Avalanche!

“This flight in what might be called a milky way
of snow-stars was the most spiritual and exhilarating
of all the modes of motion I have ever experienced.”
John Muir
An old story about my days on the slopes…
know the signs

The day would start early, very early.  I usually set my alarm for 4:00 am.  That gave me enough time to dig myself out and get to work.  Sometimes I drove, sometimes I walked and sometimes I hitchhiked.  There were two basic schedules for avalanche control days, For-Sure and Will-Call.

Only four inches of new snow between the resort closing one day and opening the next was needed to initiate control work.  If snow was predicted overnight then it was a will-call, meaning we were to expect a phone call from a supervisor informing us that the control work was on for the day because it had snowed overnight.  A for-sure control day meant it was snowing hard the afternoon before and snow was expected to continue through the night.  Either way I always slept poorly the night before a Shoot, as control work was commonly called.  The will-call nights were the worst.  It seemed like I waited all night for the phone to ring.
out the door

If the shoot was a go we would show up at the ski patrol room at our assigned base lodges around 5:00 am and gear up for a day full of uncertainty and adrenaline.  At our 6:00 am OTD, out the door time, were strode out into the dying night and off to the waiting snow cats.  In darkness we crawled upon the bare backs of those beastly machines and hung on for a wild rodeo.

The patrol room was quite a scene on a shoot morning since almost everyone showed up at the same time. Other mornings there were two OTD’s, one for the lower lifts and one for the upper lifts. By splitting the shifts the flow was much better in the cramped, stinky locker room.  The locker room reeked of sweat and soil, of wax and burnt P-Tex.  Fifty pairs of ski boots sat on shelves with a big blower forcing hot air over them all night and spread the foul stink everywhere.
A few dozen men and women stormed the locker room, spilling their locker’s contents on the floor.  It was chaotic and jovial.  Complete with heavy winter uniforms, hats and gloves, goggles and glasses, shovels and probe poles, beacons and radios, packs and first aid supplies, skis and boots and poles and, and packs of dynamite and fuses and blasting caps we geared up.  By the time I was dressed and ready to go I could barely walk.  Once I skied with 80 pounds of dynamite on my back.
the commute

Snow cats are amazing machines.  Where no other vehicle could go, snow cats crawled along with relative ease.  Built with a big diesel motor and a sophisticated hydraulic system, they rolled along on a pair on monster-sized tracks, like a tank only wider and lighter.  They could climb and descend some fairly steep terrain though it always felt steeper when in a cat as opposed to sliding on skis.  Sometimes we rode in the Crew Cat, a big box with bench seats around the inner walls mounted on the back of a snow cat.  While that was a nice way to go, riding shotgun was much better.  Inside the cab it was warm and dry, protected from the elements like a car.

a tough ride

The craziest thing I ever did on a regular basis as a patroller was to ride on the back of a snow cat.  Just getting on the deck required climbing over the tracks, wearing ski boot, usually while the machine was running and all kinds of commotion about.  The deck was made of diamond-patterned sheet metal.  The engine sat in the center of the deck; it’s exhaust pipe rising up next to the cab.  There was a small rail on the outer edge of the deck, maybe a foot high.   A few patrollers would climb up on the deck then others started handing skis and other equipment up to them.  It was all stacked laying flat on the deck behind the rail.  Finally everyone would climb up to the deck and try to hang on to each other and the wet engine cover.

When we were all onboard and ready the engine roared and the snow cat began to move.  It stunk like diesel exhaust.  The tracks provided the grip that let the cat move so efficiently.  They were armed with long fins of aluminum, as wide as the track that acted like claws tearing into the snow.  When the snow cat was moving the exposed tracks spun below our perch on deck.  Long metal blades whizzed by, this was not a place to fall, or slip, or drop. Snow cats generally traveled in packs, often offering aid to their fellow groomers.  Cat Crew is what we called them.
unloading

The ride up the mountain could be a simple drive, or it could be a near impossible task.  There were stormy days when white out condition were so bad I could not tell where we were, or if we were even moving.  Vertigo was a real issue on certain days.  Sometimes we got stuck in the bottomless Sierra Cement and one snow cat would dig another out.  Up the hill we’d go for a long ride, maybe a hint of light on the eastern horizon as we reached higher ground. Some mornings the full moon would be setting, I really enjoyed being up on the mountain at sunrise as a storm was clearing, it was a special treat that few get to experience.

Along the way we often stopped at a powder cache to pick up more supplies.  At times we would meet patrollers from the other base lodge to exchange manpower and bombs. The pack of machines stirred up a mess of snow, anyone on the deck of a cat would be soaking wet in no time.  The warmth of the engine melted all the spindrift churned up in the frothy powder and soaked everything on deck.  Eventually we reached our destination and the unloading began.  Everything started icing up instantly upon moving away from the engine, our skis, our uniforms, our supplies, and the deck of the cat itself; it was a slippery mess indeed.

After disembarking from the snow cat we busied ourselves by scraping our skis clear of ice and dividing up the explosives.  Based on weather and natural avalanche activity observed on the ride up it was common to discuss the morning’s planned attack as a group once more before splitting up. Then, if there was sufficient light, we would head off to our assignments.  Usually we worked in pairs, but some of the routes required more bodies.

rocky summit

One of the hand-charge teams headed off to their respective route by climbing up a rocky summit where a memorial honoring patrollers who had lost their lives on the mountain provided a somber reminder of the real danger hanging over our work.  Other routes required a short bit of skiing to reach them but within a few minutes the radio began to erupt.

The gunners generally went out in separate cats to set up for a lap through their targets with the military issue 105mm Howitzer recoilless rifle. Those things were too loud for my taste, but it was fun to watch from a distance as they fired tracer rounds with exploding shells into the sugar coated doughnut the mountain became after a monster storm cycle.  It shook the ground when it fired, then a second blast followed a few seconds after the shell exploded.  You could hear it all over town.  It was a powder hound’s wake-up call.
a first look

When in position, the team leader of each avalanche control route, known as the Shooter, radioed in to the base station announcing the beginning of the shoot.  The time, location and personnel for each route were recorded, as was the case when distributing the explosives.  Everyone was evaluating the conditions at the same time, reporting natural avalanche activity as they found it.  Some mornings we knew everything was going to slide and it was spooky.

The shooter had to expose his or her hand and ground themselves by touch their partner on bare skin, say the cheek or hand, of the Mule.  That was what the first teammate was called.  When high wind blows across nylon clothing static charges build up, like walking on carpeting in your socks, or rubbing a balloon on your head.  Rather than sparking when touching the dynamite, it was safer to ground out skin to skin.
lacing a shot

The mule carried up to 20 of the 2-pound, brown, waxy cylindrical sticks of nitroglycerine in a daypack.  A bit fatter and slightly longer than the cardboard tube in the center of a roll of paper towel, the dynamite looked just like what you expect from seeing it in the movies.  Each stick has been poked with two holes.  The first went completely through the stick on an angle near one end and the second one followed a similar angle but did not pierce the stick.  After grounding with the mule the shooter removed a stick from the mule’s daypack and inserted one of his pre-assembled fuses.

pre-dawn explosives

Slipped on to one end of the orange fuse was a shiny metal-cased blasting cap, crimped on tight, which provided the boost needed to explode the dynamite.  They say dynamite will burn and not blow up, deflagrate instead of detonate.  The fuse deflagrated, which triggered more volatile chemicals in the blasting cap to explode, which in turned triggered the dynamite to detonate.

At the core of the stick, inside the cardboard casing, was a green gel bound in sawdust.  The gel was the powerhouse.  It had a distinct odor.  One of the chemical properties of the nitroglycerine is that it caused you headaches.  It absorbed into your skin, you breathed it in and there is cumulative effect; the more you are exposed to it the more it messed with you.  The old timers chewed tobacco to counter the effect, it made them grumpy.
The shooter threaded the blasting cap through the first hole, out the other side and back in to the second dead-ended hole.  First aid tape wrapped around the cylinder secured the fuse to bomb.  A striker, something like a big match, was slipped over the other end of the fuse.  With a quick pull on the striker handle sparks began to fly.  The fuse was lit.  FIRE IN THE HOLE!  The mule started the clock.
bombs away

Depending on the location, the shooter might have to simply toss the live bomb onto the slope below.  Other time the throw required an outfielder’s arm.   On certain days the new snow was so hard that the shots slid to the bottom of the slope and exploded out of range to do any good.  In these circumstances we taped the dynamite to a length of polypropylene utility rope or first aid roller gauge and slid them over the edge. As it came closer to the anticipated explosion we would cup our ears with our hands and open our mouth to lessen the concussion on our systems.

wake up call

It never got old watching the raw power of nitroglycerine in action.  The concussion, the noise, the motion, the smell and taste, a wave of sensory thrill it was.  Every blast was different, different snow conditions, visibility, wind, all kinds of things altered the experience, but it never got old.  The sole purpose for those giant firecrackers was to create avalanches.  While the imposed rush of the explosion was reward enough, watching the snow begin moving and roaring down the mountain was one of the most naturally thrilling spectacles I have ever seen.

caught in a slough

Depending on the snow conditions avalanches reacted differently.  When soft powder snow fell in calm conditions avalanches tended to start at one point and fan out as the descended, sloughing was the term commonly used to describe it.  If the snow had fallen with some wind and at heavy rates, soft slab avalanches could be expected. Wind transported snow got ground up and when it settled it bonded together in a slab.  Tension existed in the snowpack as gravity tried to tear it apart.  Sometimes gravity won and a natural avalanche happened.  Sometimes all it took was the weight a snowball to tip the balance.

hard slab

When a soft slab failure occurred the snowpack began moving as a single unit, long horizontal fractures raced out across the upper limit of the avalanche and slowly the slab moved.  In just a few second the slab shattered into a giant jigsaw puzzle.  Blocks of snow started rolling and soon the whole mess was pulverized and churned up into a ball of white death.  Hard slab avalanches were the most frightening monsters in the land.  High winds and heavy snow pushed the slab theory to a new level.  Hard slabs didn’t grind up completely, the snow stayed in blocks all the way down.

The view for our protected stances where we staged ourselves was always front row quality.  When a bomb went off we never knew exactly what would happen.  Sometimes huge plumes of snow ejected into the air leaving a giant crater in the snowpack.  Other times the entire slope would give way and begin it’s powerful descent.  On clear days, when there was sufficient lighting the sight of a big slide would fill me with awe.
class 5

Most avalanche paths are clear of trees.  Each slide path had it’s own character, some of them are on wide open slopes and an avalanche would run it’s course without interference.  Some avalanches plowed into trees at the bottom of the run, shaking snow from the branches and settling in the forest.  Bigger slides could snap trees off like matchsticks and fling them about; the resulting pile of debris was quite a sight.

The biggest avalanches could strip the mountain of snow down to the dirt and carry trees and rocks along, adding solid projectiles to their destructive arsenal.  If buildings or chairlifts happened to be in the path of the snowy torrent, they might get damaged, flattened or removed from their foundations.  Avalanches have incredible power.
kick turn

As soon as a shot had blown it was time to move.  An avalanche control technique known as ski cutting was employed when traveling on slopes steep enough to slide.  It was a simple method of skiing that takes huge amounts of nerve.  The idea when ski cutting was to get across the slope as fast as possible without turning.  The resulting cut might release an avalanche, or it might not.  At the end of each cut the patroller was seeking a safe anchor, perhaps a rock outcropping or a tree, out of line with any slope above that could break free and jeopardize the stance.  At the end of the cut a kick turn was executed by putting all your weight on the uphill ski, swinging the downhill ski 180° to the uphill ski, shifting weight onto the downhill ski and swinging the uphill ski 180° to become the new downhill ski.

The best ski cutting created a diamond shaped pattern of tracks down the avalanche path.  Meeting up a little ways down the slope, the shooter and mule would fire off another round.  There were stances where multiple charges could be thrown.  When all shots had fired another descent by ski cutting followed.  Another round of shots followed. This was repeated until the bottom was reached.
clearing rime ice

On many routes patrollers skied or hiked along a ridge, tossing bombs over the edge along the way.  This could be a great experience in calm weather while watching the sunrise.  On other days it a life or death struggle trying to stay warm and not fall off the cornices that grew in big wind events.  I’ve seen the wind catch a 2-pound hand-thrown charge and blow it back over the ridge only to explode behind us.  I have seen frostbitten patrollers loose skin and flesh from extreme cold and wind.  I have crusted up with several pounds of rime ice on a few rare days.

cornice flight

A cornice is like a frozen cresting wave.  They hang over the leeward slopes waiting for the right conditions to weaken their structural integrity.  The right conditions could be temperature change, the weight of a skier or snow boarder, the rattle of explosive charges or the slow pull of gravity itself.

If cornices grew too large they would need to be removed.  Part of the normal practice on cornice prone ridges was to kick them off.  It was difficult to know where the cornice ended and the ridge began.  More than one patroller has been sucked over the edge when a cornice broke behind them.  If larger cornices could not be kicked down then we broke out a giant long-handled blade called the Spatula.  One patroller anchored him or herself away from the edge and fed rope out to a teammate who wielded the spatula.  It was a time consuming process shaving the frozen waves and rather nerve racking.
a surprise slide

Cornices could grow to the size of freight trains.  Those beasts require different tactics.  Roped up in the same manor as when using the spatula the lead patroller switched tools and used a long-handled poker bar affectionately known as the Dildo.  After ramming holes in the snow where the overhanging section of the cornice meets the ridge, the holes were then filled with dynamite and strung together with detonation cord, an explosive rope-like product.  Then the entire load of explosives was fired in one blast.  It was an impressive sight.

Each storm brought a different mix of snow and wind and moisture that made each shoot unique.  Depending on the direction of the wind the sides of chutes might fill in deeper than the remaining slope, water content in the snow could mean the different between soft slabs or powder sloughs; cornices formed with high wind and wet snow.   The teams had to read the snow, adjust their tactics on the fly, reporting on the radio any unusual or interesting observations.  A couple times a year, when conditions were too serious, we even went so far as aborting the mission.
debris

At least one patroller was caught in an avalanche every season I did this kind of work.   I had my share, including a complete burial.  Each patroller was equipped with a transceiver device known as an Avalanche Beacon that sent out a radio signal.  If one patroller was buried, all the other patrollers in the area turned their units to receive the signal and listened in an earpiece. The closer we got to the buried patroller the stronger the signal became.  We trained with the beacons all the time, everyone was required to find a transceiver buried on a real avalanche slope in under three minutes.

The sensation of being in a moving mass of snow is special in my life.  I found it to be an alluring sensory experience that was always euphoric, perhaps because the snow was soft, and I never hit any obstacles like trees or rock, perhaps because it was such an unusual occurrence.  The sheer rush of adrenaline may have helped create a sense of wonder.  The knowledge of the subject and it’s related risk and danger, the potential outcome of being caught in an avalanche, having all this collected information always made me hyper sensitive to the environment.  Life surged through my veins on those days.
this one was a monster

When all the shots were blown and the ski cutting behind us we usually got a free run back to the base lodge.  Where the Fun Zone began was always a point of contention and several patrollers paid a hefty price for making turns too high up the slope in the untracked powder.  It was very difficult resisting the temptation.  We would hug the edge of cut runs or pull out into the trees so our tracks were less visible.  It was a big deal to the resort and the paying customers that the mountain be left as fresh as possible until it was open to the public.

Once back at the base lodge we regrouped for the day.  This was around the time a few remaining patrollers who had a late OTD, or those that missed their alarm arrived.  It was embarrassing to be late.  The fraternal atmosphere of the ski patrol created a self-imposed rule of honor and ethics.  It was a serious job and we treated it as such.  During our meeting we talked about the shoot and discussed the next step for the day.  Some days we would go out and get the lower lifts open with a skeleton crew while everyone else headed to the upper mountain.  Other days we could not see the upper mountain and focused on the mid mountain.  It always varied.
storm day

When it was predicted to snow all day we tried to keep the mid mountain controlled and open.  Crowds were small on storm days.  Rope closures were established to keep the public out of dangerous areas.  Like the temptation the patrollers face with the fun zone a similar issue faced the public and the closures.  I once made a citizen’s arrest on a guy who ducked the rope and got caught.  It wasn’t taken lightly.

When a big storm cycle had finally eased and the sun showed it’s face again a lot of work needed to be done before opening the upper mountain.  It was a daunting task in many ways.  Danger existed everywhere and we needed to stay alert and focused.  Aside from blasting and shooting and cutting and clearing there was much trudging and digging and wallowing in the deep snow.  During a big winter event the snow would pile up in staggering amounts.  I once measured 7” of snowfall in one hour in a parking lot down in town. That same winter I counted 21 low-pressure systems rolling through in 28 days of February, only a day and a half of sunshine the entire month.
Then there were the inevitable packs of salivating powder hounds.  They were relentless with questions about when the top would open.  There were constant accusations of keeping the lifts closed for our own pleasure.  The growing lift lines and growing impatient masses nurtured and promoted the bad air.  Snowball fights erupted.  People became ugly.  It was a sad thing to see.  It only happened a few times each season but those days were not enjoyable for anyone involved.
probe line

Every now and then while the lifts were open to the public a slide would occur.  The ensuing search/rescue was quite an event.  Probe lines are tiresome and time consuming.  Long stressful hours lasting into the night would tax everyone.  Missing skiers or boarders were not uncommon.  There isn’t always a happy ending.  The job was serious and we treated it as such.

For years after I stopped patrolling I would hear the bombs blasting away at sunrise and have a moment of panic.  I thought I was late for work and missing out on the action high above town.  I’ve missed it ever since.
be safe out there
the lure
chair 12
chair 11
the underarm toss
chair 23
chair 22
chair 23
boys in blue
cornice maker
commuting
sugar doughnut
viva
chair 11
rime
chair 22
lincoln mountain
sotcher lake
cat nap