At 3 a.m., the troops gather for a strategy session with a side of pancakes and sausage. It snowed the night before and the flakes are still falling. Between hearty bites and gulps of coffee, Alta Ski Area’s patrollers size up the depth and weight of the fluff, peer through the dark at the sharp outlines of Mount Baldy and Mount Superior and make a plan.
“It’s not a war room,” insists Dave “Grom” Richards, Alta’s avalanche program director, but it’s close. By 5 a.m., they’ve broken into companies and received their orders. Then, the first group mounts the ski lift and heads to the gunnery.
There, two 1960s-era 105-millimeter howitzers stand sentry. Alta was the first ski area in the United States to use military artillery in its avalanche mitigation efforts, and these are the progeny of the cannon that first sent a blast through Little Cottonwood Canyon 70 years ago. Soon, however, their tour will end, as will that of their brethren deployed to ski areas across the U.S. By 2030, the familiar sound of cannon fire will mostly no longer serve as the harbinger of an excellent ski day, not even at old-school Alta, where a 40-year-old two-seat chair with no lap bar still delivers skiers to some of the state’s most challenging terrain. The howitzers are being decommissioned and the Army wants them back, putting Alta once again in position to embrace the newest technology in avalanche mitigation.
“I’m a little nostalgic about it,” said Richards, who 22 years ago followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a gunner at Alta in the 1970s. “I do see it as an incredibly valuable tool and an incredibly useful tool. And I’ve been a gunner for a long time, and I enjoy shooting it and using that tool.
“However, taking my gunner’s hat off and putting on the hat of the manager of an avalanche program, I’m very excited for the future. [The] new tools that we have in our quiver that pertain to avalanche mitigation, new technologies, are very, very effective as well. They’re very promising.”
Alta’s avalanche history
Women hiked up their dresses and wallowed through snow banks nearly up to their waists. Men took turns carrying the young children. With just a few belongings strapped to their backs, all but 25 residents of Alta took advantage of a break in the storm and fled for the valley seven miles below.
It was 1881, and the mining town at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon had been besieged by a ferocious storm that sent avalanches careening through it from all angles. At least 15 people died in slides that year. And while that was on the high side, the casualties weren’t unusual. Historical reports show at least 74 people died in slides between 1872 and 1911.
It’s no wonder, then, that when the Alta Ski Area opened in 1939, figuring out how to work around avalanches became a top priority. If history hadn’t taught that to the U.S. Forest Service and the members of the Utah Winter Sports Association — the ski area’s founders — they were given a reminder in 1938 when the first skiers’ lodge was destroyed by a slide just before it was finished.
Alta has been on the cutting edge of avalanche mitigation ever since.
“It just became such a need,” said Steven Clark, the Utah Department of Transportation’s avalanche program manager. “And people really wanted to access this resource in the wintertime, and we had to figure out a way.”
The first avalanche safety rules were drafted at Alta by Douglass “CD” Wadsworth, the USFS’s first snow ranger. Among the founding measures he enacted was what would now be the immensely unpopular practice of shutting down the highway until a storm had cleared, be it within hours or days. (While SR210 closes an average of about 10 times a year — and three times this year thanks to the unprecedented snowfall — the closure typically lasts only a few hours thanks to additional avalanche mitigation mechanisms).
“That’s the safest thing to do just to get people out of there. Just close the road and let the storm end, but it just doesn’t really work here,” Clark said. “I think that’s a big reason why [avalanche mitigation is] just unique in Utah is that we just have just such a big population base next to such big and active avalanche areas.”
A month after the first lift started running, Wadsworth initiated the use of dynamite to trigger a slide on Mount Superior across from the ski area. It appeared unsuccessful at first, but that area slid the next day, stacking 14 feet of snow atop a 2,000-foot stretch of State Route 210.
Through the years, ski patrollers at Alta were also among the first to adopt the European practice of digging avalanche pits to determine the likelihood of a slide. The ski area even lays claim to having the first avalanche dog in the country — a German shepherd named Cola — and the first official ski patrol dog, a Labrador named Hey You.
And thanks to Monty Atwater, who was hired as a snow ranger in 1948 after serving in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II, it was the first U.S. ski area to break out the big guns.
Army recalling resorts’ howitzers
Produced between the Korean and Vietnam wars, the 105mm howitzers are imposing figures in Army green. Their barrels stand about 10 feet tall with recoil arms attached on two sides. Each round that is fed into those barrels is more than a foot long and weighs 35 pounds. In their heyday, an average of 164 rounds were used each year among the four cannons within Little Cottonwood Canyon. (In total, between the ones run by ski resorts and those controlled by the UDOT, Utah employs seven howitzers for avalanche mitigation.)
Two of those stand guard at Alta Ski Area. One cannon’s barrel faces the avalanche start zone on Mount Baldy. The other’s faces Mount Superior. When either is fired, a deep crackling, enveloping sound reverberates around the surrounding mountains. At ski areas across the nation, just such a boom has become a battle cry of sorts:
Powder for the people!
For those who fire them, however, the booms sound much more sinister. Often the gunners are members of either the ski patrol or UDOT employees who also volunteer for a search and rescue group, and they’re keenly aware of how deadly an avalanche can be, especially in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The area is extremely prone to avalanches. According to a UDOT report, SR210 has the highest Uncontrolled Avalanche Hazard Index of any major road in the world, bisecting at least 50 slide paths. Plus, the canyon is close to a hub of more than 2 million people and has its own neighborhoods in addition to thousands of people a day traveling to and from the two ski areas. Jim Steenburgh, a University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences and the author of “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth,” estimates a third of the 169 structures in the upper canyon, including homes and lodges, are at risk of being buried or destroyed in an avalanche.
In fact, the cannon that shoots at Mount Superior — which is controlled by UDOT but generally manned by Alta’s gunnery team — is unique, Clark said, in that it shoots over occupied buildings.
“Really, everywhere else where they’re shooting, they’re basically clearing the area of people before they do any kind of shooting,” Clark said. “Whereas we really are doing that to a very, very large extent in the backcountry areas where the actual rounds are going off. But as far as the buildings and people inside of them, we’re shooting over a lot of buildings with a lot of people inside of them.”
That’s one reason both UDOT and Alta have leaned on the howitzers for avalanche control for so long. In such a delicate situation, it pays to have a machine that can detonate an explosion in a large yet very precise area and do so relatively safely.
“It’s safe, it’s a very, very effective, large explosive, and it’s incredibly efficient as well,” Richards said. “You can shoot a lot of targets within a canyon or on a mountain in very little time.”
Over the decades, gunners, who must undergo rigorous training, have homed in on the areas of the mountain where an explosion will be most effective. So when it’s dark and a storm is swirling around them, they can still work. Still, they must wait for target coordinates and check and double check them before firing. They also must first get the all-clear from ski patrol, which checks that no backcountry skiers have entered a target zone and that no other issues exist within the area.
The howitzers at both Alta and Snowbird sit on a fixed track to reduce the odds of an errant fire — a USFS requirement for ski areas since the late 1970s, when snow rangers firing a mobile recoilless rifle from the back of a vehicle overshot a ridge in the mountains near Ogden and sent a shell into a house being built in one of the city’s suburbs. Even with that precaution in place, though, such cannons aren’t infallible. In 2005, a shell fired from a UDOT-run howitzer affixed atop Sundance resort went astray and destroyed part of a Pleasant Grove home.
Safety concerns, however, aren’t the main reason the howitzers have gotten their marching orders.
New avalanche technology coming
A trio of what look like alien pods lurk over the EBT run at Alta Ski Area along the east side of Mount Baldy. About 12 feet tall and egg-shaped, they’re actually O’Bellx exploders. They send a shock wave created by a combination of oxygen and propane onto the mountainside below them and are one of the remote avalanche control system (RACS) tools being used more frequently by ski resorts. A similar RACS option is the Gazex system, a 12-foot long pipe that also uses the oxygen and propane combination.
Alta has been using such systems to supplement its use of the howitzers, the more-mobile avalaunchers and hand charges thrown by ski patrollers for about half a decade. Prior to last season, though, Alta, along with Snowbird, again found itself on the cutting edge of avalanche mitigation in North America. The resorts installed Wyssen Towers in their slide-prone areas in 2021, becoming the first ski areas on the continent to use the towers, which remotely drop explosives similar to hand charges into the snow below.
Though Wyssen towers have been used in Europe for several years, they were slower coming to the United States. That was in part because of their high cost. Also, with the howitzers in place, ski areas didn’t have much incentive to invest in the towers.
That changed a few years ago when the Army told the ski areas it wants its cannons back.
The resorts were not told why, Richards said. Similar howitzers are being used in the war in Ukraine, and some have speculated that the Army could be facing a shell shortage. It may just as likely be a safety or inventory issue. Either way, Alta plans to decommission its cannon by 2026 and Snowbird expects to send its howitzer back by 2030.
Richards said the age of the RACS was imminent regardless of the Army’s recall.
“The RACS program is coming, whether the military wanted their guns back or not,” he said. “In my opinion, smarter technology is replacing military artillery, and it should be.”
Not everyone is happy to see the howitzers shipped out, however.
UDOT actually installed the country’s first Wyssen towers in Little Cottonwood Canyon in 2018. It now has several perched high above Alta on Mount Superior. Yet Clark said he’d prefer to continue to use the cannons, which he said gives crews more range and flexibility than the stationary Wyssen towers at a lower cost. Plus, he said keeping a piece of electronic equipment at 10,000 feet in a non-climatized environment results in more maintenance and fuss, which he fears will end up putting his crews in dangerous situations.
“I don’t know if I quite think they’re the best answer,” Clark said. “From one artillery unit you can do avalanche mitigation work over 50 avalanche paths and 14 miles of roadway from one location. If you were to mitigate that with RAC systems, it would be well over 60 RAC placements you are talking about and, you know, many, many, many millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs and operations and countless hours of troubleshooting.”
The Army is not requiring UDOT to remove any of its military artillery. Still, because it shoots over a populated area, UDOT has agreed to bring down the howitzer that patrols Mount Superior at the same time Alta takes down its cannon. When that happens, only the UDOT cannon at Snowbird — which the agency plans to maintain — will shoot over populated buildings (the snowcat shop and the Creekside Lodge).
The age of cannon-fired explosions heralding a powder day aren’t completely in the past, however. In addition to agencies like UDOT, a few resorts will be allowed to keep their cannons. The ones at Sundance, for example, shoot into a Wilderness Area. Since no permanent structures can be built on those federally designated wild lands, RACS couldn’t be used there.
It’s just a matter of time, however, until new technology replaces the war relics from 50 years ago.
“Howitzers, like it or not, I really don’t believe we’ll have them forever,” Clark said. “We’ll have to eventually stop using them. And I think we need to plan for that.”
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.