The Dangers of Powder Panic—How I Drove My Car Off a Cliff on the Way to the Ski Area

Martin Kuprianowicz |

I experienced what skiers and snowboarders refer to as ‘powder panic’ this morning and this was the result. | Photo courtesy of SnowBrains

Powder panic is a real thing, not just liftline humor. It’s a force to be reckoned with—one that can be costly. I almost paid the ultimate price for it this morning on the way to Alta when I drove my Toyota off a cliff.

10:00 pm, the night before.

We had just gotten back from camping near Goblin Valley in Southern Utah when we arrived to pouring rain in Salt Lake. I checked the weather forecast and it was dumping at Alta—hard. I thought that tomorrow was likely going to be a powder day… in May! I was stoked. I texted my buddy Juan and we decided to meet at the Park and Ride at six the next morning.

5:20 am. 

I woke up and proceeded to get my shit together to go skiing, hurriedly. The National Weather Service was reporting 11 inches at Alta. I was sluggish but excited to ski powder. I didn’t have breakfast ready until 5:50, meaning I didn’t leave the house until six—the time that I was supposed to meet Juan. I rushed.

6:15 am.

No Juan. His car was nowhere to be found in the Park and Ride lot. I didn’t feel like waiting so I continued on to Alta.

6:30 am.

At first I thought Juan’s no call, no show was rude. But after what happened next I thought it was smart. I was chugging along Highway 210 to Alta and there weren’t very many other cars on the road. It was cloudy and cold. The roads were slick but I didn’t think they were that slick. Not for May, at least. I called my father because I knew he was on his commute to work and it would be a good time to check in and say hi. I told him that Alta had gotten 11 inches and that I was going to ski it. He was in West Texas working, where it’s likely already breaking 100º F daily. I was rubbing it in his face.

While I was on the phone with him, I was passing through an area called Seven Turns. I was going the speed limit, about 40 mph, but that was too fast. I took the first couple of turns with ease. Then by about the third or fourth turn, my father hears a scream come from my end of the phone before the phone cut out.

I hit a patch of ice and pumped the brakes. By this time it was too late. My wheels locked and I drifted helplessly towards the elbow of the right-hand curve, eyes wide on the trees below the overhanging cliff I was about to fly off of. As I felt my tires leave the smooth, slick highway to the bumpy shoulder without me even slowing down, I knew that there was nothing I could do. I was going over the cliff.

The track where I had slid off the highway. | Photo courtesy of SnowBrains

6:32 am.

Maybe only a second after I went over the cliff I hit a tree. After hitting the tree, my car spun around with the front bumper facing up the hill and slid backward about 30 more feet. I came to a screeching halt, my car suspended on the side of a steep mountain barely being held up by accompanying trees, rocks, and bushes. In total it had slid about 50 feet. The first tree had stopped my car from rolling but, had it not been there, I may have rolled my car all the way down into the creek below.

A few long seconds went by as I collected myself. I was completely unscathed; there wasn’t a scratch on me. My car somehow didn’t roll multiple times down the side of the mountain like I thought it would. The airbags didn’t deploy. I didn’t even feel any whiplash from hitting the tree and sliding down the hill. It didn’t make sense. I was shocked. A moment later my girlfriend Bri called me and asked if I was ok because my dad had called her in a panic, telling her that he thought he heard me getting in a car accident over the phone. I told her I was ok and called my dad back and told him the same thing. They sounded relieved.

6:35 am.

I crawled out of my car which was leaning far on its right side but not flipped over. The trees holding it up looked way too thin for me to want to hang around any longer. I climbed on all fours up the snowy hillside to the highway above. There were a few spectators there waiting for me with 911 already dialed on their smartphones. “Are you ok?” One of them asked me with a confused look on his face.

6:45 am.

A Unified Police officer named Kyle showed up and let me warm up in his car. It was 20-something-degrees out and felt like winter as I was waiting there for him on the side of the highway. He called a tow truck and we waited on the side of the road for an hour for it to show up. The whole time I stared at my car in its new parking spot and thought about my life.

8:00 am.

An hour later the tow truck showed up and winched my car back up to the highway. It was a process—my car was in a pretty tricky spot on the side of a small cliff. The tow driver did his best and managed to tow it out after about an hour of trial and error. The police officers, now two of them, helped manage traffic as the tow truck maneuvered itself in position to extract my vehicle. For about 30 minutes or so, traffic was backed up on both sides of the tow truck and cars trying to go both up or down the canyon were stuck in a red snake. This time, I was the snake charmer.

My car’s new parking spot. | Photo courtesy of SnowBrains


I had a lot of time to think when I was waiting for the tow truck, and again when the tow truck was blocking traffic, trying to hoist my car from the mountainside. I realized that today was a textbook case of powder panic—a dangerous one. I was rushing. I was stoked. I wasn’t paying attention to road conditions. All I could think about was getting to the powder at Alta and skiing it. My judgment was impaired. As a result of this powder panic, which to me could be synonymous with ‘recklessness,’ I:

  • didn’t go skiing today
  • wrecked my car
  • freaked out my loved ones
  • freaked out myself
  • could’ve seriously hurt myself or died
  • held up ski traffic
  • now owe lots of money to my car insurance
  • feel like a dumb ass

Had I just taken my time and realized that the powder would’ve still been there when I got there, I probably wouldn’t be sharing this with you right now. Powder panic is real and it is not worth it. I’m extremely thankful that some guarding force kept me from rolling my car and that the situation was not worse. I’m very grateful for the people in their cars behind me who saw what happened and stopped to call 911 and made sure I was alright. Thank you very much, you kind souls whose names I will not know. I’m pleased with the responsiveness of Unified PD and all their help getting my car off the mountain and me back home safely. And above all, I’m grateful for the experience and the capability to learn from it, as well as for being able to share it with you.

My intention is that this personal account of powder panic helps you keep in mind the danger of reckless behavior such as rushing to go skiing on icy roads and how fresh snow and good skiing conditions can get the best of us from time to time. I hope that by reading this, you can be a little kinder—to others, but more importantly, yourself. That way, the next time a little powder gets you all riled up you can better remember that there will still be plenty for everybody to share by the time you get there, when you get there.

The damage. | Photo courtesy of SnowBrains

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9 thoughts on “The Dangers of Powder Panic—How I Drove My Car Off a Cliff on the Way to the Ski Area

  1. Talking on the phone while driving on any road never mind icy makes you an idiot, I’d be embarrassed to be telling this story and the world would be better if you’d died

  2. Read this to my family. My husband, from the Alps, wants to know what kind of tires… not that the best would prevent this on ice but hes still curious

  3. the snow and the mountain will be there for you, take your time and enjoy the safe ride. Going to our mountain is like an open road rally sometimes, whatever joy you are racing for will still be there if you slow down and drive safe and sane, if you wreck or cause a wreck then you will undoubtedly wish you had added a few minutes to your travel time. If you are in a big hurry for anything just relax and say you should have left ten minutes sooner so no reason to rush now.

    Thank yo uso much for posting this, and sharing some of the realizations that living in this fast #ss world does not mean we cannot just slow down and enjoy life now and then.

  4. Yo dude! Got caught in traffic behind your car getting winched out on my way down the canyon after scoring the deep that morning. Looked like a really sketchy zone to go off, glad you’re all good, and the car didn’t even look that damaged, pretty amazing. Could tell you looked bummed you didn’t get to ski but glad you’re all good!

  5. Thank you for sharing this and glad to know nobody was injured but there is a serious omission that I think should be included:

    Utah law says: “A person may not operate a vehicle at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the existing conditions…any speed in excess of the limits…is evidence that the speed is not reasonable or prudent and that it is unlawful.” These “existing conditions” can include dusty, snowy, wet or icy roads. If you are going at or above the speed limit in these conditions, and get in an accident (or are pulled over for speeding), you can get a ticket for “traveling too fast for conditions.

    Open for discussion but beyond ‘reckless’ this would most likely be found illegal under Utah law.

  6. Distracted driving with phone on slippery roads, hmmmmm
    Go figure
    Lucky and glad you’re ok and didnt cause incident/accident with other vehicles.
    So ya peeps, put your damn phones away, addiction to such is still an addiction.

  7. Wow, mate. So glad you’re ok. I’m an insurance agent in So. Lake Tahoe, and believe me, you are nowhere near alone. In our area, we have to deal with the yahoos from The Bay how believe snow tires will stop you on ice at speed.
    I do tell our insureds that it’s called black ice for a reason, and in conditions similar to yours, to assume its icy and keep the speed down, and pump the brakes on straight portions to see if they feel any sliding. Again, glad you’re good, and next year will be better!

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