The Avalanche Review, VOL.11, NO. 1, NOVEMBER 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

I Kill Avalanches

By MONTGOMERY M. ATWATER (December 6, 1964)

Snowy death threatened on America's ski slopes until this pioneer avalanche buster pulled the teeth of an icy killer.

Skiing up to the edge of the steep, funnel-like mountain slope, I looked up at the huge, glistening peak of snow above me.

The sunlight was warm. I knew melting snow was rapidly eating away the base of that gleaming white mountain of ice. Any moment it would turn into an avalanche. A cough, the fluttering of a bird, the crackling of a frozen treeanything could do it.

That was why I was there. I'm a professional avalanche hunter. I kill avalanches.

Squinting through my sunglasses, I watched a companion work his way up the other side of the steep funnel-slope. Finally he stopped and waved.

Instantly I rammed my poles into the snow and went over the slope, my skis hissing on the powder snow. I shouted as I shot under the base of the massive slope of snow. It moved: I could feel the tremor through my skis.

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw it break loose-thousands of tons of snow, ice, dirt, boulders-and come hurtling down the slope after me! Crouched low, I shot across the grade twisting and turning wildly over the hummocks, and shot up over the opposite edge of the slope.

I dug my ski edges in for a quick stop-as the avalanche roared by me down the mountain in a fuming cloud of snow. Wind tore at me, ice particles whipped my face. My heart was pounding.

That was my first avalanche kill. It happened in the winter of 1946-47, while I was an avalanche patrolman at Alta, Utah. I've killed hundreds since. I've killed them every way I know-with bombs, with bullets, often hand to hand.

Avalanches are big game. I know of none bigger or more dangerous. In 1962 an avalanche in Peru massacred 4,000 people with one swipe of its icy claws. Last winter in Switzerland avalanches killed three of the greatest skiers of our time: Buddy Werner, Barbi Henneberger, and Charles Bozon. If your are a skier, or if you live, work, travel, or play in the high mountains in winter, the next life lost could be yours unless I, or someone like me, kills that avalanche first.

When I went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in 1946 at Alta, the area was a skiing paradise, but one with a grisly history of death and destruction by avalanches. I was hired, I suspect, mostly because I was handy, a graduate of the 10th Mountain Division, and a man with some practical avalanche experience. That is, my footwork was good enough to keep me out of harm's way.

No one really knew much about avalanches in those days. The only tools we had to work with were a bundle of signs that read: "Closed Area. Avalanche Danger." They did nothing to control the avalanches and very little to control the people. I spent most of my time chasing skiers out of dangerous places.

Two days before Christmas, 1946, something happened which changed all this. The Alta area was hit with a blizzard. Three high-school boys, camping out in an abandoned mine cabin up on the mountain, were crossing a steep slope when an avalanche roared down out of the whirling snow, picked off one of the boys, and buried him alive.

What followed was the most nightmarish experience of my life. Everybody at Alta started up the mountain to search for the boy- skiers, lift operators, desk clerks, cooks, chambermaids, old men, young girls. Most of the people were neither dressed for the job nor physically able to make a thousand-foot vertical climb through waist-deep snow in a blizzard.

Despite continued delays, the struggling column of people finally got the scene of the accident and dug out the boy. He was conscious and badly injured.

It was dark by now, a screeching dark that whipped us with wind and snow. In the eerie glare of the headlamps, we body- splinted the victim to his own skis. Six of us hoisted him to our shoulders, and down the mountain we went. Whenever one of the bearers stumbled and fell, the other bearers simply trampled over him while someone else took his place. Thus, over a carpet of bodies, we carried the boy to safety. A clean-up crew came behind to help those rescuers who needed rescuing themselves.

If there has to be a date when avalanche research began in the U.S., the night of December 27, 1946 will do. That night, I declared personal war against avalanches. As a starter I wrote a report on the accident. I tried to analyze what made the rescue a success. The reason, of course, was the hard core of the professionals who knew what to do and did it in spite of the confusion. Out of that report came a standard rescue procedure which is now taught in every avalanche training program in the country.

I set out to learn all I could about avalanches. A lot of good work had been done in Europe to protect towns, roads, railways, and power lines. But it struck me that no one was trying to protect the people moving about on the slopes.

I saw we needed a positive approach, some way of making sure a slope is safe before turning the public loose on it. I decided the only way to do this was by skiing the slope personally.

The idea isn't quite as suicidal as it sounds. Avalanches almost always run on the same slopes again and again, and start at the same places-what we now call the trigger points. At Alta, I became the first man to pull the triggers of avalanches with my skis.

It was a team system. One man sliced the avalanche slope. The other man stood in a safe place and watched, so he would know where to look in case his partner went down. Then the first man played lookout while his partner took a cut. The system worked well, and avalanche busters still use it-even though they occasionally end up in hospitals.

One day, it struck me that explosives would be better and safer than skis for knocking off avalanches. Nowadays, of course, the boom of exploding avalanche bombs in commonplace on a slope, and skiers hardly look up from lacing their boots. But back in the late 1940's it was a brandnew sound in skiing.

By today's standards, those first experiments with explosives were pretty crude, but there were the start of the first modern avalanche control system in the U.S., or anywhere else for that matter.

Looking back on it, I can-only wonder why I and the others who took part in those early duels with Alta's avalanches weren't killed. We did things we wouldn't even consider now, like climbing up an avalanche path in order to deliver our explosive calling cards to the trigger point at the top of the slope.

But we had demonstrated a basic fact of modern avalanche control. An avalanche has a glass jaw. Hit it at the right time and place and Goliath can be knocked flat by David, or at least thrown off balance, so that the giant wastes his knockout punch.

This is unique. The avalanche is only one of the few great destructive natural forces man can trigger prematurely at a time and place of his choosing. What David needs now, I decided, is a long-range slingshot so he can blaze away at Goliath from a distance. As an ex-soldier, I naturally thought of artillery.

Actually, the turning point in avalanche research came in 1952. By then, there were three research stations: the one at Alta, another at Berthoud Pass in Colorado, and another at Stephens Pass in the Cascades of Washington State. The three areas went through a blockbuster of a winter-600 inches of snowfall at Alta itself-without a scratch, while death and destruction roared down the slopes elsewhere.

At Alta, the bombs and artillery fire, I knocked out so many avalanches I lost count of them. At the close of that snowy winter I wrote The Avalanche Handbook, the first comprehensive manual of avalanche forecasting and avalanche control.

In 1956 I left Alta and moved to Squaw Valley, California, which had just been awarded the 1960 Winter Olympic Games. My instructions were simple: keep avalanche disasters off the program.

Ten years earlier I wouldn't have known where to begin. Five years earlier I might have known but wouldn't have had either the equipment or the manpower. In 1960 I was ready. Every top avalanche buster in the United States was at Squaw Valley. We were superbly armed with those weapons we had dreamed of ever since the Korean War-recoilless rifles.

Thousands of people in person and millions more by TV were present on that cloudy, snowy day when the opening ceremonies ushered in the eighth Winter Olympic Games. No avalanche buster took part. We were all up in the clouds, killing the last avalanche in Squaw Valley.

That was why I was there. I'm a professional avalanche Hunter.
I kill avalanches.

The work goes on. Men I have trained in my avalanche schools are now subduing treacherous snowslides all over the world. And 10,000 miles from Alta, where it all began I write these words in a fortified camp in the Andes Mountains of Chile. Miles above us in a forbidding avalanche-ridden canyon lies a billion dollars worth of copper.

My job? Kill the avalanche so miners can dig out the valuable deposits.

The Avalanche Review, VOL.11, NO. 1, NOVEMBER 1992
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA