Like a blast from the past |

Like a blast from the past

This week’s question:

QSo who gets the cool job of blasting for avalanches, what do they use and how do they get the job in the first place?

ATo answer the question in short: The lucky (or crazy) patrollers get the job, they use a couple of different kinds of explosive charges, but only after years of training.

But let’s rewind before we get into detail: Avalanches have always been a big problem in mountainous country. Slides plagued Europe, claiming lives and property for hundreds of years. As American expansion pushed West, miners in the High Country suffered similar disasters. One of the worst Colorado avalanches – on Feb. 28, 1902 – killed seven miners in Telluride and two more when rescuers triggered a second slide. Three other avalanches in that area killed 10 more people that same day.

As much as miners used explosives – and likely saw the effects on snowpack – blasting wasn’t used to control avalanches for another 40 years. In 1939, Utah ski resort Alta named Alf Engen, the Norwegian ski great, as its first snow ranger. Engen and other patrollers began using explosives to control the devastating effects of avalanches.

In recent history, snow rangers and blasting were employed by the U.S. Forest Service. Knox Williams, now director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, worked around the state as a blaster in the 1970s.

“The Forest Service used to more actively administer the use permits at ski areas,” Williams said. “Now, that responsibility has fallen more to the ski patrols.”

Two years ago, a ski patroller in Bridger Bowl, Mont., died while blasting. The accident produced a lawsuit and regulatory changes for ski areas and their employees.

According to Bob Tierney, snow safety coordinator at Breckenridge Ski Resort (or Breck’s “master blaster”), the state has taken a proactive stance on documenting the training of avalanche control workers and the inventory they use. The state requires hours of training each year.

At Breckenridge, Tierney said, the policy is three years of training before a patroller is eligible to take the state’s blasting certification exam. The training gradually covers igniting fuses and blasting caps, assembling fuses and caps, observing the deployment of charges, blasting under supervision – and then it’s time to take the 100-question test.

“It’s pretty involved,” Tierney said.

Extra training and a separate credential are required for using the rocket launchers found at many ski areas. Copper Mountain Ski Patrol manager Sam Parker said patrollers with previous experience or who show good job performance and decision-making can complete training in less than three years. Parker said knowledge of the resort’s terrain also is important.

The explosives contain either a black powder-like explosive or a gelatin dynamite. The black powder charge leaves a tell-tale darkened crust on the snow and changes the snowpack. For that reason, it’s not typically used on southern exposures or dry areas.

Parker said large charges – two 90-gram boosters inside a milk jug filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil – can weigh 7 pounds and are used when a big bang is necessary.

The standard charge weighs about two pounds. On a day when avalanche control is a priority, a resort can use 35 pounds of explosives.

Tierney said Breckenridge Resort purchases its supplies from a mining explosives company. He said ski areas use less than 1 percent of the explosives manufactured for mining.

The Colorado Department of Transportation also blasts to control slides. Thursday, the state agency contracted a helicopter to drop charges in the area east of the Eisenhower Tunnel. A helicopter is used often for this purpose. But CDOT spokeswoman Stacy Stegman couldn’t say much about blasting.

“We really can’t give out any info because of homeland security,” Stegman said. “We try not to talk about where they’re working or what they’re using. We have to ensure the crew’s safety.”

Safety becomes a big concern if the blasting charge doesn’t go off. The protocol for retrieving a “dud” involves watching the area for an hour, closing off the terrain if it’s a slope in use and later disposing of the explosives. Tierney said it’s hard to find a charge in deep snow, though, and in the past, summer visitors have found unexploded charges.

Finding unused dynamite is a dangerous encounter. During excavation for the Frisco post office, workers uncovered a box of dynamite Summit County Sheriff Joe Morales said had likely been hidden since the 1930s. A Front Range bomb squad took the box to Officer’s Gulch and detonated it.

“It was still good,” Morales said. “It made quite a bang.”

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