One of the things we look forward to most here at Alta is seeing what major changes will be made to the resort over the summer. Whether it’s the installation of a new Supreme chairlift, or the expansion of the Albion parking lot, or the renovation of Alf’s Restaurant: there’s always something happening here during the offseason. And this summer was no exception.
And although this summer’s project won’t be as visible or prominent as some of the others in the past, this doesn’t mean it’s any less important. In fact we believe it’s one of the most important additions to Alta in recent memory. During the early months of summer the Utah Department of Transportation and the Alta Ski Lift Company have been working with Wyssen Swiss Company to install twelve new remote access avalanche towers across the street from Alta, which will detonate explosives and help to propagate avalanches from a safe distance.
The reason they’re doing this is because for the past fifty or so years the Forest Service — along with about twelve other ski resorts which operate on their land — have been relying on old military artillery to detonate their snowpack. The history of avalanche control using military equipment in ski resorts is a long and fascinating one and is certainly worth the read if you have the time. It’s been the quickest and most accurate way to control avalanche zones after a heavy snowstorm. The only problem is that the time has come where UDOT and Alta Ski Patrol can no longer rely on access to the 105-millimeter shells they use to launch from their Howitzer guns, for these are no longer being manufactured and their stockpile is quickly running low. Which is why they’ve been investing in on-site systems such as Gas-Ex and Wyssen Towers, both of which are being widely used in Europe and Canada.
The way these new Wyssen Towers work is simple and — from a risk factor — much safer. By far the hardest part is the installation process. First the foundation of the towers needs to be dug and poured in spots too steep and too high for most of us to even access. Then the equipment needs to be transported up to the ridgelines, a feat which requires multiple helicopter trips carrying heavy loads dangling from a steel cable line. Now that all twelve towers have finally been installed the only thing left to do is to set the prepared 11-lbs explosives charges. When the time comes later in the season to mitigate the slide paths the charges will be lowered front the deployment box on top of the towers with a long retaining line. Then the charges are detonated remotely from a control center which produces an N-shaped pressure wave that propagates any instability within the snowpack.
How will the implementation of this new RACS system affect your stay or change your experience on the slopes? Well, for starters, you won’t be waking up to as many Howitzer shells being launched overhead first thing in morning. Secondly, with the consistent mitigation of these avalanche paths, we won’t be Interlodged as long and as often. And lastly, with the investment of these on-site systems, Alta won’t have to completely shut down after every snow storm because UDOT is no longer able to get their hands on any more Korean-era artillery.
For that day will come and it’ll happen soon!