They're very proud of the fact--up there in Little Cottonwood Canyon deep in the heart of Mormon-land--that it snows a lot in Alta. So when nature proves them wrong, and when it doesn't snow, they don't say much at all. But sometimes, once in a very long while, Christmas is just a little bit too white and Cottonwood goes to war.
They still haven't forgotten the winter of '73 in Alta. There were 45 of us there: high-school kids from Southern California (the Palisades to be specific). Forty-seven, actually, if you count the two chaperones. All together for one week of skiing in Alta the day after Christmas to New Year's Eve.
It snowed lightly the first two days as we put on our parkas and our warm--ups and rode the lifts. There was already a lot of snow on the ground-nice lightsvowder, came to right above your ankles, perfect conditions for "the powder capital of the West." On the third day, the sky turned mean and the wind whipped though your warmups. It was lunch when it happened-you felt it at first, the Snow Pine lodge shook a little and the earth rumbled but there was nothing to see from the window. The earth shook, nothing, mind you, like California shook that winter in the earthquake. But it shook. And the phones started ringing.
There are only eight lodges in Alta and they're all on the lower side of the road--the only road leading in or out of the valley. The Alta Lodge, the Goldminer's Daughter, the Rustler, the Snow Pine--the Snow Pine was ours, cheapest of them all and at the end of the line. To get up to the road, we walked up a set of tunnel--like stairs. When you start, you can barely see the light. Below the lodges is the ski basin, rising from the basin is the ski area and behind the road, in back of the lodges, is the cliff. The ski area and the cliff of snow face each other, as parallel as any downhiller would like his Hexcels to be.
It avalanched that winter in Alta and killed two people. The little information booth next door to the Alta Lodge got knocked flat by a mountain of snow and rubble. The Lodge itself was half--buried. There hadn't been an avalanche in Alta for a long time, a serious one for as long, well, as anyone could remember.
But they didn't think it was as bad as all that. The lifts were standing just fine and the problem was contained. The lodge owners, the ski patrol used the language of war when they spoke of the situation. They didn't let us out that afternoon but said things would clear up by morning. Ski in an area when you could sneeze and the Central Bowl would fall down on top of you? Thanks, but no thanks.
"It'll be okay to ski tomorrow," Joe Capp, owner of the Snow Pine, told us. "They're going to blast it all away this afternoon." Blast? Oh yeah, didn't you know, they fire Howitzer shells into the side of the mountain to make the snow come down. That way you didn't take the chance that someone would be skiing or standing in the way of an area with avalanche potential. Predictability was the key-take the risk out of it; shoot it down from those little wooden sheds on the snow cliff-with the World War II heavy guns mounted into the floors. Burn down the walls before someone plays with the match.
They blasted above the Snow Pine and the wooden walls shook again. But, up there at the end of the line, we were the lucky ones. The Rustler had lost its propane tanks and it's cold as hell in Utah in Decemberwhen there's not heat in the lodge. We were lucky to have heat but there wasn't much else to keep us happy during the four days and nights we spent underground in the Snow Pine. Forty--five people who you are getting kind of tired of, Joe and his wife, the chaperones and the Snow Pine's six, young and bearded, male employees made life in the lodge a bleak proposition.
The latter group made the four days bearable. Not that they had been through such a thing before-but through it all they never lost their strong, if off, collective sense of humor. And they had the Pong machine and the 13-ball Foosball game to keep us amused. Still, it came down to about fifty of us sitting around, sick of being inside, sick of sitting in a basement and eating hamburgers and frozen french fries. Californians don't take the inside too well. There were a lot of quarters plunked into the two machines until Joe "got tired of making' change and, ah hell, might as well make them free."
On the 31st day of December, the endless ordeal ended. They had been blasting for four days and they were sure all the snow that could ever come down that winter (on both sides of the road) was down. Two and a half days of skiing out of a promised seven. Now we emerged from our wooden cocoon and took the long hike up the stairs-all 250 of them-to see what had been wrought. But the snow had come down off the cliff and flooded into the tunnel, so we had to shovel our way out onto the road.
Or at least shovel our way out onto what used to be the road. The cliff was still there above us and in the distance, we could make out the Alta Lodge and the middle chair lift. But Rte. 106 was obscured under eight feet of snow. Where there had been cars on Christmas day there were now only the tops of antennas. They dug those out in the spring, too. The only route out of Little Cottonwood Canyon was over several miles of snowdrift.
They planned to take us from the bottom of the Alta Lodge complex to the end of the canyon where the road was clear. By helicopter. Fifty dollars per customer. Leave your skis and boots and any big bags. Just take what you can carry and get on the whirly-bird.
The first forty of our group were in the air and out by the time darkness fell over Cottonwood. The seven of us left-six campers and one counselor stood next in line. The ranger's helicopter, the dark green one that looked like a flying bubble, had room for two but they were squeezing in four. Three of the group-including my brother-were left for the second copter.
We flew off real quick and were far from the snowbound road before we got used to the noise of the rotor and the sight of the damage below. Thirty minutes of waiting and, finally, the other helicopter appeared. It was now a race against Western Airlines--calls were made to hold the flight and the bus was warmed up but the members of our group weren't on that shift. A woman got off, with two small children and six large suitcases. It had cost her $300 to go fifteen minutes in the air but her fur showed that she could handle it. Smiling at the copter pilot, she dialed for a taxi and was off. She had offered the pilot double the normal fee to get her little group out of Cottonwood before ours.
There was still time though, when we were finally all reunited and thrown into the Trailways bus, to make our flight. We spent New Year's Eve in the wilds of Utah in a bus with a driver who was too cautious to ever rush for any flight, let alone ours. We passed the hat around and collected money for him--$50, $100, $122.37--if he got us the airport for our flight. Battle plans were hastily drawn up. The male chaperone-a track coach at Pali High and a former sprinter, would make a run for the gate. The rest of us would run interference, grabbing sky cabs, ticket checkers and paging people who might help stop the flight. When we got to the airport the chaperone left hell in his path, a chaos of people and bags strewn on the linoleum floor.
We rounded the corner to gate 17 S at full speed, yelling at airline officials and insisting that they hold the plane. We saw flight #34 nonstop to Los Angeles for a fleeting moment as it rumbled down the snow-plowed runway and faltered into the air.
We celebrated the New Year inauspiciously in the lobby of Western Airlines terminal of the Salt Lake City Airport. It was New Year's and we were young and Utah was dry. No liquor gets sold over the counter in the homeland of Mormon sobriety. You went to a bar, or so they told us, and brought your own bottle and paid for a set-up. So we lounged in the orange plastic chairs, trying to sleep off the state and the snow