Avalanche control important to Sierra | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Avalanche control important to Sierra

Very few know snow the way Dave McConnell does. In fact, his snow motto sounds a little like a Far Eastern proverb: “The more you know, the more you realize how little you know.”

As Heavenly Ski Resort’s ski patrol director, McConnell is in charge of avalanche control.

“Every specialist knows that you can’t always win when you’re up against Mother Nature – you have to maintain respect for what’s going on and know when to pull back,” he said. “Snow is the most changing thing on earth, from when it falls from the sky to when it becomes water. Their are all kinds of variables when it comes to these millions of tiny particles.”

And it’s up to McConnell to decide when it’s time to blow those tiny particles sky high and stabilize a slope for the safety of thousands of weekend warriors.

It’s after those big snow falls that McConnell and his crew head out to test the slopes, usually beginning with the taking of core samples.

“Layers tell the whole story of how the snowpack has evolved,” he said. “For example, if it rains, freezes, then snows on top, that can be very dangerous because the top layer is likely to slide. Or if you get corn snow, you can get the ball-bearing effect.”

After digging test pits, the crew then decides what action to take. If there does appear to be a threat of avalanche, the crew will throw hand charges with 90-second fuses into unstable or vulnerable areas. “If that’s not big enough, we’ll tape two or three together,” McConnell said. “The shock will either break the instability and bring snow down, or help it to settle out.”

The loud explosions, which are often heard in town, are something you get used to, McConnell said.

“The most popular phrase among avalanche experts is, ‘What!?'” he chuckled. “We definitely cover our ears.”

After the explosions, it’s up to McConnell and crew to test for stability. Patrollers help to stabilize the area by making wide traverses, or cuts, into the snow pack.

“We’re often not 100 percent sure we’ve stabilized it with the hand charges – we could have made it weaker,” McConnell said. “That’s when the ski cutting and checking comes in – it can be scary. We ski from safe point to safe point, picking up speed.

“Avalanche control is really more of an art than a science,” he continued. “It’s constantly changing – it can turn around and bite you if you’re not careful.”

McConnell stressed the importance of not skiing into areas that are obviously closed off, as many thrill-seekers don’t take avalanche threats seriously.

“If you duck under that rope, you’re taking your own life into your hands, and you could lose your season pass,” he said, referring to the zero tolerance policy. “Even a little slide could push you over a cliff.”

Keeping Highway 50 safe

By Cory Fisher

Infuriating as it may be to sit in a long line of traffic waiting for U.S. Highway 50 to open, you might consider the alternative – having your vehicle slammed, rolled or buried by millions of pounds of cold white stuff.

It’s up to California Department of Transportation “gunners” like Brian Carlson to make the call – during his shift, he’s the person who decides if the danger is real enough to artificially set off little avalanches before the big ones occurs.

Some of Carlson’s favorite toys include nine “exploder” cannons permanently mounted along the steep slope above U.S. Highway 50 heading up to Echo Summit.

From a computer at his office in Meyers, Carlson can set off any one of these cannons via satellite.

If the mountainside cannons aren’t effective, the crews have two choices – to send gunners in by snowcat, who then snowshoe in farther and throw four-pound hand charges – or use their $200,000 Locat gun, an artillery trainer used by NATO forces. Mortar rounds, or projectiles are then fired at vulnerable areas, thereby stabilizing the snow pack.

Until recently, ammunition from the Korean War was still being used for avalanche control. However, due to their age, “duds” became more common.

At night or during heavy storms when visibility is low, the Locat, permanently bolted to a platform, can still hit key areas with precision due to predetermined coordinates.

“We try to stabilize the slope regularly so it doesn’t build up,” Carlson said. “If it’s done right, it won’t even reach the road – that means there won’t be extra clean-up time.”

However, Carlson does remember occasions where slides between 100 to 200 yards long and 20-feet high have covered the road. One avalanche tore out a lower guard rail.

“I know snow – you can tell all this stuff by experience,” Carlson said, who has 20 years with Caltrans under his belt. “The best part of my job is keeping the highway open and safe.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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