When the Mountain Falls

Last winter was among the deadliest avalanche seasons on record in the United States and Europe. Why is the number of fatalities rising? And what's being done about it?

Feb 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

A narrow beam of light pierces the black sky over the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, and then glides slowly across the steep flanks of the Alta ski area. A few snow crystals hang in the air, remnants of a storm that has just blown through and dropped another 18 inches of champagne powder on the slopes. Within hours, skiers will be lining up at the bottom, jockeying to be first to plunder this prize. But now, in the predawn darkness, it's up to Dan Howlett, assistant director of snow safety at Alta and the head of the Alta Center for Snow Science, to be out here early to ensure that the paying public comes back alive.

Howlett, whose workday in the winter begins at 3:45 a.m., hikes slowly up a ridge through thigh-deep snow to the top of Greeley Bowl. His headlamp beam stops moving, and he reaches into his pack, grabs a coffee can–size explosive hand charge, lights the fuse, and lobs it over onto the broad face known as East Greeley, a favorite powder run for Alta regulars. There's a brilliant orange flash and a sharp crack; the snowscape explodes and rushes in a chaotic tumble toward the valley floor. Howlett, a sandy-haired 40-year-old known to everyone as Howie, fixes his gaze downhill. He learned to fear and respect this force of nature early on: Skiing near Alta when he was 15—he grew up in Salt Lake City—Howlett narrowly missed being pulverized by a wave of snow that hurtled him through a stand of trees.

Dan Howlett is a soldier in the trenches of the avalanche wars, and his battlefield is in one of the most slide-prone mountain ranges in North America. Every morning, Howie and his boss, Alta Snow Safety Director Titus Case, walk to their respective study plots near the base of the slopes to assess how the snowpack has changed from the day before. By 5 a.m., Howlett and Case have compared notes by phone with their counterparts at neighboring Snowbird ski resort and with avalanche forecasters at the Utah Department of Transportation. By 6 a.m., Howie is on his skis, sliding around the slopes with a headlamp, rescue gear, and snow-study equipment, including a shovel and a black metal card on which he examines snow crystals through a small magnifying lens. He digs snow pits to look for weak layers in the snowpack, and cuts sections of the slope with his skis to see if he can dislodge unstable pockets. Meanwhile, remote mountaintop sensors beam data about wind speed, precipitation, snow depth, and weather to his computer in the Alta ski patrol office at the base area.

"The snowpack has a soul," Howlett says, sounding more like a mystic than a guy who blasts slopes into submission. "It's a living, breathing entity that changes every day."

The explosives that he hurls are euphemistically referred to as "active control measures." For the more inaccessible terrain, Howie and his comrades (he and Case oversee about two dozen Alta ski patrollers, who are also out this morning attempting to trigger avalanches) use a fixed-mount 105mm recoilless rifle—it looks like a cannon—one of several military weapons whose use in avalanche control was pioneered at Alta starting in the late 1940s. The military ordnance is fired onto snowfields above the ski area and over State Highway 210, which runs up Little Cottonwood Canyon near Alta and Snowbird. Thanks to Alta's recipe of high-tech wizardry, brute firepower, and old-fashioned sleuthing, the ski area has had only two avalanche fatalities in 62 years.

Alta's safety record is an impressive testament to how avalanche risk has been minimized in commercial ski areas. But resort skiing is only part of the story: With record numbers of people venturing into the backcountry—Colorado's Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association, which maintains one of the nation's most popular backcountry hut systems, saw the use of its huts increase tenfold between 1984 and 1997—more and more recreationists are snowshoeing, skiing, snowmobiling, and climbing into harm's way.

"There are skiers and snowmobilers out there who still have no idea about avalanches when they go into the backcountry," says Howie, who has participated in numerous avalanche rescues—and body-recovery searches—around the Wasatch Range. "I just hope more people don't have to get killed before everyone gets some basic avalanche education."