Driving up the narrow road into Little Cottonwood Canyon at dusk is a bit like entering a time machine. The homebound rush of Salt Lake City's commuter traffic is only eight miles distant, and the transition from the world of freeways is so abrupt that the contrast can only suggest the past. Pale, rounded granite boulders rising at the entrance of the Wasatch National Forest mark the boundary of the present, and for the next few miles at least a traveler can entertain his fantasies of yesteryear, until he comes upon the concrete futurism of the recently opened Snowbird ski area with its aerial tram out of Buck Rogers.
Ecologists were consulted in the planning of this space-age resort; someday soon, trees and shrubs will be planted on the condominium rooftop so it will be less conspicuous from the road, hiding the bald spot under a toupee of greenery. It would be just the place to show off my new Courr�ges ski outfit, if I had one, instead of the one-piece insulated red snowsuit I bought because the ranchers back home in Montana all wear them outdoors in winter and my main concern, after all, is keeping warm.
On the way up the canyon are several gates, which seal the highway in times of avalanche hazard. In between, signs mark dangerous locations: TANNER'S SLIDE AREA NO PARKING OR STANDING NOV. 1 TO MAY 1. The mountains rise steeply on either side, and the road is directly in the path of several potential major slides. Another sign identifies the SUPERIOR SLIDE AREA, suggesting that avalanches here are the very best of all.
In the days when Alta was a silver-mining town, no one thought much about avalanches. The trees on the mountain slopes were cut for houses and mine-shaft timbers. Then in 1874 they started keeping some records of slides. That winter avalanches nearly wiped out the camp and more than 60 lives were lost. By the turn of the century 60 more had been killed in slides. When the silver played out, most people went home. The avalanches were still there, of course, but nobody noticed anymore. Today, another treasure lures visitors to Alta, the same stuff avalanches are made of. "The pay isn't great but you get all the snow you can eat," is the standard joke among ski patrolmen. More than 150 inches—over 12 feet—so far this year, and it's still only January. Enough for hundreds of avalanches.
Later, Pete Lev, a Snow Ranger, is discussing avalanches in the Sitzmark Room of the Alta Lodge. One soon learns to tolerate cute names in ski country. Lev is slow-talking and steady-eyed, fine attributes for a hired gun, which is, in fact, what he is. Along with the other rangers hired by the Forest Service, he stalks and shoots down avalanches before they can become troublesome.
Lev can't promise me any avalanches. "This is an inexact science; like weather predicting, it is often inaccurate. But it's been fairly quiet around here since the beginning of the month. The time is right for another cycle. If it starts to snow soon, we should see some activity. Eighty percent of all serious avalanches start during or immediately after a storm." High winds are a critical factor in the development of unstable snow conditions. Wind shifts the snow and packs it into dense layers that eventually shear away from the slope in the form of a slab avalanche.
The next morning it is gray and windy. At noon Lev and I take the Germania chair lift to the top of the mountain. Deep pits have been dug around the bases of the lift towers to guard them against the destructive action of snow creep. On the way up Lev points out some of the sights: natural slide paths where Engelmann spruce only grow a few feet high, doomed to be uprooted before they are mature; and the chute where a ranger named Ron Perla rode out a huge avalanche when the snow cornice that he was dynamiting fell away beneath him and his belay rope broke. He was carried almost three thousand feet and walked away unhurt, the record run at Alta and a statistic somehow more impressive than the ones Guinness keeps for nonstop hiccuping and the world's largest fruitcake.
Part of Lev's job is to ski around and check snow conditions. We move slowly out into the big cirque of Baldy Mountain, an area known as Ballroom. An easy traverse and some gentle sideslipping take us to a point below the cliffs. It has begun to snow, and the enclosing mist erases all perspective, like the washed-out backgrounds in Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings. Lev stops and examines some snow through his hand lens. "There's all kinds of snow," he explains.
"What kind is that?"
"Almost a graupel, but not quite. Very wet though."