Blowing Up Snow

People say that I have a cool job, but I think I just found an even cooler one.

Imagine going to work everyday and blowing up gigantic snowdrifts — that’s pretty much a day in the life of the avalanche crew at Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada.

Even though it sounds (and is) great fun, the avalanche crew work hard and long hours. Avalanche forecaster Craig Sheppard starts work before dawn, gathering all the weather reports and telemetry readings to gauge recent snowfall, air moisture, wind speed, and other factors that hint at avalanche dangers. In a morning meeting with other crew members, recommendations are offered and then a plan is made.

Bombing away the precarious snow build-up is only part of the anti-avalanche strategy. Almost every day, the crew rope off areas designated to be hazardous, and then “cut” them, skiing X formations across the slope to break up loose snow and trigger smaller slides.

“We like it when we’re the ones triggering the slides,” says Craig, who worked for 12 years before he experienced an avalanche first hand–one that he had triggered.

“I never want to do that again,” he shakes his head, but it is part of the risk of his job, a risk that many brave men and women take every day in order to keep the ski resort safe. When cutting doesn’t cut it, the crew use bombs to break up overhangs and dislodge heavy buildups on the top of mountain slopes.

At Lake Louise, they use Power X, an industrial-strength nitroglycerin derivative. The soft gel is rolled into cardboard tube units of one kilogram (2.2 pounds). Each of these is a “shot” and in a single day, the forecaster may recommend anywhere from thirty to one hundred shots. For bigger jobs, they use “nukes”, several shots combined with a single fuse.

While helicopters may be used to bomb a hillside, it’s the expert ski skills of the avalanche crew that allow them to reach the most dangerous areas where they ignite the bombs manually. Typically, this happens early in the morning or in the late afternoon, when the slopes are closed.

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Brad Eliason of the Lake Louise avalanche crew, places explosive "shots" into the snow along the mountain ridge of Lake Louise Ski Area in Alberta, Canada. (AE, NGS)

How does it feel skiing with a backpack full of bombs?

“You don’t want to fall,” says Brad Eliason, who took me with him on a quick afternoon bombing run. After constructing the shots inside a locked and padded explosives magazine, we rode the lift to the top of Eagle Ridge, where large cornices of snow hung over the back ledge of the mountain. Brad’s method was precise, following safety protocols with exactness.

“You might want to cover your ears,” said Brad, but before I could even try, the bombs detonated.

Boom, boom, boom, KABOOM. The last shot was the loudest and from my point of view, the most effective, sending a cloud of snow down the hill.

And if building bombs and blowing up snowdrifts didn’t already make me feel like James Bond, we then skied straight down the mountain in the disappearing light of dusk. For sure, the avalanche crew are so cool, I felt cool simply tumbling down the mountain behind them.

Good snow is up to mother nature, but safe snow is up to the awesome avalanche crew, and for that, I thank them.

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Avalanche crew member Brad Eliason holds up two 1-kilo "shots". (AE, NGS)