SE4EP11 - Cottonwoods Plow Team: Keeping Our Canyons Open
Play • 45 min

Utah gets a lot of snow! And as skiers and riders, our objective is to get up to the resorts as quickly as possible. But who takes care of that 30 inches of snow that fell overnight? And who mitigates that cornice hanging a thousand of feet above the highway? Last Chair took a ride with the Utah Department of Transportation Cottonwoods plow team, talking with Jake Brown and riding with Shawn Walker on a snowy Big Cottonwood morning.

It’s just 13 miles up Little Cottonwood to Alta, 20 through Big Cottonwood to Brighton. But it’s some of the toughest snow terrain in the world. Little Cottonwood Canyon alone has nearly 70 notable avalanche paths which can easily take out a car or plow truck (yes, it has happened).

When you walk into the plow shed tucked away in Cottonwood Heights, you are immediately struck by the enormity of the equipment. A fleet of 10 Mack trucks is complemented by two graders, two enormous snow blowers (and not the kind you use on your driveway), a couple snowcats and a handful of huge pickup trucks. Plus, there is an assortment of blades including a pull-behind that can add huge plow power behind the 35-ton Mack trucks. 

Brown got his start simply applying to a newspaper ad for plow drivers 22 years ago. He was working I-15 for UDOT when after work on a Friday he was told to report to the Cottonwood Canyons two days later to take over a new role. “My first day here was a storm and I got baptized by fire on what it would be like in the Cottonwood Canyons and never looked back,” he recalled. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Shawn Wright is a Utah native who loves what he does. On a leisurely pre-dawn run up Big Cottonwood, he talks about his love for the state and its recreational resources. He chuckles as he talks about all he and his family do out in nature – “everything but skiing or snowboarding.”

Jake and Shawn are typical of the men and women behind the plows. It takes a certain passion to report to the plow shed at 4:00 a.m. to open a road for skiers and snowboarders to get up the canyons.

In this episode of Last Chair, you’ll learn about the challenges and the dangers. You’ll hear about trucks getting swept off the road by massive avalanches coming down from thousands of feet above. And you’ll hopefully gain an appreciation for what these crews do for us.

If you’ve ever driven up Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon in a snowstorm, this podcast is for you. And even if you’ve dreamed about it! Listen in as Last Chair takes you behind the scenes with the UDOT Cottonwoods Plow Team. <<LINK TO PODCAST>>

Here are a few snippets to get you started:

Jake, what is it that you and your team do?

Our role is to orchestrate and schedule the plows up and down the canyon and also take care of the freeway and all the roads leading to the canyons, basically all the state routes. So our responsibility is to make sure that we have enough people for the heavy equipment and the plows and to make sure that we have enough salt and and make sure that everybody's up and and going and need where they need to be and take on the storm. So we become a weatherman and a kind of a jack of all trades.

As a plow driver, what have you seen change in the canyons?

Well, we have a canyon road and we have great resorts and we have the Greatest Snow on Earth. And a lot of people like to come to Utah for that reason. And besides minor changes, we really haven't done anything to the road in the last 10 to 20 years. And so we were getting higher traffic volumes. More people wanted to come ski, the resorts were getting more people that wanted to ski their terrain. And so we had to change with it. We had to adapt some of our ways. We did things where we plowed, some of the traffic safety devices, different things such as islands, high-T intersections. We had to install them to make sure that people could flow out of the canyon and people didn't get stuck in traffic because we do have such a high avalanche area in the Cottonwoods.

How dangerous is Little Cottonwood Canyon?

There are 62 slide paths that can hit the road at any time in Little Cottonwood Canyon. And we've seen a lot of those run. I was actually buried in an avalanche with our communications manager in our pickup truck at Seven Turns. We were up there hauling a snow cat getting ready for avalanche control work that morning. And an avalanche came down and buried our truck completely. So at any time you can be hit by an avalanche. 

How about Big Cottonwood?

Big Cottonwood Canyon? We deal with more what we call bluffs, you know, small little avalanches that come off the road. They can take up to a lane, and about five, 10-feet deep – enough to stop the road, enough to stop a car. We do have some bigger slide paths in Big Cottonwood Canyon, and those are monitored by an avalanche crew. Those haven't gone down and hit the road. But if they do, they will block the road in a major fashion. They are big slide areas and can go very big.

What’s it like on a big snow day at 4:15 a.m.?

So right around about 4:15, 4:20, the plows will enter the mouth of the canyon and start making their first plow up. Pretty amazing to see. They will have the front plow deployed with also two wings and heading up the canyon and pushing back as much as they can to get the road open. So they have a big responsibility to get all the way to the top of the mountain.

Biggest storm that you can remember in your time here?

Biggest storm? I think the biggest storm was probably the one that we got buried with the avalanche two years ago. It snowed over a foot in the valley and it kept snowing and snowing in the canyons. And I think we had almost 15 to 18 avalanches on the road. And some of those were 15 to 30 feet deep and some 50 yards wide. So it was a massive cleanup effort.

How Can we Help?

While there is roadside parking in some areas, pay attention to restrictions and always park to the right of the white line. Think about a plow truck with front and side wing blades coming through. Are you blocking the road? Will you be digging out later in the day?

Get Traction

Know the Utah traction laws and make sure that your vehicle is in compliance before you head up into the Cottonwoods. Don’t be that person who is in the canyon unprepared!

Give ‘em Room

If you see a plow truck, give them some space. Don’t worry, they’re not looking to beat you to Milly Express. By the nature of what they do, plow trucks scrape snow, rocks and dirt. You don’t want that in your windshield!

Park Prudently

While there is roadside parking in some areas, pay attention to restrictions and park prudently. Think about a plow truck with front and side wing blades coming through. Is your car safe? Will you be digging out later in the day?

Say Thank You

The UDOT Cottonwoods Plow Team is a collection of men and women just like you – except they don’t ski. They spend their hours keeping the road safe for you. Give them a wave or flash your lights in appreciation. It’s a tough job.

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