Winter Driving with the Pros: Alta Ski Area
Location: Alta, Utah.
Vehicle Fleet: Chevrolet Express 1500 AWD, Chevy Suburban… and a bunch of Ford and Chevy 15-passenger vans, converted to 4x4. We use a local company to convert our other vans to four-wheel drive. It costs about $11,000 each!
Specs: Chevy’s Express 1500 seats eight. It’s is the biggest van that comes from the factory with either four wheel drive or all-wheel drive. For snow tires, we prefer Bridgestone's Blizzaks, or Sigma's Arctic Claw. We carry chains in the vans, but rarely need them since we’re driving either four-wheel drive or all-wheel vehicles.
Best Winter Driving Tip: I have two, actually! One for on the way up, and another for the way down.
- Tip 1: When driving up a steep hill, keep your speed up. When you drive from Salt Lake City to Alta, you'll be headed up Little Cottonwood Canyon. It’s steep and narrow. For driving up the canyon when conditions are snowy and icy, it’s very important to maintain your momentum. If your vehicle stops on a 9 or 10 percent grade in snow and ice, it's very difficult to get it moving forward again.
- Tip 2: When driving down a steep hill, downshift! It seems so obvious to use low gear to avoid braking too much, but I follow drivers down the canyon all the time who are riding ride their brakes. Besides being dangerous, when drivers do not use low gear and ride their brakes all the way down the canyon, it really smells! Anyone within a mile of the guilty party will know an inexperienced driver is in the canyon. It warps the front rotors, and in extreme cases, their brakes will fail. I am constantly amazed at how many drivers do not downshift into low gear.
Read More about Driving in Wintry Conditions at Alta!
Car Talk: How did you become a winter driving pro?
Tom: I decided to give up a 15-year teaching career to work full-time for Alta Shuttle after a 4:00 am drive up the canyon to Alta ski area, where we skied in 12 to 18 inches of fresh powder. It was one of the most beautiful drives of my life. Now I get to experience it regularly!
Car Talk: So what is it you do exactly?
Tom: Alta Shuttle transport skiers from the Salt Lake City Airport to Alta, which is located at the end of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. The canyon is just over 8 miles long with an elevation climb of around 3,400 feet. In other words, it’s steep!
Car Talk: What’s so treacherous about the canyon road?
Tom: Well, it's considered the most avalanche-prone road in North America, that still stays open during the winter. It has 25 slide areas. I have personally been stopped by an avalanche that had come down minutes before.
Car Talk: We need to hear about that!
Tom: It was about 2:00 am and I was taking one passenger to Alta who had arrived on a delayed flight from New York. It was a clear night and had not snowed for a couple of days. As I approached the slide paths, at an area called White Pines, there was suddenly an inch or two of snow on the road. A hundred feet later, there was a wall of snow on the road about 3-4 feet high. Suddenly, I saw what I thought were coyotes on top of the snow in front of me. However, they were not coyotes--they were avalanche dogs, part of the avalanche team that had just arrived. They yelled at me to quickly turn around and get out of the canyon. On our way down, we passed emergency crews coming up. Needless to say, we did not get to Alta that night.
Car Talk: How do you know when an avalanche is coming? Is there any kind of warning?
Tom: The road is often closed deliberately for avalanche control, in which state avalanche control specialists intentionally trigger slides, to release the snowpack above the road. One method involves using 105 mm shells. [Editor's note: Read more about how they use heavy artillery to control avalanches at Alta, right here.] I believe Alta is one of the only places in the world that during peace time artillery shells can actually be flying over you.
Once they close the road, nobody can get in or out of Alta until they finish blasting, plow the road, and determine that the avalanche danger is low. So when we hear that a closure is scheduled, we make a mad dash with several vans to get up the canyon and get people out before they close the road. These are frantic and stressful mornings.
Since road closures typically happen the morning after a storm, there are thousands of skiers who want to get up the canyon for some fresh powder. If the road is not opened by 8:30, it creates a traffic nightmare as countless cars fill the roads below the canyon waiting to get up for a powder day.
There is an expression, "There are no friends on a powder day." One night, I took a guy to Alta whose wife was scheduled to come in on a flight a few minutes after him. We didn't wait for her. He wanted to make it up the canyon before the road closed. He said his wife would understand. "There are no friends on a powder day."
Car Talk: Maybe you should add marriage counselling to your list of shuttle services! That and winter driving lessons. Thanks for talking to us, Tom! Can you score us some shovels, beacons and probes, and a backcountry guide?
Tom: We’d love to see you out here any time!
Car Talk: Actually, we’ll settle for an open tab at the bar at Alta Lodge and a free pass for the hot tub.