8,000 feet elevation.
"A lot of work goes on into keeping these canyons open and safe for the traveling public," said Shawn Lambert, UDOT district engineer. "Obviously the ski industry, winter recreation, is a big part of what Utah does, and there's a lot work that goes into it to make sure that people can travel safely up and down the canyons."
According to a news release, UDOT triggers about 330 avalanches annually in Little Cottonwood Canyon to decrease the threat of snowfall from the mountains to drivers and property.
UDOT has refined its technology over the years. It uses Remote Avalanche Control Systems to trigger avalanches in a "more customized, fine-tuned approach," the news release explained.
Steven Clark, highway avalanche forecaster for UDOT, said maintaining equipment, such as refilling oxygen and hydrogen tanks on some remote systems, can be one of the most hazardous parts of the job.
The department also owns three "Avalaunchers," which propel explosives into an avalanche zone to trigger a slide in a controlled setting.
"We just ask for people's patience during these closures," Lambert said. "A lot of work takes place with a lot of partners in this canyon to make sure people can travel up safely."
The biggest goal of avalanche control efforts is safety and proactive mitigation.
"As avalanche forecasters I think we do a pretty good job of when certain types of avalanches are going to happen," Clark said.
Weather is always unpredictable though, especially in rural areas, he said.
"It's never perfect," he said.
Forecasting and managing avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon is difficult because of a few combined factors, Clark said.
"Little Cottonwood is known as one of the most challenging roads in the world to mitigate the avalanche risk," Lambert said.2 comments on this story
The canyon has the highest frequency of avalanches that cross a road in the state and sees some of the highest traffic volumes of any Utah canyon, he explained. In addition, the number of potential slides is high, and the steepness of the terrain can make things difficult as well.
Nevertheless, crews still regularly manage to clear the roads.
"Most of the time, all the maintenance crews and all of the avalanche forecasters and all of the different working pieces work really well together to get that road open and let people up here to recreate," he said. "Some days it's just not in the cards to keep the road open and let people go skiing."