UDOT crew shares what it was like being caught in an avalanche in Little Cottonwood Canyon
February 19, 2021
KSL, KJZZ - A Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) crew shared their experience of being caught in an avalanche while working on the road.
“We don’t want to expose anyone to an avalanche like what happened to me,” said Jake Brown, roadway operations manager for the cottonwood canyons.
Just after 5 a.m. Wednesday, Brown and his coworker were in Little Cottonwood Canyon preparing to clear the roads from overnight avalanches. They were parked near a slide path that had not seen an avalanche in about 40 years.
“We try to keep in the safest areas,” said Brown, who has worked in the canyons for five years.
But as they were parked in an area just off the road, Brown noticed, “the snow kind of increased in intensity. And I was like, ‘Uh oh, it’s really snowing here.’ ”
Brown said he looked out and “just saw a wall of snow coming at us.” It was loud as the snow and debris it carried pounded his truck, pushing it several feet. His windshield and driver-side window went black.
“All of a sudden, my windshield just filled up with snow and then next thing I know, my truck was hit,” Brown said.
Brown has years of experience clearing snow in Little Cottonwood Canyon and knew immediately what was happening.
Most of the car was buried in the snow with an opening on the passenger side. Within minutes they managed to climb out of the window and were hiking to a nearby coworker who was not far behind them on the road when the avalanche hit.
“All of the sudden I’m engulfed in a powder cloud,” said Mark Sauer, an avalanche forecaster at UDOT. “Windows are covered in white. The truck is shaking. I hear roaring. Sticks are bouncing around.”
Sauer’s truck was spared from the brunt of the slide but when it was over, he realized he was trapped, not under the snow, but in between two avalanches.
“Scary is a good word,” Sauer said, describing the experience.
“The whole time you’re looking up at the mountain,” Brown remembers as he made his way to Sauer, “and you got that eerie feeling like something’s going to happen.”
Brown and his coworker made it to Sauer and for the next several hours they huddled in his truck and waited for a way out.
“Confident we were fine. Just got bored, cold and hungry,” Sauer said.
Help did come after colleagues on the outside managed to clear a path through the debris and snow to get to them.
In a canyon known as one of the most dangerous for its avalanches, Brown said he “got in a snowcat immediately after we got rescued,” grateful he could get back to work to get the road safe and open.
The canyon opened Thursday, but with more snow on the way, there was no guarantee of what the canyons will look like heading into the weekend.
“All of us, from avalanche forecasters to plow drivers to ski patrollers and cat drivers, are out there risking our lives to keep the road open, businesses open and resorts open while keeping the public as safe as possible,” Sauer said. “It’s complex and it takes time. Please obey closures and be patient.”
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