by Gabe Glosband
...till the professionals are done sending avalanches downhill. Interlodge—it's the dream of the Little Cottonwood powder skier. Part of the Alta-Snowbird mystique. The promise: the skiing masses in Salt Lake get cut off from the canyon for hours or even days while you've been freed from the lodge to gluttonously ski the untracked. It's like a private ski area.
Pop, pop, pop. A few thousand feet above you patrollers are working a route, throwing hand charges into the whiteout. Then the walls shake. Another howitzer round. There's a battle waging on your behalf. Inside, everyone looks a little shell-shocked. It's loud.
The deafening roar of artillery may soon soften, though, thanks to a revolutionary new avalanche control device created by the French company Technologie Alpine de Sécurité. No, this is not a governmental Jedi using psychic powers to stare down avalanches, nor is it the strategic channeling of flatulent cows. This new super device goes by the fear invoking moniker of (moo) Daisybell.
But first back to the howitzers: Prior to the use of heavy artillery—pioneered in the U.S. in 1951 by Monty Atwater at Alta—Little Cottonwood would simply shut down until (most) of the natural slides ran and it was deemed safe again. Since Atwater's employment of heavy artillery, though, there have only been a few multi-day road closures. All were a result of massive storm cycles, including two in the 1973–74 season and a few in the early 1980s. Even with 35 avalanche slide paths above a road that can see more than 5,000 cars on an average winter day, the dream of multi-day Interlodges has been largely relegated to exactly that, a dream. Monty Atwater's shelling campaign has kept Little Cottonwood, and ski roads around the world, open and safe.
It's not breaking news, however, to report that the long-term supply of howitzer shells and live ammo is at risk. Over the past decade avalanche control specialists around the globe have been constantly searching for heavy artillery alternatives. Which is where the Daisybell comes in. Alta is the first ski resort in the U.S. to employ the revolutionary gas-based, portable avalanche control machine.
The device looks like a lunar landing module that swings on long lines 150 feet beneath a helicopter. External hydrogen and oxygen tanks, a gas mixture system, an optical distance sensor, radio antennae, and the injection and firing mechanism make up the brains and the muscle of the unit. A pilot guides the bell to key trigger zones identified by avalanche forecasters. While the helicopter hovers, holding the bell three to five meters above the snow, a specialist inside pushes a button that loads the bell with an explosive hydrogen/oxygen mixture. The ensuing spark and blast—far quieter than exploding ordnance—sets off a controlled avalanche. There's no waiting time between blasts. And the bell can be fired 50 consecutive times before refueling. "The Daisybell is just another tool to have in our quiver as we continue to look at ways to replace parts of the military weapons," says Onno Wierenga, general manager of Alta.
"When the weather is right, there isn't anything better than the Daisybell for economy, safety, and efficiency," says Troy Leahey, the head avalanche forecaster at Revelstoke Mountain Resort in British Columbia, where they've used a Daisybell for two seasons.
And therein lies the catch. You need visibility to fly. So the Daisybell is most efficient after the storm passes. Meaning the bombing campaign continues. Howitzers—the great Pavlovian dinner bell for powder skiers.
From the Early Winter 2011 issue