Saturday, July 26, 2008

Avalanche Control

"Bomb Make Up" This is usually done inside, but on this day we had a heli ride to the headwall, and when transporting in the helicopter we keep the cap/fuse sperate from the the 2lb charges. Byron with a 4lbs shot ready to place at the top/starting zone, or on the edge of where an avalanche might be. This set up with the charge taped to the bamboo is called an airblast because the bamboo keeps the explosive above the snow and the explosion generates more force throughout the slab, as opposed to throwing the shot into the snow. The snow ends up absorbing more of the forces and in our wet/Merritime snowpack is virtually in-affective, where as the airblast has become a standard at Alyeska. These shots are only used to clean up small pockets that could potentially slide. Only after a gun mission or after using the bomb trams to reduce the large scale hazard enough to ski into these areas. Don't worry mom, we know what we're doing. Byron just after pulling the "spitters," (igniters. )This is a picture of Andy after igniting the shot and returning to a safe spot. Each shot is 1 minute 45 seconds, plenty of time to get back to your safe spot. His safe spot in this case is the ridge line. "Fire in the hole." My favorite thing to yell out , just seconds before the blast. This is on the headwall ridge with Max's peak behind the explosion on the left.
When I started working for the Alyeska Ski Patrol about five years ago. I didn't realize the extent of what was involved to keep Alyeska's lifts running. I knew that they used a few 105 howitzers guns, and some other small explosives, but I had no idea how it all worked. I remember one of my first few days, carrying signs and bamboo around, putting up rope lines down LoLo's and the North Canyon line. I was just trying to get used to skiing in two feet of mashed patatoes while carrying 30lbs on my shoulder while trying my hardest to not blow my knee out. What on earth had I gotton myself into? I would come home eat a few pounds of food, crash hard, and then do it all over again the next day. On storm days I would hear on the radio, "fire in the hole, Index, one minute," Or "I'm clear, moving." Where is that? What are they doing?

Up until this first year on patrol, my experience with avalanche terrain, and evalutating conditions was pretty much the opposite of what avalanche control is about. I had always been taught to avoid these conditions. If its blowing and snowing stay away from anything steeper than 30 degrees, you just shouldn't be there. I had taken a level 1 avalanche class the winter before, and had been backcountry skiing for a few years, and everything in my gut was apposed to this ides of creating avalanches.

Slowly over the next few months I would get to watch two or three patrollers on Center Ridge, or the High Traverse. I'd hear their calls on the radio, and then watch for the avalanche. Near the end of this first year I was getting trained on snow conditions and terrain and making ski cuts in small localized pockets on the south face. Alyeska's terrain is extremely steep, the weather unpredictable, and the quantity of snow so massive at times, I was stuggling with all of the factors that go into "snow safety work."

Somewhere between my forth and fifth season something clicked. Its not something I can describe, but rather just know is there. It was all starting to make sense. Although the mystery hadn't been solved, I was just learning how to approach it without fear completely overwhelming me. Like everything in life it is just a matter of time and experience in order to trust your own judgment, and make confident decisions. I have to thank Scoot Hilliard and Jim Kennedy for all of their patients and training. It's still a learning process.

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