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(from hack cover)

the avalanche hunters

MONTGOMERY M. ATWATER
There was a time when only a handful of hearty souls experienced the joy of solitude among the awesome heights and glitter of snow-covered peaks. A few decades ago skiing, a development of man's inborn desire to slide, had not advanced beyond a "swish and a long walk back." But the advent of lifts, Head skis and stretch pants not only created a vastly increasing army of enthusiasts who look upon the white slopes and brisk air as a friendly challenge, but also precipitated serious new risks to lives and property. Besides being something white, cold and beautiful, what is snow? Its crystalline particles combine in intricate detail to produce a cover restless with the forces of pressure, temperature and gravity. Never in repose, snow is continually being pushed, pulled, pressed, warmed, chilled, ventilated and churned in processes largely invisible and totally unnoticed by the casual observer. Snow can become a whole mountain in motion, turning from friend to enemy without warning, a white death erupting like a volcano. The opening of many new ski areas pointed up the necessity for control, forecasting and the dangerous business of search and rescue. In 1946 Montgomery Atwater joined the United States Forest Service and established the first avalanche research center in this hemisphere at Alta, Utah. His improved techniques, including the use of the Avalauncher (a field piece specifically designed to release slides), are now in use throughout the Americas. This thrilling, firsthand account emphasizes the bold accomplishments of the snow Rangers, but it does not ignore the lessons of disaster. Those who would venture into high places in winter would do well to remember and learn to listen for the innocent but unforgettable sound of an avalanche at the moment of release. A soft whooshing sound like that of a blanket sliding off a tilted table is the mountain's understated introduction to the boiling, crushing, thundering white fury that will follow.

He served as winter warfare instructor and advisor during World War II, participated in the Kiska Campaign and the Battle of the Bulge, then retired from the army because of physical disability, with the rank of Captain. Joining the U. S. Forest Service in 1946, he distinguished himself as a specialist in avalanche research, control and winter recreation, working until 1956 at Alta, Utah, where he founded the first avalanche research center in the Western Hemisphere. Snow and avalanche research at Alta eventually produced all the modern techniques of avalanche control now in use throughout the Americas. In 1956, Monty Atwater married the former Joan Hamill and spent several months in Europe visiting avalanche control and research centers in Austria and Switzerland. Upon his return to the United States, he was transferred to Squaw Valley, California, to plan and execute avalanche control for the Olympic Winter Games of 1960. Following the games, he opened a research station at Squaw Valley and developed the "avalauncher," the first avalanche control weapon designed specifically for the purpose. He retired from the U. S. Forest Service in 1964 and since that time has been a consultant on snow and avalanche problems for ski areas and industrial concerns from South America to Alaska. He was also chief of avalanche control for the World Ski Championships in Portillo, Chile, in 1966. At present, Mr. Atwater lives in Squaw Valley, California, where he has a small research laboratory of his own. His current project is developing an improved projectile for the "avaiauncher," a device which soon will be in production and use. Mr. Atwater has two sons, Robert and Montgomery the second. He is the author of technical and popular articles on avalanches published in The Saturday Evening Post, Scientific America, Saga, and other nationally circulated publications, as well as The Avalanche Handbook, the first comprehensive field manual of avalanche control. He has also written numerous adventure novels for young people.

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CHAPTER

12

~now

;:
ConJultant

MT.

ROSE

MICROWAVE:

1948, 1952

IN ITS OWN WAY, the role of the consultant on snow and avalanche problems is even more exacting than that of the researcher. The researcher deals with physical facts. He may not know all the reasons or even all of the facts, but he does know that, regardless of all else, snow behaves in a logical manner. The consultant must deal with not only the enigma of avalanches but also the greater enigma of human nature. Over the past twenty years I have served as a consultant on snow problems to a great many organizations and individuals, on projects ranging from multimillion-dollar industrial enterprises to rope-tow ski areas, from highway departments, railroads, and communications companies to the Armed Forces. Not the least intriguing part of the snow consultant's job is the fact that while snow is snow and avalanches are avalanches wherever you find them, the way in which they affect man and his works is never twice the same. Besides ski-area operations, from which it all sprang, I have had to become knowledgeable about highways, railroads, mining and manufacturing, design and engineering, over-snow equipment, snow-removal equipment, aerial photography and mapping, and a considerable number of other-

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techniques, plus the infinite variety of human nature. It is amazing, for instance, how different in character two corporations can be. A corporation is simply a collection of people working together. When the corporation is large and the number of people is great, one would expect the individual differences to cancel out. But it is not so. I have dealt with companies that were emotional, others that were calm, and still others that were just plain stuffy. Like individuals, they can be open-minded or suspicious, humorless or gay, opinionated or merely ignorant. They are just as much a part of the snow consultant's job as the snow. In selecting the incidents for this chapter I have tried to pick those that not only were successful but are also illustrative of the weird things that can happen to a consultant on snow and avalanches. By 1948-49, the Winter of Avalanches, I had acquired some reputation. This was not difficult to achieve, since I was one of only two practicing professional avalanche men in the Western Hemisphere at that time, the other being Noel Gardner in British Columbia. An article had been written about my exploits. A perceptive official of American Telephone and Telegraph Company read this article, which amounted to a photograph and one sentence of text in a nowdefunct magazine. AT&T was completing the first transcontinental microwave system for communications and network TV. Any connection between avalanches and television would appear to be unlikely. Microwave is a highly sophisticated version of signaling with a searchlight, transmission without wires. The radio beam travels on a straight line from one station to the next. By locating a microwave relay station on Mt. Rose, near Reno, Nevada, the AT&T engineers had discovered that they could eliminate two others. Since these electronic juju houses cost on the order of half a million dollars apiece, the Mt. Rose site was automatically attractive. The company's plan was to build the station partially during the summer of 1949 and complete it the next summer. A telephone company is not unaware that at lO,OOO feet elevation in the Sierras winter can be something of a problem. It was a sound plan, until the warm-up of the Korean War intervened. The Department of Defense suggested that it would be a nice idea to get the microwave system into operation one year ahead of schedule in order to handle the increased load of military communications to the .Far East. A suggestion from the Department of Defense has a certain impact. Mt. Rose was the key station. Dutifully, AT&T undertook to keep the construction road open during the Winter of Avalanches and complete the system. When an avalanche wiped out a tractor and driver, the AT&T official remembered that article he'd read for relaxation one evening, and the next morning a somewhat mystified avalanche hunter headed for Reno, knowing nothing except that he was detailed to a project concerning national security.

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THE AVALANCHE

H _

I had the kind of meeting that was to become familiar enough in years but was a new sensation at the time. Privately until now, I labe the official panic party. At least twenty officials of the giant corpo had gathered, from every part of the country. They were in that state unreasoning shock I have already described in narratives of the Leduc and Portillo disasters. To me, an avalanche accident involving one and a driver who was promptly dug out alive and only slightly hurt warrant so much fuss; the project boss and I could go out there tog see what happened and why, and take the necessary steps to see that didn't happen again. It was my first demonstration of the special im of an avalanche accident, a stunning side-effect compounded of surp violence, mystery, and apprehension that the mountain is going to rear and strike again at any moment. The AT&T officials presented me with a written list of questions that was expected to answer on the spot. Some of them were meaningless, I couldn't answer any of them without looking over the scene of the acesdent. At that time I hadn't perfected the technique of the rambling highly technical discourse on avalanches which doesn't convince anyone seems to have a calming effect. I suggested that I'd like to go out to _I Rose. Away we all went, in a fleet of cars and then a fleet of Sno-Cats. I the only one who took skis. When someone asked me what I planned to with them, I explained that no one was going to get me over a hundred yards out into the snow without my skis and that I planned to climb avalanche, besides. This appeared to be a good answer. Their apprehensi decreased in proportion to my confidence. The microwave station was actually on a ridge extending south fro 9,OOO-foot Mt. Rose and several hundred feet below the summit. On final climb to the ridge, the construction road traversed a fairly short very steep slope. The cut made by the tractor and the hole where it ended were still visible, about halfway up. Since the ridge ran north and south, lay athwart the storm track, and the east-facing slope we were looking was a natural snow-catcher almost on the scale of the Headwall at Squa Valley, a made-to-order avalanche path. It took no genius to analyze the course of events. A storm had deposited a three-foot layer of soft slab on that lee slope. Since it hadn't avalanched naturally, the slab might have settled out and become stable if left to itse But here came AT&T's bulldozer, making a great gash through the middle of it, destroying its anchorage at the toe. Robbed of this bulkhead, the s sheared. My solution to this problem was to shake the slope up thoroughly explosives and then plow the road and get back to work; repeat every time there was a storm. It was not to the liking of the telephone company. They wanted the avalanche problem combed out of their hair entirely, so they

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wouldn't even have to think about it. This demand required a more elaborate remedy. Prowling about the mountain on skis, I found an alleyway about fifty feet wide that was free of avalanche hazard. By good fortune, the top end of it was practically at the door of the microwave station. It lay on the fall line, straight up and down hill. An interesting piece of information, but how to utilize it? A picture sprang into my mind of the barge tows that served as lifts at Aspen in the days when to day's famous ski area was the playground of the Tenth Mountain Division. I recommended to the telephone company officials that they do the following: Build a barge, or snowboat, big enough to haul whatever was involved in manpower and equipment. Attach it to a double drum winch, to haul it up the hill and back down again. Eventually, replace this crude but effective rig with a modern aerial tramway that would provide the all-weather access they required for repair and maintenance of the station. They did this. As result, a nationwide audience witnessed the signing of the Japanese peace treaty on TV. It was, I believe, the first TV network broadcast on a national scale. In my report to the company I mentioned the fact that the power line which supplied the station with electricity was also exposed all along the base of Mt. Rose. There was no reaction. So it came about that four years later, in 1952, the Winter of the Big Snow, Ralph Wiese, snow ranger of Stevens Pass, and I approached Reno, Nevada, in an aircraft known as the Gambler's Special. During the Winter of the Big Snow I recorded over six hundred inches of snowfall at Alta, about 50 per cent above normal. This was the winter when Mayor Watson died of a heart attack in his cabin under the snow and made his last trip down Little Cottonwood Canyon roped to a roaring, bucking, Sno-Cat, over the backs of avalanches. I'm sure he would have enjoyed every minute of it, if he could have known. At Alta it was a relatively peaceful winter; we were snowed in most of the time. Farther west, in the Sierras, the snowfall was eight hundred inches, approached only twice before in a century. The mountain regions of northern California and the Pacific Northwest were virtually paralyzed by this extraordinary winter. Squaw Valley's principal and only lift at that time went down for the second time, and Joe Carson lost his life. (Incidentally, my future avalanche girl was working at Squaw Valley as a cashier, neither of us aware at that time of the other's existence.) On Donner Summit, the Southern Pacific's luxury train "City of San Francisco" was trapped between slides, leading to one of the more puzzling search-and-rescue efforts on record. I have not included it in this book because I don't know the facts and can't obtain them. Likewise on Donner Summit, power-company trouble shooters were flagging power lines that normally swing thirty feet above ground so that skiers wouldn't walk over them. At Stevens Pass guard station, far to the north, Wiese, John Herbert, and

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Mt. Rose Microwave

Station hazard map. Photo courtesy of the author.

I were having a quietly ferocious game of Tough Hearts. Outside, a revolting gluey mixture of rain and snow was falling. Suddenly every light bulb, electrical appliance, and outlet in the house exploded. After putting out the fires and recovering from our consternation, we investigated. We found that a high-tension line, weighted by the sticky snow, had tipped over a pole and sagged until it touched the lead-in wire of our radio. The enormous surge of power had entered the house backwards, so to speak. Next morning we heard over the State Police radio that Mt. Rose Microwave was in trouble again. In fact, the power line had gone down, just as predicted. The station had been operating for two weeks on auxiliary generators designed for a few hours' use at a time. The power line must be repaired, now that the weather was improving. But the company feared for the safety of the work crews. Would I come and help? I took Wiese with me, knowing that I was going to need experienced help. The job would involve climbing Mt. Rose and hand-blasting all the slidepaths ahead of the workmen. It would have been a natural for artillery or an avalauncher, neither of which was available. So it came about that Wiese and I were aboard the Gambler's Special as it circled down out of the storm clouds over the Sierras toward Reno airport. It was clear in Reno. We could see the stars above and the neon river of Virginia Street below, bisecting the Biggest Little City in the World. The pilot warned us that at lower elevations there was severe turbulence.

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That had an ominous ring. The air over the Sierras hadn't exactly been a velvet carpet. We cinched up the seat belts. Other passengers did the same. There were no more curious glances at our costume. People in skiing kit, on an airplane, were not as commonplace then as they are now. Suddenly the plane staggered, exactly the wayan animal does that has just been shot between the eyes. It stopped flying. It felt like something dropped into a vacuum. Pieces of loose gear began to bang and clatter. I don't know how long this went on, possibly thirty seconds. To me it seemed that we fell for hours and miles. Finally the pilot revived his aircraft and got it flying again. He pointed its nose to the sky, turned on all the power, and headed back over the Sierras. Over Reno, that night, the low-level turbulence was severe. Eventually we got to Mt. Rose by other means. We climbed the mountain. There was one interesting moment. I wanted to bomb a slidepath

Telephone lines on 30-foot poles on Donner Summit were covered during the Winter of the Big Snow. Photo courtesy of the author.

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that was beyond the range of my throwing arm from any protected position. With Wiese belaying me from behind a rock, I ventured out into a grove of trees which should give me some protection. I tossed the bomb. The avalanche came down through the grove. I began to climb the nearest tree. Wiese, unable to see anything, felt the tension on the rope and, rightly assuming that I was in a slide, clamped down like grim death. I climbed; he held. I got nowhere. The avalanche rose to my knees, to my hips, to my chest. Then it stopped. That summer the power line was moved to the other side of the canyon. MT. ALYESKA AND THE

MENDENHALL

GLACIER:

1961

Snow and avalanche consultant jobs tend to be of the panic-party type, but not always. The Mt. Alyeska and Mendenhall Glacier assignments in Alaska were more like a busman's holiday, memorable not so much for the accomplishment as for the incidentals. The festive atmosphere was provided entirely by Joan Atwater.

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