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Figure 1: Overnight snow on car. Alta, Utah. March 13, 2023. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

Clean Transport

More Adventures in Winter Driving During Utah Record Snow Winter 2022–2023

As I’m writing this on March 26, 2023, Brighton Ski Resort where I teach Alpine Skiing has recorded a new all-time record of 772 inches fallen this 2022–23 winter season. Brighton is at the end of Big Cottonwood Canyon, only 14 miles east of Salt Lake City. The next canyon over, only a few miles away, is Little Cottonwood Canyon and Alta Ski Resort at its end, where 752 inches have fallen to date. The all-time record snowfall for Alta-Brighton was 745 inches the winter of 1994–95. With 5 weeks of the Brighton season still to go, the 2022–2023 ski season will certainly push the new all-time annual snowfall record to over 800 inches. By the way, 800”/12” = 66.6 feet of snow. If the average story of a high-rise building is 14’, that’s approaching the height of a 5 story building.

Figure 1: Overnight snow on car. Alta, Utah. March 13, 2023. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

My granddaughter Elizabeth McDonald manages a number of condominiums at Alta (see Figure 3). The Alta powder skiing this year has been fabulous, as you can see another of my granddaughters buried in snow (see Figure 4). This year has been a real challenge driving Little Cottonwood Canyon, which has been closed numerous times because of avalanche danger. On those days, Alta residents and visitors have what is called inter-lodge restrictions. The canyon is shut down and no one is allowed to drive the canyon or go outside their apartments until the avalanche artillery has blasted the canyon. Sometimes this winter, they have been hunkered down for up to 24 hours. Most ski resorts use “avalanche hand grenades,” which the ski patrol throws to trigger avalanches in prone places. Only when all the likely avalanches have been triggered are the ski runs opened. However, many of the likely avalanche-prone places in Little Cottonwood Canyon cause avalanches to go across the highway. These danger zones can’t be reached by ski patrol and Alta has an actual WWII artillery piece that it uses to trigger them some miles across the canyon. The only ammunitions that can be fired safely in this gun are WWII surplus rounds that have been accurately milled for the purpose. Astonishingly, these shells have explosive charges which spread metal shrapnel over the slopes. It would be far too expensive to develop custom charges for avalanche control.

On Maximum Inter-lodge days, Alta residents are required to hide out in the basements. Numerous vehicles and buildings have been damaged. Back in the Alta silver mine days in the 1800s before avalanches were understood, the whole town of Alta was destroyed multiple times with loss of life. Elizabeth’s photo in Figure 1 shows a car at Alta covered by just one night’s snowfall. Snow shoveling and snow blowing (see Figure 2) has been a monumental job this winter.

Figure 2: Snow blower in action. Near Alta Ski Resort. Alta, Utah. March 2023. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

At the intersections of highways and driveways, Utah Department of Public Safety snowplow/blowers and resident snow blowers have made snow piles up to 30 feet high, as you can see in Figure 2.

Figure 3: Elizabeth McDonald. Record Snow Year. Near Alta Ski Resort. Alta, Utah. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth McDonald.

Figure 4: My Granddaughter Skiing. Buried in power snow. Alta Ski Resort. Alta, Utah. March 2023. Photo by Elizabeth McDonald.

Figure 5: My Tesla Model 3 covered in snow. Brighton Ski area parking at night. January 25, 2023. Photo by Fritz Hasler.

I skied and taught skiing on 40 days this winter. In an earlier life, I routinely drove cars with only rear-wheel drive to skiing during Wisconsin and Colorado winters. I thought my dual-motor Tesla Model 3 (essentially all-wheel drive) is all that I would need for Utah winter canyon driving. I just purchased a new set of all-season tires with excellent snow tread design. I thought that would definitely do the trick. Since then, I have had no trouble getting up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Brighton. It would be more conservative to switch to dedicated snow tires in the winter here. However, even though I can make it up the canyon, my Model 3 has only 5.5” clearance. If there is a big snowfall while I’m parked, I’m high centered and can’t get out of the lot (See Figure 5). Worse, when the snow was over 5” deep, chewed up, and compacted, it literally scraped the fiber aero shield off the bottom of my car when I drove out of the lot. My plan for days with heavy daytime snow forecast in the future is to park at the bottom of the canyon and hitchhike up.

When stuck in snow, EVs feel different than gasmobiles. It’s harder to tell when the wheels are turning. Like gasmobiles, it helps to back up a little and then rock the car back and forth. Tesla has a Slip Start function in the menu. Normally, traction control is enabled, which minimizes the amount of wheel spin. You disable it on the main control screen by choosing Controls > Pedals & Steering > Slip Start. This allows the wheels to spin. When I was stuck in snow, it didn’t seem to help very much, but at that time, I didn’t understand how the Slip Start function works. Once you get unstuck, you should turn Slip Start off. However, it will turn off automatically after you put the vehicle in park.

The Model 3 has the small ground clearance of 5.5” because that helps the car to be more aerodynamically efficient. It is similar to the Toyota Camry, which has 5.6” ground clearance. The Model Y has another inch of ground clearance at 6.6”. However, neither Tesla has enough to be good for off-roading. You will damage the aero shield under the car or get hung up on rocks or in deeper ruts on the road. Bottom line: dual motor (4-wheel drive) on a Model 3 or Model Y will help you with traction on slippery hills, but they aren’t worth much for deep snow or rough off-roading. The Tesla Model X has adjustable ground clearance up to 8”, which is the same as the Toyota Highlander at 8”. If you plan to do serious off-roading, get a Jeep or the new Cybertruck when it comes out, which will adjust to up to 16”.

13 days ago, I had my second knee surgically replaced, so my skiing is done for the season. I expect to be able to ski pain-free and teach skiing for at least one more season. Please add your winter driving experience to the comments section.

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Arthur Frederick (Fritz) Hasler, PhD, former leader of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization & Analysis Laboratory (creator of this iconic image), and avid CleanTechnica reader. Also: Research Meteorologist (Emeritus) at NASA GSFC, Adjunct Professor at Viterbo University On-Line Studies, PSIA L2 Certified Alpine Ski Instructor at Brighton Utah Ski School.


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