The Avalanche Review, VOL. 7, NO. 3, DECEMBER 1,1988
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA
The Avalanche History of Altaby Mark Kalitowski
How properly named is Alta! Occupying the loftiest spot of any regular abiding place of civilized man-kind, among the external snow which crowns the crags like a faceless halo, its situation is most majestic. In the days gone by, it was a wonder of the world and that it is less spoken of now than then is not because it has reached any stage of decline, but because its story has become familiar to the people here and elsewhere. It is still a repository of wealth incalculable as the work constantly and the product steadily pouring forth amply attest. It is a safe prediction to say that Alta has yet to reach its zenith but is moving toward it with giant strides.
Though perhaps a bit flowery, the quote above could easily be written with accuracy today. It was first printed in The Alta Independent on April 24, 1907, when new mining techniques once again made it economically feasible to go back into the silver mines. Today, the wealth, the work and the product no longer come from under the mountains, but from
Early Indian inhabitants did little more than hunt in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the trappers of the first half of the 19th century were only a passing presence, mostly during the annual rendezvous when they gathered from all around the west to trade, gamble, drink, swap lies and generally have a good time in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Brigham Young and his pioneer Mormon followers arrived in 1847, and white man's presence became a permanent addition to Little Cottonwood Canyon, named for the trees lining its banks. Lumber mills were some of the first enterprises developed, since the need for shelter was of immediate concern. With the Salt Lake Valley virtually treeless, the pioneers took to
The story of Hogum Fork is yet another example of choosing the name that fits. It seems that one summer night a number of domestic hogs were being brought up the canyon. They were penned up for the evening within a fence of less than adequate strength. The hungry porkers managed to knock down the fence in search of food. By morning, not a kitchen, dining hall, beer room or outhouse had escaped their rooting noses. When they were finally rounded up, the small community was virtually destroyed. Hence the proper pronunciation; HOG-um Fork.
Winter was the time for logging. It was much easier to skid timber down snow chutes and frozen creek beds than on the dry ground of summer. Stumps ten to twelve feet high and five to six feet in diameter can still be found and give testimony to the size of the forest and the depths of the snows.
As for the upper part of the canyon, it was about to be changed forever. While a small party of soldiers on a weekend outing with their wives picnicked near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon, one of the women found an unusual stone in the dry creek bed. It was high grade silver ore! It wasn't long before prospectors swarmed over the mountains and realized Alta's riches. Little Cottonwood Canyon hasn't been the same since.
The Mining Years
Finding silver was one thing; getting it out of the mountains was something else. Throughout the 1860's most of the large ore bodies had been located and the claims filed, but lack of economical transportation to the markets made profits elusive. The answer came with the completion of the trans-continental railroad. The boom was on and mining camps sprang up all along the canyon with names like Ragtown, Granite, Galena City, Union City, Tannerville, Central City and Alta, which quickly became a city of 180 buildings with all the business that makes a town.
The mountains surrounding Alta were peppered with mines and, as was the custom of the times, they were called hills. On the south was Wellington Hill, now called Rustler; west of that was Lexington or Peruvian Hill; across the canyon to the north was the aptly named Snowslide Hill, now called the Hellgate; east of that the Fredric (Toledo); then Emma Hill; and further east Davenport Hill. Directly east of Alta was the granite or Patsey Marley Hill.
The south-facing slopes above Alta were treeless by nature and that is where the first disastrous slides first came. When the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson visited Alta in the summer of 1873, his photographs showed a large thick forest on the hills to the north-facing slopes. But by July 3,1885,12 years later, the local photographer Charles R. Savage traveled to Alta to record the aftermath of what had been the worst year of avalanches yet experienced; his photographs show that not a tree remained. The residents of Alta now had avalanche paths coming from all directions.
The Utah Mining Gazette wrote on August 30,1873:
In the year 1871, the first snow storms appeared on the 28th day of September and increased until from 12 to 15 feet on the level covered the whole district, and in some places as deep as 40 feet. About the last storm for that winter was the 30th day of June, with a fall upwards of two feet of snow. In the following year, the storms commenced on the 24th of October and the last snowstorm, of a very few inches in the 30th of June. Snowslides are very frequent during the winter and they have been disastrous every season; several teamsters and miners have been killed thereby.
In a telegraphed message to The Salt Lake Tribune from Alta on December 26, 1872:
Number killed not ascertained. Seven sleighs found, four more missing. Three teamsters got out alive. Eight teamsters and some passengers reported lost. Occurred one mile below. Storm unabated.
In succeeding years, they wouldn't always be so lucky as to have the telegraph line survive the slides, and it would sometimes be days before word even got out and help could be mustered.
On January 13, 1881, Alta was once again visited in the middle of the night by massive avalanches. The Salt Lake Tribune ran an account two days later. In it was reprinted a letter from Dr. F. J. Simmons, Alta's resident doctor:
Alta, Jan. 13,1881
Last night was one of the most eventful known in the history of Alta. We are used to severe and blinding snowstorms, to snowslides, and seasons of peril and danger, but last night was truly a night of horror. The severe storm
that has been raging for days redoubled its fury and merged itself into a hurricane. Sheets of snow were hurled to the earth one upon the other so that it was unsafe to leave one's door. People converse with an assumed degree of
levity, but still the undercurrent of thought plainly tells of mind ill at ease.
Last night about 10 o'clock, a slide started at the top of the mountain in the vicinity of the Rough and Ready mine and came crashing and tearing down the mountain side carrying away the Flagstaff ore house, 300 or 400 feet of the
railroad shed and the telegraph poles, and ran clear over the f lot across the creek to the opposite mountain side. It also carried away an unoccupied shack just at the edge of Alta. The concussion was so great that Wa house occupied by Samuel Prethero and Louis Perrott, quite a distance from the slide, the doors flew open and the windows were broken.
At about midnight, a slide broke up Davenport Gulch, passed over the Victoria and Imperial House in which was Ezra Cummings and a hired man, the house being strong, it did not break through but covered it to a depth of twenty feet. Mr. Cummings and his partner were ten hours digging themselves out. The slide came thundering down to the Grizzly boarding house and swept it away.
In the house, was Mrs. Jonathan Hoskins and four children, three boys and a girl, and about 12, Charles Simons, Robert Howarth and Evan Morris. Simons and the oldest boy were sleeping upstairs and were thrown out of the house unhurt. The balance were buried in the snow.
The `City of Rock' boys were soon at the scene of the disaster and this morning were joined by men from the Antelope and the Prince of Wales mines and all the idle men of Alta. Mr. Jonathan Hoskins, the husband and father of the family, was at the Prince mine and thus escaped the calamity. About 10 o'clock, this morning, the two little boys were dug out alive, but one of them is injured in the back. Soon after Mrs. Hoskins was taken out dead and the men are still digging for Howarth and Morris. Jennie Hoskins has just been found dead. 5 pm. The men have quit work for the night, tired out. The bodies of Howarth and Morris have not been found.
January 14-Last evening, about 7 o'clock, Mr. Wm. Ireton from the Fredric Tunnel, came up to town and reported the Toledo compressor and house gone. Men that had been digging at the Grizzly disaster immediately took their shovels and repaired to the scene of the new excitement, and soon dug out the dead bodies of Charles Barbridge and Frank LaPorte. They were the only occupants of the house and from appearances were killed instantly. The roof of the house and smoke stack of the compressor lay quite a distance up the mountainside opposite. We have no tidings from other parts of the camp, but there can be little doubt but more lives have been lost and more property destroyed. We fear the end is not yet for it still storms. Dr. Simmons was right. It wasn't over yet. The following day, the headlines in the Tribune read, "Another avalanche-a building set on fire, and three men burned in the cellar." The entire town was virtually destroyed. Except for twenty-five miners holed up in various tunnels with stockpiled provisions, the general population sought to evacuate the canyon. The Tribune article continued:
That fearful trip down Little Cottonwood Canyon will never be forgotten by those who made it yesterday. The shed (there was snowshed built over almost the entire length of the rail line that ran to Alta) had been crushed in with snow for about five miles and the little party bade farewell to their homes yesterday morning with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Women wallowed though the snow, on top of the sheds, while the men carried the children in turns. Every once in a while, parts of the sheds would be found all right and a party would crawl beneath only to find the other end packed solid, and compel them to retrace their steps and resume their weary march through the snow outside.Men who work in constant danger underground mining are not likely to be intimidated by the occasional hazards of avalanches, but they weren't so naive as to thirds it wasn't going to happen again. They took what precautions they had available to them at the time. They built snowsheds over the rail line almost the length of the canyon, and many buildings were built bunkered into the side of the mountains so that slides would just pass over leaving the occupants safe inside. This wasn't always effective. In one case, three men who otherwise would have been safe in a solidly built cellar were burned to death when the disrupted coal stove caught the building on fire.
In 1884, another series of avalanches nearly destroyed the town again. The Salt Lake Tribune added the following in its account that March 11th:It is estimated that since the mines at Alta were first opened 14 years ago, 143 people have been killed by snowslides in and around Alta. This number includes the 12 victims of Friday night. The last big snowslide at Alta occurred on January 11, 1881, when 11 people were killed. On that day, the men who met their death had taken refuge in John Strickly's store believing that to be the safest place in town and absolutely free from danger. In that respect, that catastrophe was similar to the one of Friday last, as Strickley's store together with adjoining buildings were swept away like so much shavings. In 1872, thirty one men were killed, 1875, three men were killed, and the statistics for other years are not at hand.
By the mid 1880's the mines began to play out; twelve years earlier as many as 8,000 people had made Alta a boom town to rival any mining camp in the West. Alta had seven restaurants, two boarding houses, three general stores, a school, a blacksmith, two shoemakers, two drug stores, a confectionery, two assayers, four doctors, a minister, a layer, three breweries and 26 saloons. There was even a Chinatown, where the men that built the railway and snow sheds over it lived. (The stonework walls along parts of today's highway are all that remain of those sheds-one of the few remains of the mining period anywhere in the canyon) In 1887, there was one building left standing. It wasn't the avalanches that chased the miners out, but it took very little time for the avalanches to reclaim their territory.
The largest reported slide in the canyon occurred March 4, 1898, when only a few men remained, who luckily were underground at the time. After three weeks of steady snows and winds, all the gulches from Michigan-Utah to Tanner's Flat slid at the same time, with a total crown line distance of four miles.
It wasn't until 1906 that fatalities in avalanches were reported again in the newspapers coinciding with a new boom in silver mining due to new technology allowing recovery of more silver from old tailings. A headline in 1907 declared that the continental Alta mine will produce through the century, its future assured. One year later, it dried up.The Skiing Years
Coincidentally, the US Forest Service, along with local businessmen, also had the same ideas. It was a match made in heaven. Mayor Watson was all too happy to deed his 700 acres, which along with William O'Connors' Wasatch Mines totaled 1600 acres to be developed for winter sports by the Forest Service. Watson stayed on as mayor.
By the mid 1930's skiing in the Wasatch Mountains was in full swing. The Wasatch Mountain Club organized group tours and took on the responsibility of establishing and maintaining a small system of huts throughout the high country. One of the popular tours was to leave from Park City, ski over Guardsman Pass to Brighton, spend the night at the Rose Hotel, then ski over Catherine's Pass all the way out to Little Cottonwood Canyon.
In 1938, a group of local businessmen and ski enthusiasts formed the Salt Lake Winter Sports Association for the purpose of erecting a chairlift up Collins Gulch. They built it using parts from the old aerial tram that ran from Tanner's Flat to Michigan City, an impressive work of engineering in itself at 4 1/2 miles long. The Forest Service granted permission for use of the land and took the lead in building a public shelter for the skiers' use. It was a beautiful building with two floors made of stone and the third of a large timber beam construction. It was destroyed by an avalanche before it was finished.The early presence of the Forest Service in the ski industry has had many long-lasting repercussions. As history will prove, it was a boon to avalanche science and technology and an eternal headache to the Forest Service. The legacy of this relationship began in the infancy of skiing in the United States. The Forest Service policy at that time was to "fully administer public land use," and as such it took as its responsibility the protection of life and property from the inherent dangers, particularly winter avalanches in the mountains.
From the start, the Forest Service knew it was facing a considerable threat of avalanches. Supervisor 1. E. Gurr and District Ranger W. E. Tangren did the initial safety plan and assigned C. Douglass Wadsworth as resident Forest Guard, Alta's first snow ranger. Hisdutieswere to maintain a weather station along with equipment donated by the Weather Bureau, and keep daily weather records. He also had authority to close all or part of the ski area and recommend the highway be closed when he felt the avalanche hazard was too high.Their main source of information was from talking with the old-timers. The richest resource imaginable came to them in the form of Elbert Despain, who carried the mail to Alta from 1922 until his death in 1984. He saw just about every slide in the canyon run to its maximum. There was also A. O. Jacobs, who had lived in a cabin at the bottom of Rustler, the present-day base area of Alta. He had described how his cabin was relocated into the middle of the creek one winter by an avalanche wrecking crew. He also told of the great slide of 1898 where Gad Valley (presently Snowbird) ran to the highway, and Coalpit slidepath putting thirty feet of snow on the road. His advice: "Avoid all gulches after big storms for at least three days. The danger of these slides is while traveling up and down the canyon and a person should never stop while crossing these gulches."
It was the rich resource of mountain savvy from the old-timers that was the key to making the operation of the new ski area possible. The legacy of this master-apprentice relationship remains today as Alta's approach to snow safety-atechnique which had been described by one notable contemporary snow scientist as "mystical methodologies."
On February 10, 1939, Supervisor Gurr announced safety rules for winter sports enthusiasts to prevent injury or property loss:
(1) Keep out of the canyons during periods of storm and from one to three or four days afterward.
(2) Following a storm, keep off steep, untimbered slopes for a period of two or three days.
(3) Do not park or stop in the pathway of previously occurring slides.
He went on to say:
Winter sports enthusiasts should appreciate the fact that there is some hazard connected with the use of snow-clad slopes and should consistently practice such safety measures as are necessary to minimize these hazards. If they will do this and will cooperate in following out suggested safety measures, we can and will continue to use our outstanding and valuable winter sports areas. The probability of snow movement is forecast on the basis of observations by men experienced in mountain snow conditions supplemented by study of temperatures, winds depth of snow drifting, profile of the various falls, and bonding of the layers. As a further precaution, areas in which slides might occur during the year will be posted in order to warn motorists against parking there.
Just six days later after the release of this statement to the papers, Alta had its baptism by fire. A slide cycle comparable to the largest of the 1880's hit the canyon. The uncompleted third floor of the Rock Shelter, not yet called the Snowpine, was sheared off in what was one continuous slide from Superior to Patsey Marley -- a crown line distance of 3 1/2, miles. The day before, Ranger Wadsworth and Carl Fahner, then ski school director, had tried blasting in Superior Gulch to see if they could bring it down. Luckily, they were not successful because when the slide came down spontaneously the following day, the trees they were using as a safety zone were ripped out by the slide. This was the first recorded use of explosives for avalanche control at Alta.When District Ranger Tangren and Wadsworth surveyed the damage, they found 2,000 yards of the road under 14 feet of snow. They estimated it would take 35 days for a county caterpillar to clear the road, which turned out to be over optimistic. They also reported "no safe prospects for parking places of any worthwhile size."
Much of the early history of alpine ski racing in the United States was defined by the Norwegian skiing brothers of Alf and Svere Engen, who eventually ended up at Alta. (Alf Engen is still the director of the Alta Ski School.) The following year it was only natural to appoint Svere Engen as the snow ranger. Along with District Ranger Tangren, they set about trying to learn as much as they could about the causes of avalanches. They recorded daily weather information, dug pits "into the snow so the different layers could be studied as to consistency, settling, creepage and effect the weather had."
Their first observation was an obvious one, that slides seemed to come down during or just after a storm. He also noticed at times that the snow would sound hollow or would collapse as he crossed it, signs of unstable snow, he decided. Thinking they could give nature a little boost, Tangren and Svere planted dynamite charges high on the upper slopes of Mt. Superior and a few other locations above the highway in the fall. Later, when they decided that conditions were good for getting a slide, they went up and set off the charges. Though it was a oneshot deal, it produced the desired results and proved that explosives could be effective in causing avalanches.
However, his main tool within the ski area was the "Closed Area" sign. These would be placed out on the mountain to keep skiers from getting into places where slides were possible. On days of serious hazard, the entire ski area would be closed. This, of course, was not always popular with the local enthusiasts who sometimes traveled long distances to ski.
As the story goes, one day while the mountain was closed and the Alta Lodge guests were grousing about not being able to ski while looking out of the picture window, it avalanched. As the dust cloud boiled up in front of them, they ran away from the window, which rattled and bent in from the pressure blast but did not break. After that, it was easier to get cooperation from the guests.
Taking care of the highway was more complicated. At that time, the road was still just a county road, not a state highway. Svere would have to get up at 4:30 A.M., ski from the Guard Station down to the highway to see how deep it was, then hike back up and telephone Sport Burke, the highway foreman, so plans could be made.
Closing the highway was also a challenge. Ideally, everyone would leave Alta to go down the canyon by 3:30 in the afternoon. Then Svere would put the chain across the road, just below the Alta Lodge, and as the last car cleared the canyon, the road crew would close the chain at the bottom. Conditions were hardly ideal and violations were common. In one case some people at a cabin claimed a woman was about to deliver a baby and they needed to get down the canyon right away. Further investigation revealed that it was only a good party breaking up as they went to restock.
The inevitable first ski fatality occurred January 1, 1940. Svere's account comes from his autobiography Skiing, a Way of Life:
About noontime on New Year's Day, an excited skier reported that he had just seen a snowslide come down catching skiers in its path.
It was a bright sunny day and skiing was excellent. A group of Salt Lake City skiers had decided to tour to Albion Basin and were traversing Rustler Mountain [on a section now called Greely Hill]. They were all using climbers [climbing skins] except Casey Wright, who was following quite a distance behind. The rest of the party had already rounded the mountain and were out of sight as Casey approached Snake Pit. The place was rightly named, a dead-end gully at the bottom of a steep drop-off. Here, the whole slope broke away sweeping Casey down into the narrow gully. He didn't have a chance. When the slide broke off the pine tree above the cliff, it must have seemed to the observers that there was more than one person. But there was only one too many.
As soon as we received word of the slide, the chair lift was closed down and all able persons joined the search. We got there as soon as we possibly could and began shoveling and probing. Because the narrow gully was full of snow, it was diffcult to know how to approach the problem. We decided to dig long, narrow trenches, then we probed from one trench to the other. We worked all night. It wasn't until the next afternoon that we located Casey's broken body.
A member of Casey's party said that when they reached their destination, they figured that Casey had turned back because the going was so slow for him without the climbers. They stayed on top (of the ski area) and skied the rest of the afternoon, and it wasn't until they returned at the end of the day that they learned about the slide.
The Alta Study Center Years
The Alta Avalanche Study Center was more a matter of evolution than designation. It was never actually commissioned to perform its function. It simply grew out of the local necessity to know about avalanches. The first step was to assign a fulltime ranger to maintain weather records, then to take these observations and arrive at some conclusions.
A newspaper article with the headline "Forest Service Opens Study of Alta Slide Hazards" declared, "According to studies so far, depth of snowfall, direction and velocity of wind, temperature fluctuation, all combine to create dangerous conditions. Because so many variables exist, positive rules are hard to establish; but the Forest Service is seeking, though analysis of weather records, to develop safety rules which can be applied to ski slopes and to the highway."
One of the first scientific studies was done by Roy Lundquist, Assistant Hydrologic Engineer for the Weather Bureau, titled "Snow Slides and their Causes" (1941). He compiled a list of known avalanches dating back to 1875 which were large enough to make it into the newspapers. Then he studied the statistical correlations of various weather parameters at the time of the slides. Because virtually all the slides he studied were on south-facing slopes, his conclusions were hardly surprising-that solar radiation must be one of the primary influences in starting slides. He also explained in detail all the different ways that radiation warming affects the snow. Since this was the only scientific literature available to those early snow rangers, it had a large impact on their observations. For a number of years, their storm reports noted how much sunlight there had been and how much effect it had.
The onset of World War II disrupted most ski areas in the United States because of the shortages of gas and men. Alta became the exception; because of its proximity to a number of military installations, it was a convenient place to train troops in winter warfare. As the Army soon learned, training soldiers to ski is not as easy as training skiers to be soldiers. Thus, the 10th Mountain Division was formed at Camp Hale, Colorado. Svere Engen along with many others left to form the core of the 10th Mountain Division.
The war went on and so did the Alta avalanches. The remaining snow rangers tried to keep up as best they could. There was little in the budget for any expansion of the program. Unfortunately, the proposed snow sheds were never built. Rangers McConkie, Stahman and Freece carried on the program of weather observations and selective closure and managed to get through some fairly serious avalanche cycles.
By 1942, the country road going to Alta had been designated a state highway, and the maintenance of it was taken over by the State Road Commission. Communications were poor. For example, to contact the men working on the road, the rangers would call the secretarial service which would call the section office which would then have to send someone into the canyon to talk to the crew. The agreement was that the Road Commission, Forest Service and the Wasatch Ski Association would jointly decide on road closures. As one can imagine, the various agencies often issued contradictory recommendations.
In one case, Ranger Stahman asked that the road be closed, then went about his day's business only to be surprised by the arrival of cars that had come up the canyon. Upon contacting the Road foreman, he was told "as far as the Road Commission was concerned, the road to Alta was open but that it was up to the Forest Service to say whether or not the public could enter the canyon."
Of course, the perennial pressures from local lodge operators to keep the road open had their beginnings in those years and continues unabated to this day. Discontent would rise, meetings would be held, lodge operators would be reminded of the reasons for road closures, the grumbling would die down-until the following year when the cycle repeated itself.
After finishing military service, Svere Engen returned to Alta and resumed his duties as snow ranger. Felix Koziol was appointed supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest following the death of James Gurr. Luckily, Koziol, an experienced skier, was enthusiastic about the Forest Service's involvement in the development of winter sports on National Forest lands. He became active in administrative decisions relating to the development of existing ski areas (Alta and Brighton) and hired Alf Engen, Svere's more famous ski racing brother, to search out sites for others. Snow Basin was Alf's recommendation.
Koziol made a point of understanding every aspect of the daily and seasonal operation of Alta. In one report, he detailed the number and character of ski accidents for the season and made recommendations on "working out the best possible plan for handling this highly important job . . . to provide adequate service and protection for the public." He commended patrol director Lawrence Davenport and his men Bill Kamp, Charles Morton (now CEO of Alta Ski Lifts), Bill Lippert Lee Steorts, and Harold Goodrow for the excellent job they had done despite being shorthanded on many occasions.
After his first winter, Koziol was convinced of the need to get a better handle on the nature of the avalanche problem. He knew that with the end of World War II the numbers of people skiing at Alta would go up significantly; he commissioned the Forest Service engineering section to "analyze the data and history of the slides which the Wasatch developed for the purpose of crystallizing more definitely the essential factors which point to unsafe conditions necessitating the closing of the area."
Tangren had come up with a more systematic approach to closing the road. It was a list of twelve different storm situations correlated with fifteen different avalanche unit areas. Each unit had a number of different storm conditions that would dictate when it should be closed. For example: Unit 2, Wildcat-Peruvian Ridge, would be closed under condition 4 though 10 (depth of old snow, depth of new snow, nature of base, type of new snow, wind direction, velocity, duration, and temperature). Reopening would be allowed after a certain waiting period-36 hours after a storm or 24 hours after a storm if it avalanched.
The Monty Atwater Years
As the winter of 45-46 approached, Sverre was offered the job of ski school director and he eventually accepted. For his replacement, he recommended another 10th Mountain Division veteran and an old fishing buddy from Montana who had visited Alta many times and had a good grasp of the job. He had been only recently discharged from the army for injuries received in a night attack on the village of Wilwerath, Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. His name was Monty Atwater.
Baptism by fire was once again the expedient means of introduction to the rookie. During Christmas vacation with one of those marginal storms, when nothing is very clear cut, word came that someone was buried in an avalanche. The ensuing rescue turned out to be an extremely lucky rescue which is well described in the culmination of Monty's career, his book The Avalanche Hunters, as well as Svere's book Skiing, a Way of Life.
From that rescue, Monty saw that there were four factors responsible for the success of a rescue:
(1) Question the survivor.
(2) Have good leadership.
(3) Make a hasty search.
(4) Know the last seen point.
This incident was not only a major learning experience for Atwater, but it crystallized for Koziol the full nature of the responsibility that the Forest Service had taken on.
One of Atwater's first duties was to develop a better terminology for snow in all its forms. The Weather Bureau provided one suggested list of terms and their definitions. It broke snow into three categories: soft snow, hard snow and spring conditions.
With a little research, he was able to find a copy of Seligman's Snow Structure in Ski Fields, the classic first avalanche text in English based primarily on avalanche lore and research done in Switzerland. From that, he suggested a snow terminology he felt described more accurately what he was seeing at Alta.
a. Fine-similar to birdshot
b. Medium-similar to BB shot
c. Coarse-similar to tapioca
Avalanche type: wild, dry, slab, damp and wet. Size: small, medium, large, major
Hazard: none, low, moderate and high with an addition of "+" or degrees=' to indicate which direction the hazard is moving.
Atwater is probably best known in the United States for his use of explosives for avalanche control. He was undoubtedly first exposed to the technology while he was in the 10th Mountain Division in Europe during World War II; the Europeans had been using military weapons on avalanches for both control and warfare well before WW II. Atwater wasn't even the first to use explosives for avalanche control at Alta. Engen and Wadsworth had done it with varying degrees of effectiveness several years before. But it was Atwater's hefty skill for promotion and documentation of it that made him famous. History seems to reward people not so much for what they think or do, but what they publish. Atwater began and ended his career as a writer, and it was those skills which separated him from others.
Nonetheless, Atwater's early experiments with explosives began on December 12, 1946, when he and Fred Speyers followed Peruvian Ridge to an area of cornice buildup. He used a snow sampling tube to drill holes in the cornice and inserted four sticks of dynamite and detonated it electrically from a safe position. It wasn't an impressive explosion and it didn't even take the entire cornice off or cause a large avalanche. But it did prove to the locals that explosives could be used to control avalanche hazard.
From Monty's first test, he decided that the next step should be a major project of controlling the hazard that always hung over the area from Rustler Face. But first he had to demonstrate to his superiors that it was possible. It was certainly no coincidence that Koziol had been invited along on the second Peruvian Ridge experiment. If Atwater was going to get the go-ahead for the project on Rustler, he was going to need some strong support in high places. Koziol was one of the driving forces within the Forest Service in the development of winter sports on National Forest land. Because of his understanding of the problems and his enthusiasm for future prospects, he was able to give Monty the bureaucratic support and the free hand necessary to bring avalanche control out of its infancy.
Koziol, McConnell and Atwater went up Peruvian Ridge to the same place as before. But this time, they used six sticks of dynamite in a coffee can and with larger, more impressive results.
The following year (1947-48) the Rustler project got the green light. As luck would have it, winter came in early and hard. Alta got 112 inches of snow in the first 16 days of November. On November 13 Atwater set off the first explosive charge near the top of High Rustler. Based on his experiments the year before, he decided that it would take a fairly big charge to get effective results. He used 20 pounds of standard military demolition chain, i.e. a series of smaller charges tied together with detonation cord. He buried a sack full of powder in a trench about half way down the steep andnarrow upper chute. From there, he ran the blasting wire back to the safety of the west side cliffs.
The charge went off and, sure enough, a skier ignored the "Closed - Avalanche Danger" sign and skied out in time to see the dust cloud coming right towards him. It didn't quite reach him but it did prove the necessity to post a guard.
The second phase of the operation was to plant another charge in the crater the first charge had left. Atwater came to two conclusions after that blast: first, because of the powerful concussion, there was a good possibility of a secondary avalanche and that all adjacent areas should also be closed. The second conclusion was that, to be effective, the charges must be set off when they would do the most good, not when it was most convenient.
Intrigued by the idea of starting an avalanche solely from the concussion of an explosion, he tried aerial detonations. He suspended a 20-pound charge from the branches of a tree (this man worked for the Forest Service?) not far from the highway where it crosses under ML Superior. Aside from local cracking in the blast area, very little snow moved. He planned to try at a later date with more explosive but there is no record that he ever did. This was doubly unfortunate because we now know that aerial detonations are much more effective than ones in the snow. Atwater could have advanced avalanche control technology to even a higher level had he followed up on these tests.
That winter he set off a total of ten blasts in High Rustler, three in Stonecrusher and twice blew the cornice off Peruvian Ridge. Even though three days after his tenth blast on Rustler, it climaxed in the largest slide of the season, Monty considered the winter of '47-48 to be the most valuable for the knowledge he gained. Probably Atwater's most important contribution to American avalanche forecasting was the now famous ten contributory factors:
(1) Old snow depth
(2) Old snow stability
(3) Old snow surface
(4) New snow amount
(5) New snow type
(6) New snow density
(7) Snowfall intensity
(8) Wind speed and direction
That winter, Atwater also began corresponding with his counterparts in Colorado, Slim Davis, Dick Stillman and others, in order to share experiences and observations-to bounce ideas off someone who understood the problem.
Roch also identified three principal climatic zones in the United States with respect to avalanches: coastal alpine (maritime), middle alpine (intermountain), and high alpine (continental). These recommendations led to the establishment of additional avalanche observation stations at Steven's Pass, Washington (maritime)and Berthoud Pass, Colorado (continental) to round out the Alta Center (intermountain).
March 30, 1949: The first successful use of artillery to control avalanches in the United States took place at Alta. Captain Elkins of the Utah National Guard brought a 75-nun French howitzer, and a total of 15 rounds were fired at Rustler Face, Stonecrusher, Peruvian Ridge and Mt. Superior. Koziol and Atwater selected the shot points; Elkins did the firing.
To Koziol and Atwater, this was the light at the end of the tunnel. For years they had literally been dodging disaster by learning when to get out of the way. Now they could choose when the avalanche would come down.
The guardsmen were enthusiastic about participation. In his report, Capt. Elkins wrote, "Co-operation of the local military units is now assured. The bottlenecks appear to be ammunition supply and authority to station a gun at Alta. I recommend that every effort be made to solve them. We have almost in our grasp the final stage in avalanche control measures in a heavily used alpine area."
Actually, it was more complicated than that. The Sixth Army, which had the ultimate authority over disposition of its weapons, was not at all thrilled to see weapons being used for non-military functions. It took considerable wrangling by Koziol through General West of the Utah National Guad just to get the testoff the ground. They were still far from getting the commitment of the weapons and ammunition they hoped for. Koziol realized the need for diplomacy and timing, and made sure Atwater knew that this was to be accomplished at the upper levels in Washington.
The winter or '49-50 saw a continued expansion of the scope of Atwater's work. Artillery use continued and now the weapon was permitted to be left at Alta, but the National Guard were still the only ones allowed to shoot it. Inevitably, the situation arose when the guardsmen couldn't get up the canyon to shoot and Atwater went ahead and fired it. In fact this happened several times, each time without notifying his superiors. Word eventually leaked out and suddenly the whole program was in serious jeopardy as reports made it all the way to the Chief's office. John Herbert came to the rescue once again and now Atwater had permission to fire, but only in an emergency situation. From there, it was an easy step for Atwater to define most every avalanche situation as an emergency situation. By the end of that season, it was standard operating procedure for Atwater to do all the shooting.
By this time, Atwater had established a high profile through his unique knack for promoting both himself and his programs. There was an article about him in Newsweek. He also presented a paper to the Western Snow conference in San Francisco on the snow safety program at Alta. The Alta Avalanche School was turning away excess applicants. It was a good time to ask for money. He did and he got it.
His new job description for the following winter read like the job description for a team of several avalanche workers:
a. Operate weather station
b. Compile climatological data connected with avalanches
c. Analyze data
d. Make hazard forecasts
e. Initiate and cant' out research projects
f. Make detailed reports concerning snow and avalanche phenomena
g. Make continuous field observations and tests of snow
h. Apply snow safety and avalanche control measures
i. Lead avalanche rescues
j. Conduct snow safety educational programs
To carry out all of this he had acquired an elaborate array of instruments and testing methods, including a 10-pen operations recorder that could display current and past conditions of wind, precipitation, temperature, avalanche occurrence, and anything else he cared to wire to it. He recorded avalanche occurrence by wiring sensors in avalanche starting zones to alarms on the operations panel. In this way he could tell when unobserved avalanches occurred.
This was the year he first made accurate measurements of precipitation intensity by using a tipping bucked precipitation gauge. He was convinced that precipitation intensity was crucial in reaching the point where avalanches released naturally. Out of fifteen storms that winter, four of them caused direct action avalanches of dangerous size where precipitation intensity seemed to be the controlling factor. He calculated a precipitation index which is simply precipitation intensity multiplied by the duration (PI X T= PI factor). From studying the data from these four storms, it seemed that, when 2 inches of water equivalent fell in less than 24 hours, avalanches were almost certain.
A storm late in March 1950 looked like a good chance to continue the experiments with artillery. Koziol, Capt. Elkins and new District Ranger Bob Safron barely made it up the canyon through the storm. A brief clearing allowed them to get five shots into the ski area producing a major release from Stonecrusher. As the storm closed back in, they decided to convoy out those who wished to leave and then close down the canyon.
Walker had gone ahead and put a rotary to work on the debris and watched from nearby with another crew member in a pickup truck. The path ran again. The heavy rotary was only moved around a little but the pickup truck was completely buried. The men in the rotary got out, made a quick search for the pickup-too quick as it turned out-then went for help. The pickup's antenna was sticking out of the snow.
Mail carrier Elbert Despain and a friend were skiing up the canyon and met the first two men. After hearing the story, they all returned to the scene, spotted the antenna and after digging, found the pickup with windows shattered and filled with snow, the men virtually entombed. They cleared the snow out of Walker's mouth and he started breathing. By then, the rescue party from Alta, led by Alf Engen and Monty Atwater, arrived and helped dig both men out. Walker recovered without injury but the other man never revived, despite heroic efforts of the rescuers.
By now Atwater had become quite renowned and in great demand to teach avalanche schools all over the West, as well as consulting on a variety of projects. He spent a great deal of time away from Alta. The next season, the increasing work load necessitated hiring Hans Jungster as assistant for Atwater.
When Atwater first arrived at Alta, some of his early reading material was a report on the great Wellington avalanche disaster in 1910, in which author Edward Beals, a weather forecaster, wrote, "It was not the quantity of snow alone which caused so many avalanches, but it was the manner in which it fell." This quote had intrigued Monty for years. He was about to prove it scientifically. It was also the year he almost lost his life.
Jungster and Atwater were checking conditions on Lone Pine in early December and they entered it too low. It broke out catching them both. Jungster, being second, was closer to the edge and only carried a short ways but Atwater was tumbled all the way to the bottom-500 vertical feet. Fortunately he ended up on the surface, battered and bruised with only the binding portion of one ski still attached to one boot.
The slide ran on an ice crust that had formed very early in the season when abnormally warm weather persisted. This crust was so prevalent and persistent that he issued a special warning letter to all interested parties, "This winter there is an unusually high avalanche potential which will probably last throughout the season." The rest of the winter proved him right.
This led Atwater to propose, "IL is not a weak layer which determines avalanche release, but a strong one. In other words, the strong layer holds the others in place. When it breaks, the weak layers in the vicinity go with it right down through the snowpack until a layer is reached which can stand the pressure ...If we know anything at all about slab, it is this. A slab is a continuous sheet, poorly supported on its underside, possibly very well anchored at the lower end and sides . . . released in one of two ways, both due to accumulation of weight: (1) the weight of the slab overcomes its anchorage; or (2) the slab fractures of its own weight and the weight of additional snowfall. For the avalanche observer it is enough that the slab was under sufficient stress so that it would shatter. And this comes back to the load-bearing capacity of the strong layer."
The Ed LaChapelle/Ron Perla Years
The winter of 1952-53 was a landmark year for two reasons: Ed LaChapelle began work at Alta and Atwater's publication of The Avalanche Handbook-a much needed upgrade of the earlier Alta Avalanche Studies. This publication was to be the first English language work of its kind and was the standard for the following 10 years. While parts of it are now obsolete, there is much of it that is as applicable today as it was then. (With Atwater's flair for writing, it is also good reading.)
The arrival of Ed LaChapelle marked a major change in direction for the Alta Study Center. In contrast to Monty Atwater, LaChapelle was a trained scientist. Atwater graduated from Harvard College with a degree in English. Despite his hefty contributions to avalanche control technology, he attained his famemore through his impressive writing skills and a knack for promoting himself and his work. In fact, Andre Roch, the famed Swiss avalanche scientist, stated after his visit in 1949, 'The avalanche problem at Alta is the most important one of all the places I visited and the persons in charge of handling the situation are among the most experienced in the USA. However, some of the conclusions are rather erroneous because they are not based on scientific explanation of the occurring phenomenon."
LaChapelle helped to change that. As Atwater writes in The Avalanche Hunters, "The man who should have been there in the first place came to Alta in 1952-53. To describe Ed LaChapelle is to write the specifications for an avalanche researcher: graduate physicist, glaciologist with a year's study at the Avalanche Institute [in Switzerland], skilled craftsman in the shop, expert ski mountaineer. He even looked like a scientist, tall and slender with a slight stoop and that remote look in the eye which means peering into one's own mind."
Before that time, Atwater seldom dug snowpits because of his "allergy to scoop shovels." LaChapelle began regular snowpit observations , set up a European-style snow study plot, and began to use his skills learned from the world's leading avalanche scientists in Switzerland.
LaChapelle was also a tinkerer and could fabricate just about any instrument or gadget needed. Finally, because of John Herbert's bounty, they were able to build a complete shop at Alta. No longer would they have to wait for the Engineering Division to design and produce what they needed.
That was the winter of the now famous avalanche which destroyed an entire cadre of observation instruments that were set up near the guard station. In typical fashion, Atwater made the best out of a bad situation and published a paper on the distribution pattern of the instruments within the avalanche debris. This might indicate how a person would be carried and come to rest in an avalanche-a valuable lesson for rescue operations. The instruments seemed to be deposited in horizontal rows along the runout. Conclusion: the instruments were not all dislodged at the same time, but by successive waves of snow, and came to rest where each of these waves stopped. Size and weight seem to be irrelevant.A progress report on avalanche research in the United States followed the next year, authored jointly by Atwater, LaChapelle, Dick Stillman (Berthoud Pass snow ranger) and Frank Foto (Stevens Pass snow ranger). It covered a broad range of aspects related to the field; the thrust was to explain the contributory avalanche factors and how this form of analysis had proven itself in forecasting avalanche hazard on any given day. By comparing these factors in two different yet similar storms, they were able to show why one storm provided little more than a headache for snowplow drivers while the other buried a town under debris killing six people. This period was perhaps the apex of avalanche studies at Alta, at least in terms of the personal adventure of the researchers. The program had become big enough that politics and bureaucracy were edging their way into the operation. For years, they had been given free rein to develop the program as they saw fit. Now those reins were being slowly pulled in and it was not a comfortable feeling. After being groomed by the Forest Service as their leading authority on snow and avalanches, it was difficult for Atwater to understand being told to spend more time taking care of the administrative duties of a snow ranger and less on the "less essential and currently less important technical and investigative work." So when Squaw Valley requested his assistance in evaluating the avalanche hazard at the 1960 Olympics, he recognized that it might be a good time to move on.
One of Atwater's final contributions to Alta's control program was the introduction of the 105mm recoilless rifle. The initial firing mission was not quite the grand show they had hoped. A few days later a memo came from District Ranger Gordon Van Buren which stated that LaChapelle and Atwater had violated too many safety rules in firing the 105 and were forbidden to shoot it again without the close supervision of the National Guard.
LaChapelle catapulted the Alta Study Center into the forefront of international avalanche research. The following years saw a continuous stream of scientific publications (the bibliography is reprinted below). There is no better person to talk about the LaChapelle years than LaChapelle himself. Here is a reprint from a previous Avalanche Review article about the Alta Avalanche Study Center by Ed LaChapelle.
At the time Monty Atwater left, snow studies and snow ranger administrative work at Alta had been hopelessly intermingled. Now it was separated. I was assigned full-time to research, publications and training, with the snow ranger work assigned to others. The hitherto ad hoc nature of the studies was now formalized as the Alta Avalanche Study Center (Koziol originally named it the Alta Study Station, until someone pointed out that this created an unsuitable acronym.). A publication program of reports, translations and monographs was created with the aim to provide timely distribution of useful information to workers in the rapidly growing field of snow safety. The best way to summarize the various projects undertaken is to list the publication titles released in the ensuing decade. This list includes everything formally labeled as an AASC product. It does not include some prior works in the 1950's, nor a wide assortment of internal reports, papers for professional journals, magazine articles and the USDA Handbook 194, "Snow Avalanches," the expanded successor to the 1952 Avalanche Handbook.
By the mid-1960's the activities expanded to the point where another person was required and in 1966 Ron Perla joined the AASC staff. Research took a further leap forward at this time and the publication program grew as well. The AASC was becoming highly productive, but all of this activity created its own problem. The AASC had originally been born as a child of "administrative studies," a peculiar backwater of the USFS fiscal policy which allowed certain practical lines of research to be supported by National Forest Administration funds. It was widely recognized by 1966 that many of the AASC activities were more appropriate to the research branch of the Forest Service and arrangements were concluded by 1968 to phase out the Study Center. This was finally completed in 1972, when the research programs, files, publication program and report distribution were transferred to the Alpine Snow and Avalanche Project at the Rocky Mountain Experiment Station in Fort Collins, Colorado.
The last reports issued under the AASC banner were two avalanche bibliographies completed in 1973. By this time, I had gone on to an academic career at the University of Washington and Perla had completed his Ph.D. at the University of Utah as part of the AASC research program and joined the Forest Service research group in Fort Collies. During the 1970's the avalanche study facilities at Alta fell on hard times and many of the original records from over a quarter of a century of work have been lost or destroyed. Of the program which set the whole course of snow safety work in the United States, little remains at Alta today except some microfilm records of key files and a list of publications, most of which have long since been unavailable.
Looking back on the active years of the AASC, whatever may be said about the technical merit of the studies, one thing stands out clearly. This surely must be one of the great bargains on record for the U.S. taxpayer. A seasonal staff working only four to five months each winter and supported by a minuscule budget of only a few thousand dollars a year generated a remarkable record of research, publications and training. Today, happily, a new generation of snow enthusiasts who cut their teeth on the products of AASC program are beginning to revive some of the activities and carry avalanche research in new directions. Who knows? Perhaps some day the AASC, like the fabled phoenix, will rise from the ashes of neglect under a new banner and resume work in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, surely one of the finest places in the world for avalanche research.
The Binx Sandahl Years
by Doug Abromeit
The period 1964 through 1988 was, as were all periods in Alta's history, interesting and fraught with change. The period began with the Forest Service doing all the avalanche control and forecasting for both Alta Ski Area and for the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway; the period ended with the Forest Service fuming over primary forecasting and control responsibilities, other than military weapons, to Alta Ski Area and to the Utah Department of Transportation.
Binx Sandahl's career spans the period 1964 through 1988 and, in marry ways, exemplifies the period. Binx was hired as an Alta snow ranger in 1964 after several years as the snow safety director at Alyeska Ski Resort in Alaska. Binx joined existing snow rangers Ray Lindquist, Will Bassett, Warren Baldseifin, and Ron Perla; together the four men forecast the avalanche hazard within Alta Ski Area and above the Little Cottonwood highway, shot the military artillery within Alta Ski Area and above the highway, ran all the hand routes within Alta Ski Area, and enforced all highway closures and interlodge travelrestrictions due to avalanche hazard. Today the same tasks take forty people employed by four separate entities - the Town of Alta, Alta Ski Lifts, Forest Service, and Utah Department of Transportation. As the cliche goes, they don't make 'em like they used to.
Binx got his snow ranger job in Alta on a whim. "I went to Alta to ski in 1960 and had a great time. I saw these Forest Service snow rangers cruising around the mountain and I decided that looks like my kind of life, getting paid to ski. So I applied tot a job with the Wasatch National Forest. I had worked as the snow safety director at Alyeska, so they hired me. I worked with these three other guys, Ron Perla, Will Bassett, and Ray Lindquist.
|"One day the four of us, Alta ski patrolman Doug Christenson and Ray's two teenage sons went up to blast the cornice off the Baldy Chutes. The Baldy Chutes are steeper than a cow's face and while they're not part of Alta Ski Area, they tun into Ball Room which is part of the ski area. Anyway, we get up there and I'm looking down a thousand feet or so into Ballroom and I see all these people down there, they were mostly ski instructors, here for some kind of a meeting. I'm thinking we should close Ballroom, get those people out of there, but I'm new, see, so I don't say anything. Ray has me belay him and Christenson belay Perla while they walked out on the cornice, dug holes and placed explosives in the holes. Bassett was standing off to the side, watching and telling them when it looked like they were getting too far out on the cornice. Now, this cornice was big, probably stuck twenty-five or thirty feet out into thin air. All of a sudden the whole goddamn cornice broke off with Ray and Perla standing on it. Ray jerked me out of my belay seat and I'm thinking sweet Jesus, I'm going over the edge. But before that can happen, both of Ray's kids jump on me and stop me and their dad. So there Ray is, dangling on the end of this rope, watching the cornice fall into the snowfield below and start a massive avalanche hurling down toward all those skiers in Ballroom. He looks over at Perla, but Perla isn't there, his rope broke. :ray looks straight down and sees Perla flying through the air like Mary Poppins and then disappearing into that churning mass of snow. Well, Ray, hanging there in thin air, had presence of mind to yell down at the skiers below, 'Avalanche! there's a man in the avalanche!'|
"Perla rode twelve hundred feet in the avalanche, going eighty or ninety miles an hour over rock bands and through trees, he was buried a few minutes, but he wasn't killed, it was like a miracle. Three or four of the ski instructors were also buried but none of them got hurt. This was one of my first duties as a snow ranger, and while all this was going on, I'm thinking, god almighty what kind of a job is this?"
Apparently it was the kind of job Binx liked. He's still doing it today, but the complexity of the job has changed markedly. In the 1960's, Binx and his fellow snow rangers, because of the overwhelming workload on avalanche control mornings, often did not get Alto Ski Area and the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway open until noon m 1:00 pro. This understandably upset Alta manager Chic Morton. "Chic used to get so damn mad at me and the Forest Service," Binx said, "that I was afraid to go see him. In fact, I worked out this system, I'd walk up to Chic's office door and throw my hat in If Chic threw it out, I knew he was too mad to talk; if he didn't, I'd kinda slink into the office and test the waters. But you know, we really couldn't speed up the process; Chic felt it was the Forest Service's responsibility to provide avalanche forecasting and control because Alta was on National Forest; the Forest Service felt they could not afford to hire any more snow rangers just so Alta couldopenon time and make more money. So, it was a standoff. By the way, let me emphasize that while Chic Morton was ornery as hell, I always knew where Chic was coming from. The man has a heart of gold and has always been a pleasure to work with."
The situation remained much the same until 1970 when Binx finally convinced Chic that if he wanted to get his ski area open earlier, he would have to provide the manpower to do so. Several events goaded Chic's change of heart, but most notable was Ray Lindquist transferring to another job within the Forest Service and Ron Perla deciding to devote his time to research with Ed LaChapelle at the Alta Study Center. That left only Binx, Warren Baldseifen, and Will Bassets as snow rangers, so the Forest Service hired Ed Hastings from Bridger Bowl to help take up the slack. Unfortunately, Hastings had to live in Brighton in Big Cottonwood Canyon because no housing was available in Little Cottonwood Canyon. That proved to be a difficult situation; Hastings was often physically unable to get to Alta because of avalanche hazard road closures, so again the snow rangers were woefully understaffed. Alta also experienced several heavy snow years during this period, including the winter of 1968.
Binx recalled one memorable morning in January 1968 after several days of hard snow and blinding wind had tipped the avalanche scale to extreme. "I remember it was a horrible morning, wind howling line a banshee, colder than a witch's tit, but clear so we could see what we were doing. We were using the 75-mm pac howitzer at that time. The howitzer has wheels, so we would drag it up and down the highway to shoot. Well, that morning Baldy (Warren Baldseifm) and I were the gunners and Chic Morton and three or four members of his Alta ski patrol came along to observe. Baldy and I situated the gun on the highway directly below the Tom Moore Toilet in the center of the Town of Alta. The Tom Moore Toilet is this quaint little stone toilet built in the '30s by the CCC. They built the thing into a rock band and built it hell for stout so it could withstand slides pouting over the top of it.
"Anyway, the first couple of shots we didn't get much, maybe a slough, but the third shot connected and started a big avalanche. We were all hoopin' and hollerin' when suddenly it collectively occurred to us that we were about to get hosed by an avalanche. I don't remember if anyone said anything or not, I do remember people running in all directions. Baldy and I looked at each other and we both took off in wild dash The slide roared over where we'd been shooting, creating a hurricane force wind as it passed. As soon as the slide passed, I ran back to the site to assess the damage. I started looking around and realized the pac howitzer and all its ammunition were gone, carried off by the avalanche, and that three vehicles that had been parked nearby were also gone, and I'm thinking we could be in deep yogurt."It was about then somebody said `where the hell is Baldy?' Good question, so we immediately started to probe the avalanche debris for Baldy and check the cars carried off by the avalanche. We found a woman in the back of a camper that had been cooking breakfast when the avalanche hit and rolled her and her camper down a steep embankment; the woman had egg all over her face, literally from the eggs she had been frying and figuratively because she was breaking the law by camping in her vehicle. So we found her, but we hadn't found B Baldy, it had been nearly an hour and we were panicked.
"Well, unbeknownst to us, Baldy had run into the Tom Moore Toilet and the avalanche had gone over the top and buried it, so Baldy couldn't get out and the snow muffled his shouts. You can imagine what it would be like buried in an outhouse for an hour; Baldy said when he first ducked into the toilet he was thinking `great, I'm saved.' But then after forty-five minutes or so the place lost its charm, it was hard to breathe and he was thinking, 'What happened to all those other assholes, they get buried in the avalanche and die or'd they just go home and leave me to suffocate in the outhouse?' Luckily for Baldy someone in the group was smart enough to suggest maybe Baldy had sought shelter in the shithouse so we started digging. After we dug down to the toilet, I pried the door marked `Ladies' open and there was Baldy grinin' like chesie cat and I said `Baldy, what the hell you doin' in the women's john? You some kinds pervert, or what?"'Several changes were instituted following the winter of 1968 and the Tom Moore Toilet trauma, including limiting mobile artillery shooting and Chic's agreeing to provide ski patrollers to do hand charge routes and be trained and employed by the Forest Service to fire the military artillery. Will Bassets and Ed Hastings left the Forest Service about this time, so Binx hired Peter Lev, an experienced ski patroller and mountaineer, and Jim Head, the former Alta ski patrol director, as snow rangers. Chic then hired Doug Christenson as Alta ski patrol director to replace Head and Dave Hamre to be the first Alta snow safety director. The Forest Service snow rangers worked with Christenson and Hamre to train their ski patrol and set up hand routes. Binx installed the first remote weather station in Little Cottonwood Canyon in the summer of 1969. Unable to obtain funds from the Forest Service, Binx scrounged a small, weather-tight building and then paid a helicopter company out of his pocket to fly the building to a solid rock site he had leveled by hand on Cardiff Peak. He couldn't afford more than one chopper flight so Binx and Alta ski patroller Hamilton "Hambone" Strayer carried all the necessary cement and tools up 2,000 vertical feet over rough terrain to the weather site, with the legendary strongman Hambone often carrying over 100 pounds on his back. Binx, Lev, and Head also instituted a program they called preventive avalanche maintenance. This program called for blind firing the military artillery and naming hand routes during storms rather than waiting, as was customary, to do control following the storm. They reasoned, quite accurately, that many small avalanches induced over the course of a storm were preferable to a few large ones following a stone.
Onno Wieringa replaced Dave Hamre in 1974 as Alta's snow safety director and, continuing Hamre's excellent work went on to build one of the finest snow safety departments in the ski industry. The Forest Service took a philosophical turn in the late 1970's and decided it was the state of Utah's responsibility to forecast avalanches along the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway. Utah resisted the change until 1983 when an agreement was signed whereby the Utah Department of Transportation would forecast all avalanches along the Little Cottonwood Canyon highway and the Forest Service would supervise and manage the military artillery program. The change was not without its detractors; many felt, since the ski areas and the highway were mostly on National Forest, that the Forest Service had partially reneged on its original mission to reduce hazard to users of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Regardless, the switch was made and Binx went to work as a forecaster for the Utah Department of Transportation in 1983, leaving Tom Heller as the sole Forest Service snow ranger. The change occurred just in time for the new system to undergo a baptism by snow, over 800 inches of snow. The year brought the best powder skiing in memory and some of the biggest avalanches, including a spring slide that destroyed the Catholic Church. Many residents of the town are quick to point out, not only is Alta the only town in Utah without a Mormon church, the Catholic Church is the only building to be completely destroyed by an avalanche since the mining days, and that appropriate correlations may be drawn.
The past three winters have been light by Alta standards, but the skiing has been excellent. The recent news at a glance: Chic Morton retired as Alta's general manager and Onno Wieringa replaced him; Bill Hoffman, then Titus Case have taken over as Alta snow safety directors; Daniel Howlett is Titus's assistant. Duain Bowles now stands as the heir apparent to Binx Sandahl as UDOT highway avalanche forecaster. Peter Lev also works with Binx and Duain. John Hoagland and I divide the Forest Service snow ranger duties. Right now I'm sitting in the Forest Service Alta guard station weather room finishing this diatribe, the wind is blowing like a madman, it's snowed a foot the past twelve hours, Binx is pacing the floor, and everyone is hoping Mother Nature will provide us the ultimate mondo bondage, totally awesome winter to fittingly honor Alta's fiftieth anniversary.
The Avalanche Review, VOL. 7, NO. 3, DECEMBER 1,1988
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