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'Alta was the birthplace of avalanche science and mitigation in all of North America. Alta was the first ski area to develop techniques and protocols to deal with avalanche problems'
ALTA, Utah — The stillness of Alta Ski Area’s deep, snowy mornings has been interrupted by the thunderous echoes of heavy artillery since 1949. These World War II-era weapons have been essential in safeguarding the town and ski slopes from the danger of avalanches.
However, during the record-breaking 2022-23 season, when Alta was blanketed with 903 inches of snow, the gunners of Alta’s Ski Patrol fired their 75-mm howitzer for the last time.
“Something that Alta is very, very proud of is [Montgomery aka Monty] Atwater developed the artillery and explosives program that is now standard practice around the world,” said Dave Richards, Avalanche Office director, Alta Ski Area, in a film about the program.
The story of Alta’s avalanche artillery program is one of innovation and adaptation. Ski Utah’s film “The Last Gunners” highlights the Alta Ski Areas program that began modestly but grew to incorporate massive artillery pieces repurposed for a peaceful cause. While these powerful weapons now face retirement, the spirit of innovation they embodied lives on.
Alta is not merely saying goodbye to its historic avalanche artillery program but is also embracing the future. The ski area is transitioning to the latest technological advancements in avalanche mitigation, stepping into a new era of safety and protection for its slopes and patrons.
The transition involves phasing out the old military artillery and installing new Wyssen avalanche towers. These towers can trigger avalanches with remote-control blasting. This proactive command represents the cutting edge of avalanche mitigation technology, offering enhanced protection for skiers and the surrounding area.
“Alta was the birthplace of avalanche science and mitigation in all of North America. Alta was the first ski area to develop techniques and protocols to deal with avalanche problems,” said Lexi Dowdall, ‘The Last Gunners’ filmmaker. “US Forest Service Snow Rangers began experimenting and developing ways to collect and standardize data to learn when and under what conditions avalanches would happen. They truly were pioneers and the meticulous record-keeping they initiated did huge things for the field of snow study. Alta has always been at the forefront of avalanche science and mitigation. As they wind down with their Howitzer program, they are turning toward the future with the implementation of Remote Avalanche Control (RAC) devices. Battling avalanches was an absolute necessity for the town of Alta and the ski area itself to exist. Without a plan or program, avalanches would have destroyed the town, road, and ski area infrastructure in short order.”