One night earlier this winter, the only road out of Alta, Utah, was closed down. At ski lodges, signs warned guests to stay inside or face fines. Already that season, twenty-two feet of snow had fallen, and, the day before, a storm had dropped thirty-three inches; another foot was predicted by morning. The most dangerous time for avalanches is after a rapid snowfall, and three-quarters of the buildings in Alta are threatened by a known avalanche path. A standard measure for danger on roads, the Avalanche Hazard Index, computes risk according to the size and frequency of avalanches and the number of vehicles that are exposed to them. An A.H.I. of 10 is considered moderate; at 40, the road requires the attention of a full-time avalanche forecaster. State Highway 210, which runs down the mountain to Salt Lake City, if left unprotected, would have an A.H.I. of 1,045.
Just before 5 a.m., a small group of ski patrollers gathered at a base by the resort’s main lift. Dave Richards, the head of Alta’s avalanche program, sat in the control room. Maps and marked-up aerial photographs hung on the wall next to what looked like a large EKG—that season’s snowfall, wind speeds, and temperature data plotted by hand. Clipboards on hooks were filled with accounts of past avalanches.
Forty and bearded, with tattoos on his arms, Richards has the bearing of a Special Forces soldier. He wore a vest with a radio strapped to it and held a tin of dipping tobacco, spitting occasionally into the garbage can beneath his desk. He objects when people say that he works in avalanche control; he prefers the term “mitigation.” Sitting nearby was Jude, his English cream golden retriever, named for the patron saint of lost causes.
Jonathan Morgan, the lead avalanche forecaster for the day, described the snow. He wore a flat-brimmed cap and a hoodie. “Propagation propensity’s a question mark,” he said. “Not a lot of body in the slab. . . . Dry facets, two to three mils,” he continued. “It’s running the whole gamut of crystal types—wasn’t ice, by any means. Rimy, small grains.”
At ski resorts like Alta, large avalanches are avoided by setting off smaller ones with bombs. On the walls above the maps were dummy mortar rounds. Above Richards’s desk were binders marked “Old Explosives Inventory.” The idea, Morgan explained, was to “shoot the terrain we can’t get to.”
Richards started considering their targeting plan. The ski resort is cleared from the top down: first by artillery shells, then with hand charges. Before any shots are fired, paths leading to the mountains are closed. Because not all skiers keep to groomed trails—backcountry adventurers seek out remote areas—the Utah Department of Transportation also checks the roadside for tracks. Sometimes it scours the mountainside with infrared cameras before giving the all-clear.
“So we’ll go fourteen for Baldy?” Richards said. “Doesn’t include a shot seventeen.” Baldy was one of the resort’s mountain faces, at which they planned to fire fourteen shells; seventeen was a spot on its ridgeline.
“Seventeen wouldn’t be the worst idea,” Morgan concurred. “You got a seven in there?”
“When was Baldy shot last?” Richards asked. “Forty inches ago?”
“Open up for the cleaning crew.”
“Yeah, Friday morning.”
Richards and Morgan repaired to the mess hall—dark carpet, pool table, a deer head on the wall—for breakfast. At five-thirty, the ski lift opened. As Richards walked out the door, Liz Rocco, another ski patroller, mentioned that she had prepared some of the hand charges they would be using that morning. “And I will light them, and throw them into the darkness,” Richards said.
We rode the lift up in the moonlight. Snow was falling on the fir trees. Richards spent his childhood at Alta: his father was a ski patroller for thirty-three years, and his mother, who later became a university administrator, worked the front desk at the Rustler Lodge. Richards started his career as a professional skier, then worked as a heli-skiing guide, before joining the patrol full time. “The thing that makes it for me is the snow,” he said. “Working with a natural material that can be—” He paused. “It’s light and fluffy and soft and downy, and it’s everybody’s favorite thing in the world. It’s also one of the most destructive forces in nature. Under the right conditions, that soft, wonderful little snowflake can tear forests out of the ground, throw cars through the air, flatten buildings. And you get to watch that.”
At the top of the lift, we started hiking. A voice crackled over the radio. “Copy,” Richards said. “Just give me a holler when you pull the trigger.” A moment later, the radio crackled again; Richards ducked and covered his head, and an explosion went off somewhere nearby. We resumed hiking. After a few minutes, we arrived at a two-story shed. A garage door opened onto a pair of hundred-and-five-millimetre howitzer cannons, of Second World War vintage, installed on semicircular tracks. The gun barrels were pointed at the mountaintops. A crew was loading bags of gunpowder into the undersides of artillery shells—enormous bullets, six inches wide and two and a half feet long. Richards wrapped a rag around a large stick and jammed it into a gun barrel, to clean it. “One Sunday morning,” he began singing to himself. “As I went walking . . .”
The patrollers donned foam earplugs and large over-ear headphones; Richards and his co-gunner walked around one of the weapons, checking locks and bolts. They turned a crank, and the barrel swung toward its first target.