The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

Avalanche Control at Alpine Meadows:


by Norman Wilson

During the mid-fifties some of my friends and I would occasionally ski over the ridge from Squaw Valley into the Bear Creek drainage to sample the then-untouched slopes there. One of the things we noticed right away was that there was no shortage of avalanche terrain in that area. Later on, while I was working for the Olympic avalanche control group for the '60 Winter Games at Squaw, my boss, Dick Stillman, and Monty Atwater, who was Forest Service liaison person to the Olympic Committee, would once in a while take our control group along on scouting missions into the Bear Creek area, which by that time was being studied for ski area development. By that time the area had been given the name of Alpine Meadows. We did a lot of looking around, observing slidepaths and avalanche debris; and located a likely looking gun position just above what would become the lodge site and base area. Stillman aptly named the gun position Gunner's Knob-a name which still sticks today.

In the late summer of 1966, after some years as snow ranger at Squaw, and one year in northwest British Columbia, I returned to the Tahoe Basin and was offered a job as avalanche technician at Alpine. It seems that during January 1966 a major avalanche was triggered by the AC crew that swept out of Beaver Bowl and down into the base area, taking out one lift tower, climbing partway up onto Gunner's Knob, then, after turning some 80 degrees toward the north, clobbering the lift shack at the lower terminal of that same lift, and finally halting after just nudging, but not damaging, the lodge.



Rightly or wrongly, management blamed the then-existing AC program for the incident, and asked me to set up a system that would remove such events from future winter programs. I accepted what turned out to be a sizeable challenge.

Part of the challenge, as it happened, was to acquire a gun for Gunner's Knob. It seems that part of the thinking of the area's planners had been that artillery would be available for AC at Alpine; however, Forest Service policy had deviated temporarily from that concept while the ski are was being developed; so no gun had yet been in place on Gunner's Knob. Until after the big avalanche of January 1966.

After that incident, it was clear that wind and weather would sometimes prevent AC crews from accessing the ridge routes so that they could toss their handcharges onto the high avalanche starting zones at the right times, which meant, of course, that major avalanche potential could often build up. In fact, that was precisely what had happened during that January storm.

With this history as ammunition, along with my background with artillery at Squaw and in B.C., the Forest Service was prevailed upon to let us have a 75mm recoilless rifle for Gunner's Knob-but there was a hitch . . . the rifle could be fired only on starting zones that threatened structures, and, only when the elements prevented crew access to the starting zones. Later on, as the years went by, Forest Service policy was relaxed to allow us to engage targets above the parking lot and along the access roadbut this took timeyears, in fact.


Later on, too, we were furnished with a wheel-mounted 75mm howitzer for the road and parking lot work.

The winter of '66-'67 was an interesting one. We had almost 700" of snow that winter and spring-along with frequent episodes of rain mixed in-and the stomps that gave us that snow and rain were almost always accompanied by very strong winds. We had to close the area for a total of 22 days that winter-primarily because of avalanche problems along the access road.

The road itself was, and remains, a problem. Simply put, the roadfor avalanche considerations-should have been put on the other side of the valley. But, that's another story.

A further problem with the road, during the sixties, was that the ski area actually had no legal right to do AC along it, or to close it, or to restrict parking in any way. And the County, at that time, didn't want anything to do with the problem. So, we often had to try to persuade people not to park in dangerous spots, or to get them to move their cars when we needed to do come control above their cars... sometimes we could get some assistance from the California Highway Patrol-when they could spare an officer to come up the road. These road problems resulted in some interesting stories. Before we received the howitzer for the road and parking lot, we usually drove to Squaw Valley, hoping their KT-22 lift would be able to operate and run us up to the top of KT; then we would ski, with packs loaded with handcharges, to the tops of a series of starting zones that hang above the road. An interesting aspect of this operation was that at that time we had no radios. No radios-a situation difficult to comprehend in 1992. We were sometimes able to borrow a couple of CBs from a local snow removal contractor for this operation; but the functioning of those CBs was often problematical-in fact, we often seemed to have better communications with some fellows in Texas than with our road guards down below us. We considered asking the Texans to relay our messages by telephone, but never did. About midway during that winter, management began purchasing FX radios for us... we started with two; then as time went on, we were able to get more.

We also tried using an Avalauncher along the road; but that was before the point-detonating projectile had been developed, so it wasn't much help in our program, for various reasons.

During one storm in January '67, we realized that we couldn't keep the slides above the road under control. We had the ski area closed; we couldn't get up KT because of the wind, and avalanche danger was extreme. Howard Carnell, who is now the area manager, but was then chief of road maintenance, called the county and asked them to put up a barrier across the road and close it to the public. The county folks said they had no material for such a barrier. So, we tried to close the road by pushing up a big snowberm to block the way; but people shoveled their way through it. This happened more than once in those years.

We had only six patrollers (we called them patrolmen in those days), plus me, on our patrol in 1966. This meant that we missed a lot of days off during storm periods, and also that we often had to do two or three AC routes per team on AC days. By today's standards, our operations were pretty primitive... Rescue beacons were in their infancy, had not been perfected, and were years away from becoming useful, reliable pieces of equipment. And, of course, we had no radios until well into that season.

We started out the winter of 1966-67 with one notlarge-enough steel explosives magazine mounted on a platform just below a large Lodgepole Pine alongside a ski run not far above the lodge. The magazine site was convenient, but it was within the effects zone of what's now known as the Poma Rocks slidepath. The magazine was taken off the platform by a slide early in the winter; so we winched it back to the platform and attached it to the tree by a steel cable. We left some slack in the cable to allow for about twenty feet of movement. The next big slide that came down again took the magazine off the platform. After the dust settled we found the magazine at the end of the now taut cable, right on top of the avalanche debris. We winched it back to the platform again, then we dozed up a big snow mound just uphill of the tree. This mound, which consisted of thoroughly compacted snow, deflected slides away from the tree and the magazine all the rest of that winter. We moved the magazine to a less convenient, but avalanche-free site the following summer.

The winter of 66-67 was great. Lots of snow, lots of AC, lots of rain at the base elevation (not great), lots of nights in the shack on top of the mountain. And the wind... it caused many many lift closures, lots of whiteout during storms, and always lots of slab on the slopes along with large cornices on the ridges. Many times we would clean off huge cornices from the ridges on one day, then come next day to find new huge ones in the same places.

That 700" of snow at the base elevation translated to a good deal more than that above the rain level, which was often just one or two hundred above the base. During one 24 hour period, we got 75" new snow at the upper snow study plot. We eventually lost track of snow depths at the upper plot sometime during April, when our 25' stake and everything else at the plot disappeared beneath the snow. We were too busy, by then, with higher priority things, ;o worry much about that study plot.

It was a great winter, the storms continued well into May, and we did AC on 73 days and used nearly 7 tons of hand-thrown charges. We thought that was a lot of AC until two winters later, when The Winter of '69 gave us even more snow, and caused us to do a lot more AC-but by this time, life and AC were a lot easier. By this time we had plenty of radios, and the Forest Service had agreed to let us fire the artillery on targets that didn't necessarily menace structures, and we had the howitzer for the road work. We still continued using the KT lift, when it could operate, for handcharge access to the road slides though, because we always felt better about our control results when using handcharges.

We still had problems with road closures-we still had no legal footing for anything we did there. The legal footing came later.

In the spring of '67 I became Mountain Manager of the area; but my main interest, and as I saw it, my main responsibility, remained avalanche control.

Interesting things seemed to happen pretty regularly. Don Huber was our Snow Ranger, and either he or his assistant, Bob Moore, who had been one of our most valued ski patrol/AC men for several years, would join us for AC on one or more of the guns regularly. One day in 1971, Don and I became concerned at about midday when, during a big storm, the line on the thermograph suddenly headed for the sky. Some of the road slides that had refused to respond to explosives that morning, began to avalanche naturally. We went down the road with the howitzer to a complex of slidepaths that rise directly from the road. Houses sit immediately across the road from part of this complex of slidepaths. Cars, of course, were parked by the houses; some were parked on the avalanche side of the road. People were trying to shovel their cars out; but were not making rapid progress. Don and I witnessed one large natural come into the road while we were trying to get the shovelers out of the danger zone. Fortunately, none was caught by that slide, but it caused our level of concern to rise markedly. Our powers of persuasion were still not enough to get the people out of the danger zones; but we were able to get assistance, this time from the highway patrolman who came up and ordered the people off the road so Don and I could shoot the howitzer. Our second shot brought down a large slide that picked up one of the cars and dumped it, upside down, across the road and right in front of the front door of the house into which one of the shovelers had gone. The road was buried some 20' deep. I never got the details, but it was rumored that the car's owners were going to sue Alpine for shooting the slide down, but settled out of court.


Bernie Kingery and I worked closed together while I was at Alpine. He was my right hand man in most matters; he was the Patrol Leader after I became Mountain Manager and was my closest assistant for AC. Bernie and I first met when he came out from Pennsylvania to work for Squaw just before the '60 Winter Games. After that he was on the ski patrol at Squaw while I was snow ranger there, and we shared many pleasurable early morning AC days of storm, wind, and occasionally-rain. Bernie later shifted over to Sugar Bowl to set up an AC program there for a few years, then moved to Alpine, where we again worked together after I returned from B.C.

There are more stories I could tell about those days at Alpine-some were a little embarrassinglike the time when Monty and I were testing one of the earliest Avalauncher point-detonating projectiles-we had the launcher on the back of my pickup, and took the usual test-phase precaution of firing the launcher with a long cord from a safe position-but we left the launcher on the pickup during the firing. After several test models had been successfully fired, one blew up in the barrel, throwing shrapnel all over the place and making a sieve of the back of the pickup. People still laugh about that one. I had a few near misses while doing AC-always while doing something I had carefully trained the people on the AC crew not to do-the elements were kind to us and to me in those years. We had plenty of snow and lots of avalanches, but we also had time and circumstance on our side at the right times. Nature cooperated and the slidepaths responded on request most of the time, and we were able to avoid any fatalities or serious structural damage. But, as most experienced avalanche people realize, nature doesn't always cooperate. I was lucky.

By early 1971 I had been doing an increasing amount of moonlight avalanche consulting along with working at Alpine. The consulting became increasingly interesting to me, and at the same time, the National Avalanche School was being formed by the Forest Service. The Forest Service invited me to take an interesting role with the avalanche school, so I figured that the combination of the avalanche school and my growing consulting business would allow me to leave regular work with Alpine and hang out my shingle. I left Alpine in November of 1971. Bernie took over as Mountain Manager when I left.

As fate would decree, I would return to do some more work with Alpine-this time as a consultant after the catastrophic avalanche of 31 March 1982 that claimed Bernie and Beth and Jake and four others.

Norman Wilson is an avalanche consultant. In 1985 he was an expert witness for the defense in the Alpine Meadows trial.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 10, NO. 5, MARCH 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA