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January 14, 2010

Popular Mechanics Follows Avalanche Patrolers

Cool Article on Avalanche Patrolers in Popular Mechanics:

The bomb is the size of a soup can, bright orange, stuffed with two pounds of pentolite—a chalky mixture of TNT and an even more powerful explosive compound known as PETN. Ross Titilah, a 31-year-old ski patroller at Big Sky Resort in southern Montana, ties the bomb to one end of a short nylon rope and triggers the igniter. Ninety seconds until detonation. The other end of the rope is attached to what’s known as a bomb tram—a sort of ski lift for explosives that stretches from one fin of rock to another high above the entrance to a steep gully in Big Sky’s experts-only area...

Big Sky is one of the more awe-inspiring resorts in North America, centered around a solitary pyramidal mountain—Lone Peak—which can be skied right from the summit. I arrived following one of the winter’s biggest storms, which dropped more than a foot of snow amid fierce winds. The easiest thing to do, when faced with an unstable snowpack, is simply keep most of the mountain closed. Sometimes this happens. But a patroller’s job is a tricky juggle between mitigating natural dangers and satiating skiers’ desires. To an avid skier or snowboarder, there’s nothing more joyful than flying through steep, untracked snow—precisely the scenario that’s most uncertain in terms of stability. The compromise is that, after a storm, the patrol activates the most slide-prone areas by detonating powerful explosives.

High on the flanks of Lone Peak, in the moments before the bomb hanging from the tram is set to explode, Ross and Steve instinctively scan the surrounding slopes, reading the terrain with practiced eyes. “Flagged there,” says Ross, indicating a line of evergreens whose branches have been sheared off on one side where previous avalanches have swept close by. “Point release,” Steve says, motioning with his chin to a spot where a cliff band, warmed by the rising sun, is naturally shedding the new powder, sloughing little waterfalls of snow.

There’s a flash, and a bang—and, for a second, nothing. Then, from down in the gully comes a loud and disconcerting whooomp, as if an overloaded bookshelf has snapped its supports and dropped onto the shelf below it, which is close to what has happened. Abruptly, what had looked like an inviting ski run is transformed into a tumbling, churning mass of snow, blasting down the hill—avalanches often exceed 90 miles per hour—leaving in its wake a billowing cloud of snow mist, gorgeous and daunting at once.

This is a relatively small slide. The vertical crown face at the top of the avalanche path—which indicates the depth of the snow slab that broke away—is only a foot tall. Some slides at Big Sky have 13-foot crowns. Still, it’s easy to see how, if a skier is caught in an avalanche, escape is virtually impossible. Once the slide is over, though, the slope is considerably safer; it’s like a rubber band that has snapped, its tension dissipated.

Have a quick read. Interesting stuff about the folks that keep us safe.

Posted by Justin at January 14, 2010 03:11 PM