The History of Avalanche Control in Utah
Into the predawn darkness they march. Packs loaded, they tiptoe along corniced ridges and wind-loaded slopes. Through this ominous landscape they continue on towards their goal. They are the avalanche hunters. All around them, hidden dangers lurk, ready to strike at any time and without notice. Their only defenses are an intimate understanding of the forces at work and a few pounds of explosives. It has snowed twenty-four inches since yesterday morning and all signs point to an unstable snow pack. High winds further complicate the situation and every hunter must proceed with extreme caution.
After a pulse-pounding slog through the battlefield they arrive at their objectives. A stern voice crackles over the radio, “Fire in the hole.” Ninety seconds later, an orange flash illuminates the blackness and a soul shattering boom echoes off the canyon walls. Instantaneously, a fracture line hundreds of feet wide permeates the smooth surface of the beautiful white blanket. “Whoa, we’ve got one on the north ridge,” the hunter blasts across the radio. As the wall of destruction makes its way down the slope, wide eyes follow its every move. Unleashed is a force greater than a hundred locomotives, engulfing everything in its path. Outcomes like this are what drive the hunter. To protect others and let them enjoy the magnificent surroundings is what gives him purpose. However, there was once a time when the enemy was less understood and the instruments of war less advanced.
Flashback to 1881. Alta had entered its prime as a Utah mining town as tons of silver ore were extracted everyday and transported to market. Despite the advancements in mining tech, little was known about the causes of avalanches or how to mitigate them. As winter approached, most of the Alta inhabitants had moved down canyon, yet a hardy few remained to keep the town’s heart beating. A notoriously slow part of the year mining-wise, winters at Alta were never lacking in excitement. That January proved more interesting than most. On the afternoon of the tenth, a storm front positioned itself across the Salt Lake valley. An hour later, its fury descended upon the remaining residents. For over forty-eight hours, the storm raged on, dumping inch after inch of snow upon the mountainsides and overloading an already weak snow pack. At ten o’clock on the night of the twelfth, the slopes reached their breaking point and began avalanching. The floodgates had been opened and only a fortunate few were left to comb over the aftermath the next morning. Taken from the pages of Alexis Kelner’s Skiing in Utah, A History, Alta pharmacist, Dr. F.H. Simmons, recalled his encounter in a dispatch to his counterparts in Salt Lake City: “Last night was one of the most eventful known in the history of Alta. We are used to severe and blinding snowstorms, to snow-slides and seasons of peril and danger, but last night was truly a night of horror.” After the storm cleared and the numbers tallied, avalanches had killed fifteen people, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in property had been flattened. Although this was an event forever remembered by the town of Alta, it was only a hint of what was to come. As following winters came and went, so did the prosperity of the mines. The hustle and bustle of Alta faded to a light drone, and the canyon was once again quiet, but not for long.
Enter the Engens. With a flair for ski jumping, they were the driving force of change for skiing in America. Due to its location and epic amounts of snowfall, Utah was a natural choice for the Engen brothers. During the early 1900’s, Alf and Sverre Engen awed crowds with their high-flying antics at jumping sites throughout the Wasatch. Their love for the sport and abundant curiosity towards the snow were primary motivators for the opening of the mountains to ski enthusiasts. By working closely with the National Forest Service and several Salt Lake City businessmen, the Engens helped establish the first ski resort in Utah. Alta’s opening season illustrated a sea change of how the government thought about its skiing public, and they appointed C.D. Wadsworth as the country’s first full-time avalanche and snow observer. His principal duties were to make observations of snowfall and how it affects the likelihood of an avalanche. Wadsworth’s second season at Alta (1938-1939) proved educational to say the least. Slide after slide affected the daily operations of the new resort and shut down the canyon road on numerous occasions. However, it was due to his keen ability to predict such occurrences that nobody was killed. The following season, Sverre Engen joined Wadsworth as an assistant and was responsible for making the resort safe for skiers. He spent meticulous hours studying snowfall and wind patterns to gain a deeper understanding of how to predict and control the snowy torrents. Engen was even so bold as to suggest the use of explosives in bringing down avalanches to his supervisor at the Forest Service. Although controversial at the time, Engen’s foresight proved effective, and modern avalanche control was born.
During the next decade, several more inquisitive souls joined the ranks of Utah’s avalanche men. Under the direction of Forest Supervisor Felix Kozol, a semi-formal avalanche study area was developed at Alta. Perhaps the most respected avalanche man of all time, Montgomery Atwater, would lead the daily efforts of the program. His curious nature proved to be invaluable to the efforts of avalanche control in the western hemisphere, and eventually the world. Equipped with primitive tools found in a war surplus hangar, Atwater became the first person to take a scientific approach to the study of avalanches. By gathering as much data regarding snowfall, wind, and precipitation intensity as possible, he was able to gain a broad understanding of the snow pack and how it changed over time. Using this knowledge, he would head out onto the slopes and attempt to trigger slides. His book, The Avalanche Hunters, provides an excellent account of those early learning experiences as a snow ranger. In addition to his studies, Atwater was also responsible for the proliferation of explosives in controlling avalanches. Up to the late forties, popular control methods included the infamous “ski cut” and the occasional sack of dynamite. A convincing and educated man, Atwater spent many years battling with the government bureaucrats in order to obtain his heavy artillery. As Alta celebrated its twelfth anniversary, Atwater brought avalanche control to the forefront of national news. Hundreds gathered to see Atwater and his new toy, the 75 mm Recoilless Rifle, blast apart the mountainside. His techniques, refined over the years, proved more effective than any other. Not only did the old French 75 bring down avalanches with incredible ease, it also removed an element of danger from the snow ranger’s job. Able to fire from a secure location, the gunner could now reach an array of targets without having to set foot on the slope. This new method won the hearts of many a skier, as it was now possible to open up terrain that was previously deemed unsafe. With the powder hounds happily enjoying their newfound stashes, Atwater continued his studies and helped train new snow rangers. Dr. Ed LaChapelle, a physicists and glaciologist from Washington, joined the Alta team in 1952. His presence marked an evolution in the study of snow cover. In addition to his interest in bringing down slides, he wanted to develop a more precise measure of how the snow settled and what elements produced the formula for an avalanche. Atwater and LaChapelle were a remarkable set of minds and their methods are still used to this day in making the mountains safe for snow riders across the globe. Unfortunately, the Forest Service decided to split up their talents in the late fifties, and they sent Atwater to Squaw Valley to help them with their snow problems. Luckily, an up and coming mountaineer with a scientific mind, Dr. Ron Perla, stepped in to fill the gap. Along with LaChapelle, he formed the Alta Avalanche Study Center, the first of its kind in the western hemisphere. The knowledge gained during this time aided the men in their understanding of the snow pack and enabled them to develop better forecasting methods that assisted in making the canyon safe for skiers. Their initial research at the study center gave rise to the works of greats like Ray Lindquist, Warren Baldseifen, Binx Sandahl, and Will Bassett during the sixties. Together these men hashed out the difficult winters and paved the way for a new regime.
As techniques advanced and skiing became increasingly popular, more and more resorts started to emerge. Brighton, Park City and Snowbasin opened their hills to the masses and benefited from the research that the boys at Alta had done. Gone were the days of the single lift and rope tow. It was now time for a new way, and Snowbird was there to lead the change. With the construction of an aerial tramway in 1970, Little Cottonwood entered a new era. For the first time in history, the ski area, not the Forest Service, would be responsible for its avalanche control. Along with this fresh responsibility came a fresh bunch of faces. Most of the early timers at Alta had gone elsewhere or retired, and it fell on the shoulders of newcomers like Liam Fitzgerald to help alleviate the avalanche hazard. Working under the tutelage of Ray Lindquist and Warren Baldseifen, Fitzgerald and his colleagues at Snowbird began tackling the difficulties that came along with trying to corral such a large area of avalanche terrain. “Luck, timing, and hard work were what got us through those first few years at the bird” commented Fitzgerald. In addition to their efforts inbounds, the Snowbird crew was also responsible for controlling the middle part of Little Cottonwood and protecting the highway, a section of road regarded by many as the most dangerous stretch of highway in the U.S. “It’s amazing what can happen when it just doesn’t stop snowing,” added Fitzgerald, referring to a particularly stormy December in 1973. Liam has moved on from Snowbird, and is now working with the Utah Department of Transportation’s Highway Avalanche Safety Program, continuing to bust avi’s alongside the best of em. With continued vigilance and awareness of the potential risks, patrollers in Utah have delivered the powdery delights to the masses with minimal incident. The use of a specialized air-powered cannon called an avalauncher, originally developed during the Atwater years, has also helped Utah resorts control their territory and open up more terrain for the skiing public.
Stretching from Beaver Mountain in the north to Brian Head in the south, the availability of world-class skiing in Utah is astounding. Furthermore, with greater availability comes a greater chance of someone being caught and killed by an avalanche. Dean Cardinale, President of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, knows this all to well. His organization has helped many mountain travelers when the unthinkable happens and an avalanche occurs. Unfortunately, the outcome is not always favorable. Since 1950, eighty-five people have been killed in avalanches in Utah, a countless more have been caught. According to Cardinale, “Education and awareness of the dangers is the ultimate key to prevention.” Along with the WBR, the Utah Avalanche Center fosters community involvement in teaching avalanche education. Started in 1980, the UAC has strived to keep riders “On top of the Greatest Snow on Earth instead of buried beneath it” by providing avalanche instruction and training. Their combined knowledge and resources are a great way to gain information about backcountry travel and staying safe on the slopes.
So next time you’re out enjoying that fresh powder turn across a wide open bowl, remember to thank the courageous men and women who made it all possible.
Deep in the Ground to Deep in the Pow: Utah’s Skiing Miners
Long before the advent of the chairlift, releasable bindings, or reverse camber, skiing was a mode of transportation. Dating back thousands of years to the ancient peoples of China and Scandinavia, skis, or shees, were used to get around during the winter months. Moving around in the deep snow was particularly important to one group of mountain individuals, the Utah miners. Once mining became a way of life in the 1860’s, reaching the mines across acres of snowy terrain was vital to their continued operation. In towns like Park City, Brighton and Alta, miners began constructing planks of wood capable of sliding over the snow. Usually between ten and twelve feet long, these unruly “snow shoes” weren’t as responsive as today’s sidecut marvels. However, they did prove effective for getting to and from the mine entrances in winter, although slowing down was often a bigger issue than turning. Having one long pole instead of two small ones further complicated things for the miners.
On the eastern slope of the Wasatch the snow doesn’t fall as much as the west, but it still poses a problem for everyday life. The miners of Park City had their work cut out for them as they slid to and fro trying to make it to work on time. Several large mining operations were producing by the early 1870’s and the town began to flourish. With continued success, thanks to the hardworking miners, the town was incorporated in 1884. Experiencing a huge windfall with the discovery of more silver mines, Park City began to attract a variety of immigrants, many from Scandinavia. These immigrants worked in the mines and even showed the current residents a few things about skiing. Before long, a few adventurous townspeople began engaging in regular ski tours over the ridge and into Brighton. For the truly hardy, there was even a route established over Catherine’s Pass and into Alta.
While Park City was experiencing a boom cycle, it was business as usual over in the Cottonwoods. Unfortunately, the inhabitants there had a little more to deal with in the way of nature’s surprises. On February 13th of 1885, a fearsome storm moved up Little Cottonwood Canyon and deposited its load of snow over the town of Alta. By the next morning, slides had leveled nearly the entire town and left sixteen people dead; countless others were still missing, buried amongst the debris. The Salt Lake Daily Tribune’s headlines read: “A Winter of Horror, Worst Disaster Yet to That Snowy Region.” Faced with the massive clean up effort ahead of them, the resolve of the Alta townspeople prevailed and by the next year, the town was mostly rebuilt. Unbeknownst to residents of Alta, it was there own doing that brought on such a killer slide. By removing so many of the trees from the hillsides to construct mines and buildings, they had effectively diminished the natural anchors that held the snow in place. It would be several years and many more disasters before they finally caught on.
Next door in Big Cottonwood, a vast collection of mines were paying out their share of silver and the miners were beginning to realize how important it was to stay open year round. Using their skis to get around, they worked away during the winter months and brought out record amounts of ore until the end of the century. However, around the time that William and Catherine Brighton were building their second hotel, the mines began to play out and prosperity went away from the region. Fortunately, it was just the beginning of the next revolution, winter sports.
As the population of Salt Lake City grew, more individuals wanted to get into the mountains to experience the magnificence brought on by the snow. Since most of the canyons were still largely inaccessible in winter, recreationalists began taking advantage of the train connecting Salt Lake and Park City. Originally used for transporting ore, the Eastern Railroad started issuing passenger tickets that enabled a load of skiers to make their way through Parley’s Canyon and into the hills of Park City. Once there, they were able to hike and ski all day and return home on the train in the evenings. Although the town still had a few lingering mines, which produced a fair bit of ore, most of the miners threw off their headlamps and joined in the fun.
Skiing was now the new norm, and people from all over began venturing to Utah to mine the “white gold.” The Engen brothers led a nation of ski enthusiasts as they flew through the air and came gently back to Earth. By 1930, ski jumping hills were sprouting up all over the state, with Ecker Hill in Parley’s Canyon drawing the biggest crowds. As the sport progressed and became more popular, equipment evolved and pretty soon everyone was doing it. By 1980, Utah boasted thirteen ski resorts, and in 2002 it hosted it’s first Olympic Winter Games. Yes, this state has come a long way since a few determined miners strapped sticks to their feet just to get around. Schuss!