The 4 a.m. alarm rings. You jump out of bed, grab your gear, and drive a four-wheel-drive car up Little Cottonwood Canyon in hopes of beating the 5:30 a.m. road closure.
Your car wipers can’t move fast enough, as thousands of thick snowflakes pile onto your front windshield. The dark, windy, snow-covered canyon twinkles with car lights of antsy powder-seekers driving up Little Cottonwood Canyon. At 6 a.m. you walk from the snowy parking lot into the lodge, where you find a room packed with ski enthusiasts all crammed together preparing for an interlodge.
When an interlodge is in place, everyone in the canyon must be inside a building and no one is allowed to leave until outside movement is permitted, because officials are intentionally causing avalanches, according to a blog post by Alta Chalets.
“During a time of high avalanche danger, the Town of Alta Marshal may prohibit outdoor or interlodge travel,” according to the Marshal’s Office.
Road closures and interlodges usually occur when there is a storm or heavy snowfall, and mitigation is necessary to lessen potential danger, according to the Town of Alta Public Safety website.
“Trained professionals and ski patrollers use military artillery to set off controlled avalanches to prevent a larger avalanche from occurring,” said Kevin Payne, a Town of Alta Marshal. “The reason we place an interlodge is for safety.”
The interlodged skiers are instructed to stay inside buildings. Many sleep on the ground, sip coffee or softly whisper to one another and gaze out the frozen windows. Outside many professional groups are hard at work making Utah’s “greatest snow on earth” safe to ski.
“The Utah Department of Transportation along with several private and public entities operate a state of the art avalanche forecasting and mitigation program to keep our community and roads safe in times of high avalanche danger,” according a blog post by Alta Chalets. “These people are world renowned and experts in their field.”
This year has had more snow compared to the last few seasons, and consequently there has been more interlodges and road closures so far, according to Cate Casson, a part-time dispatcher for the Town of Alta.
“[Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT)] ultimately makes the call on the road closures, while working with weather forecasters, Alta Ski Area, Snowbird and Alta ski patrollers and professionals,” Casson said. “These groups are gathering information from data, sensors and looking at the history of the snowpack, in order to mitigate the possible hazards of the storm.”
As the snowfall continues, the canyon road is closed, skiers wait inside buildings and professionals continue to work with artillery to set off controlled avalanches.
While interlodges can be exciting, there is a serious danger if the interlodge rule is broken, according to Kevin Payne.
“I have seen an avalanche take out 20 plus cars in the Grizzly Gulch parking lot and move them over a half a mile,” Payne said. “The reason we have interlodges is for safety. Number one, there is high avalanche danger and it isn’t safe to be outside. Number two, shrapnel can fly up to a mile. There have been instances this year where individuals have camped in their cars or broken the interlodge and have been issued a citation and fined.”
Because there have been many interlodges and road closures this year, uphill and downhill traffic has been a nightmare for a lot of people including Westminster College students.
Physics major and Alta skier Sarah Nagy said she was interlodged for 5 hours at Alta, the afternoon of Jan. 21.
“I was about to leave the resort in our car when there was an avalanche that hit the road,” Nagy said. “They made everyone turn back around and go back into the lodge. Then my friends and I stocked up on pitchers of beer, and eventually, I just took a nap on the floor. Luckily, I didn’t have class that day but I did have to get my shift at work covered.”
Nagy said she was lucky as she got a table in the Gold Miners Daughter during the 5-hour interlodge that afternoon because the entire Lodge was crammed with people.
“It got really packed and the lodge actually ran out of food, which was stressful,” Nagy said. “An old guy kept walking around ringing a cowbell, and at first people would cheer and then by the end people would glare at him.”
Skiers are not the only ones to find interlodges stressful. Workers and employees, who are not used to dealing with so many people at once, also said the experience can be overwhelming.
“I was working the at the Gold Miners Daughter cafe, and suddenly there were more than 300 people in this room,” said Conner Peletier, an employee at the Gold Miners Daughter Lodge. “It was really hard to accommodate something like an interlodge in the middle of the day. We ran completely out of food.”
While interlodges can be trying or annoying for some, it can be fun and exciting for others.
“Oh, I love interlodge,” said Tim Kohl, an Alta employee for over 17 years. “I think it really just brings everyone together like a family. People get excited when they are stuck up here and the road closes. It is like a big group of boy scouts and girl scouts gathered up in a building, excited to ski powder.”