Alta Ski Area retires howitzers from its avalanche program

Alta avalanche program manager Dave Richards: “You’re going to use it to save lives instead of take them. And there’s something really romantic about that.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jaybee Keller, Alta Ski Patrol, demonstrated how the Howitzers are being used for avalanche mitigation at Alta, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

After protecting skiers and the Town of Alta from avalanches for 75 years, Alta Ski Area’s howitzer has been silenced.

The Little Cottonwood Canyon ski area rendered its 1960s-era military cannon obsolete this off-season when it installed the final three Wyssen Towers on Mount Baldy. The towers are remote avalanche control systems that can be triggered electronically and don’t require ski patrollers to handle large explosives.

While some gunners would argue the new technology is no safer than the military artillery, Alta and other ski areas have little choice but to phase the cannons out. As the Tribune reported last spring, the Army, which owns the howitzers, has asked for them back.

Still, the end of the howitzer era has been bittersweet for skiers and patrollers alike. Those mixed emotions were captured in a short documentary released by Ski Utah on Wednesday. It featured Alta avalanche program director Dave “Grom” Richards, a gunner for 22 years who followed familiar boot tracks into the profession. Richards’ father was a gunner at Alta in the 1970s.

“You go up there in the dark and you have this artillery piece which is made to, by design, do a lot of damage. And you’re going to use it for a strictly peaceful purpose,” Richards said in the film. “You’re going to use it to save lives instead of take them. And there’s something really romantic about that.”

Monty Atwater, Alta Ski Area's first snow ranger shows off a 105mm howitzer used to trigger avalanches around Alta in the 1950s. Atwater, who served in the Army's 10th Mountain Division in World War II, initiated the use of explosives and military artillery for avalanche mitigation, making Alta the first U.S. ski area to adopt such practices.

Alta became the first ski area in the United States to use howitzers to preventatively trigger avalanches. The idea came from Monty Atwater, who took a job as a United States Forest Service ranger in the canyon shortly after serving in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II. (Another avalanche tactic that originated with Atwater — throwing hand charges into avalanche paths — will continue to be used by ski patrollers at Alta and other resorts.) Decades later, the resort is once again blazing the trail when it comes to avalanche mitigation strategies. It and Snowbird were the first resorts in North America to install the Wyssen Towers and general manager Mike Maughan said Alta recently installed a prototype of another mitigation tool called a BW Exploder.

One benefit skiers will notice with the new technologies, Maughan said, is they allow the resort to get avalanche-prone areas open sooner.

“Alta has always been, from Day 1 as [the Ski Utah] video shows, a leader in avalanche mitigation methods,” Maughan said. “And so to some degree, we find ourselves being a leader again here as we move into that [remote] technology for avalanche control work.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wyssen Avalanche Tower at Alta Ski Resort, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

Each round fed into the 105mm howitzers was more than a foot long and weighed 35 pounds. In the roughly 75 years that Alta Ski Area has used the cannons, they’ve fired 33,000 rounds.

Alta Ski Area’s 105-millimeter howitzer shares a gunnery shack with another 105mm howitzer on loan to the Utah Department of Transportation. That 105mm cannon, which shoots at Mount Superior across State Route 210, will continue operating throughout this season, according to UDOT avalanche program manager Steven Clark. Then it, too, will be decommissioned.

UDOT has not been required by the Army to return its cannons and will continue to employ three howitzers for avalanche mitigation after the 2023-24 season. One is near Snowbird, which is expected to keep its howitzer in operation for several more years. UDOT also has one in Big Cottonwood Canyon and a mobile cannon that can be deployed to either of the Cottonwoods.

Clark said UDOT’s howitzer will remain at Alta for a few years as insurance if the remote avalanche control systems malfunction or potentially for use during particularly snowy years. Alta Ski Area’s gun will also remain in place at least until next summer. Then, if the mayor gets his way, the howitzer might find a permanent home on display in the Town of Alta, where it will be heralded as a tool that helped the mountain community and its ski area to not just survive but thrive.

“There are safer, more effective methods now,” Richards said in the film. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful tool for a long time, and I’m going to miss it.”

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