A Mountain of Work: The Legend of Montgomery Atwater

Snow and avalanches are an enduring part of the mountain environment that affects the livelihood of many operations throughout the world.  In the western hemisphere, the scientific study and monitoring of these little understood phenomena began in the small town of Alta, Utah.  Situated nine miles up a glacially carved canyon in the heart of the Wasatch Range, Alta is the perfect laboratory for observing the snowy torrents in their natural habitat.  Graced with over 500” of average annual snowfall and punctuated by steep, rocky terrain, the slopes surrounding the former mining enclave have captivated the minds of skiers for nearly 80 years.

When the ski area of Alta started spinning its lifts in 1938, the Federal Government took an active interest in the skiing public for the first time.  They soon began employing Snow Rangers who were responsible for cataloging avalanche activity, and more importantly, keeping people away from them. The Engen brothers had brought word to the masses that Alta was the place to be during the winter months and Little Cottonwood Canyon became a staple of skier lore.  Along with the skiers came entrepreneurs, hoteliers, mechanics, bartenders, and hopeless romantics.  All of which saw the opportunities the beautiful mountain community offered.  Most of these individuals planted themselves there for good and had virtually no inclination that their post could be wiped out at any moment by one of Mother Nature’s most destructive devices.

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In 1945 an intrepid free-lance author from Harvard and 10th Mountain Division trained skier by the name of Montgomery “Monty” Atwater rolled into town under the advice of his ski buddy Sverre Engen.  He was there to enjoy the solitude of the mountains and gather his thoughts after an eventful tour of duty overseas.  Unbeknownst to those around town, his inquisitive mind and sense of adventure made him the ideal candidate for a Snow Ranger.  This unlikely combination of talents and timing would end up directing the course of avalanche history for decades to come.

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Alta Daze

When Monty arrived there was virtually no foundation to build a solid snow safety program.  At the time, the Supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest, Felix C. Koziol, was a spirited skier in a bureaucratic world of red tape and vague answers.  He and Monty were given orders to maintain the safety of all skiers in the canyon and told that their authority would be absolute.  With Koziol down in Salt Lake most of the time, the reins were in Monty’s hands as the winter of 1945-1946 got underway.  In his arsenal of state-of-the-art technology he had a few thermometers, a stake for measuring snow depth, a dozen signs that read “Closed Area-Avalanche Danger”, and a manual from the Forest Service that told him he could expect 3.3 avalanches in the month of January.  To say that he was ill equipped for the task at hand would be an understatement.  Fortunately, Atwater was quick-witted, resourceful, and a tinkerer at heart.  During his first winter Monty also grew accustomed to the personalities of the town’s people and the mountains themselves.   Finding his foothold in a dynamic place like Little Cottonwood proved interesting, but by the middle of his first season he’d gained the respect of those hardy folks who called Alta home.  He also developed a healthy sense of caution for the playful yet fearsome slopes of Baldy and Superior.  The avalanches that these mountains produced were nothing short of spectacular and Monty could only stand in awe as their crushing power somehow spared the town and its lifts.  There was one particular avalanche though, one that taught Monty how to handle the inevitable situation when a skier was involved.  Just to the east of the town proper, the Emma Ridges roll gracefully to the head of the canyon.  A pack of young boys had made their way up the ridges towards an old mining cabin in the middle of a snowstorm to spend the night.  Along the way they triggered and were involved in an avalanche that left them bewildered and without resources.  Atwater was alerted and gathered a team of would-be rescuers to assist.  Most were unprepared and he sent a majority of them back to the lodge with whiskey in hand.  The search eventually ended successfully with no fatalities.  What did come out of the event was a checklist of how to handle subsequent involvements.  These tenets are still used today in modern avalanche search and rescue:

  • Question the survivor
  • Have good leadership
  • Make the hasty search
  • Know the last-seen point

Throughout the next decade of snow and avalanches in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Atwater made continued advancements in the monitoring of weather and the contributory factors leading to instability, development of an atlas of known slide paths, and even pioneered the idea of skier compaction for stabilizing slopes.  However, it was his background in the 10th Mountain Division that gave him the ability to solve the greatest problems he and his team faced.  The procurement of explosives from surplus military munitions and previous mining stockpiles allowed Atwater to get a handle on the numerous avalanches that threatened the highway, ski area, and town.

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It soon became common practice to go out into the terrain and lace avalanche prone slopes with high explosive.  However, the equipment of the era was ill adapted for use in inclement weather and it was a cumbersome task to even get one shot into a starting zone such as High Rustler Face.  The old adage of “never use one stick of dynamite when two will make a bigger boom” stuck with the blasters and they had a merry time of stalking avalanches and blowing them to pieces.

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This method of hand delivered explosives is a hallmark of today’s avalanche mitigation practitioners.  Without them, no ski area would even consider opening during or even days after a powerful winter storm. Despite the new found utility of high explosives, there was still another piece of equipment that Monty was keen to bring over from his military experience; artillery.

In the late 1950’s Atwater petitioned supervisor Koziol and his friends in Washington D.C. to obtain a piece of artillery for controlling the slopes of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  He noted that this was the most effective way to protect infrastructure and reduce the risks associated with delivery of explosives.  The first answer was a resounding “No!”  But persistence paid off and before long, Atwater received notice that the Utah National Guard would be making a visit to Alta with the intentions of entertaining the idea of an artillery program for avalanche control.  His dream of utilizing these field pieces for knocking down lots of small slides before they could gather enough snow to wipe out the town or highway came to fruition sooner than he imagined.  Unfortunately, the bureaucrats decreed that National Guard personnel could only fire the old French 75mm.  This became problematic for Atwater, especially since it required advance notice to the gunners, who would undoubtedly have reservations about travelling up canyon in the throes of a storm.  Luckily for the town and its inhabitants, there was a stipulation that allowed for firing of the weapon in “emergency situations.”  Needless to say, Monty and his trusty French 75 held the avalanches that once plagued the canyon at bay for years to come.  For practitioners today, artillery is much sought after for solving avalanche problems the world over.

 

The Olympic Decision

Atwater’s reputation as a forecaster and avalanche hunter put him in the unique position to accept a job for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California.  He would serve as a “technical advisor” and was tasked with the enormous responsibility of making sure the Games went off without a hitch.  He was given two years prior to the events to prepare his mind and his teams.  In his stead at Alta, Atwater left the venerable Ed LaChapelle to run the avalanche control programs and continue with research. LaChapelle was the perfect man for the job and his scientific mind and background as a glaciologist allowed him to carry on the legacy Atwater had helped to establish.  The two remained in constant contact as each man attempted to tackle the myriad problems that prolific snowfall and steep terrain produced in their respective alpine zones.

During the two seasons leading up to the Games, Atwater found a colleague in Dick Stillman, and the two worked hand in glove for the next two winters.  Their Olympic Snow Safety Plan required that they obtain another piece of artillery known as the 75mm recoilless rifle.  This apparatus was capable of firing in a complete circle and proved to be invaluable. They procured four of these 75 mm weapons, as well as two 105mm recoilless rifles.  A more formidable arsenal has never been repeated and the stage was set for battle. The men’s main adversary was the Headwall just off the flank of Squaw Peak.  This massive terrain feature catapulted countless avalanches at the Squaw One chair and the run out zone also affected the main corridor that Olympic traffic would be funneled through.

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To complete his team for the running of the Games, Atwater enlisted the services of the State of California’s Snow Safety Specialist, Norm Wilson, and Squaw Valley’s Chief of Mountain Operations, Dick Reuter.  This quartet kept the entire ski area open through intense Sierra storms during the winter and the Games ultimately went on without incident.  The success of the program was attributed to lots of hard work and ingenuity on the part of these men, and the lessons they learned helped forge the future of avalanche mitigation in North America.  Each one of Atwater’s team members would eventually go on to be respected members of the tribe and build snow safety programs that endure to this day.

 

Across the Equator

In addition to his exploits in the United States, Monty gained considerable notoriety as an avalanche hunter in the Chilean Andes.  Coincident with his Olympic experience, he was hired as a consultant by the Cerro Corporation to advise on the protection of a copper mine that was being developed in the Rio Blanco region.  Keeping with his theme of being at the right place at the right time, Atwater found an unbelievable opportunity to help establish an avalanche management program in this corner of the world.

The defenses surrounding the initial mining camp at Rio Blanco were insufficient for protection against the powerful Andean storms that produced killer avalanches the likes of which Monty had never seen.  Yet again, Atwater surrounded himself with the right people to get the job done.  Guillermo Ibanez and a host of young Chileno mountain boys became his teammates as they launched successive winter long missions against an opponent with unlimited ammunition and insurmountable strength.  It would be these men of immeasurable courage that would survive the onslaught of the Hundred Year Storm of 1965 and go on to become National heroes of their generation.

In 1966, Atwater completed his final brush stroke in the realm of avalanche mitigation as he successfully managed the control program during the FIS World Ski Championships in Portillo, Chile.  Affectionately known by his cohorts as Señor Boom-Boom, Monty took his years of experience and helped the forlorn ski area rise out of the ashes of the Hundred Year Storm and produce one of the finest events the world had ever seen.  Although he was an American by birth, his soul belonged to Chile.

 

The Everlasting Torch

Through timing and luck Monty and his teams often won the battles against the White Death.  Mother Nature continuously surprised him and kept him humbled, but through her tutelage he found the answers to many of the questions he had conjured up over the years.  The recalcitrant nature of snow and its mysterious propensity to lay dormant for weeks, only to destroy everything in its path at the drop of a flake allowed Atwater to develop systems and procedures that still serve the greater community of avalanche professionals.  In his wake we have a detailed library of terminology, techniques, and equipment that has led to many answers, but perhaps even more questions.  Most of all, we have his enduring spirit that travels through every young avalanche hunter on their way out the door.

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