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Bombs Away?

Cold Front
posted: 12/13/2004

Few things say freedom like a two-pound hand charge shattering the silence of a waist-deep powder morning. With resorts expanding their boundaries and opening ever-steeper terrain, avalanche control is as integral to the modern epic ski day as 30 inches of four-percent fluff. So why are avalanche controllers worried that their programs are in danger of being dismantled? Two words: Homeland Security.

For years, U.S. avalanche programs hummed along, using Howitzers, recoilless rifles, and Civil War—era cap-and-fuse hand-charge technology, with little government supervision. But a decade-long series of events has changed the way the feds, insurance companies, and bomb makers look at the process of blasting ski runs. It started with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. A year later, a patroller at Big Sky Resort, Montana, was killed when a hand charge detonated in her lap. (Her training had consisted of a one-day explosives course.) Then, in '98, a deranged former patroller from Homewood Resort, California, bombed a Tahoe City street corner with munitions he'd allegedly stolen from the ski area. Finally, along came September 11 and the Department of Homeland Security. So it's no surprise that ski resorts have come under examination that some fear could lead to an overhaul of avalanche control.

"Some manufacturers are getting less comfortable selling to ski-area operations, says Crested Butte patrol director Woody Sherwood. "They think we're a bunch of Marlboro-smoking cowboys throwing bombs. In fact, after the Big Sky incident, Ensign-Bickford quit supplying munitions to ski areas. For those still involved, what matters is injury prevention—and keeping deadly weapons away from any nut-job who wants to make a statement. Sounds easy, until you consider a federally conducted audit, released in early '03, that revealed the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees ski-area avy control on public lands, didn't know where several of its 319 explosives bunkers were located. (The USFS responded by bolstering its bomb-tracking system.)

To start tightening control, Congress passed a homeland security provision in 2003 that forbids nonresident aliens from handling explosives and requires stricter background checks. But the measure didn't stop a raid on the bomb cache at Winter Park Resort, Colorado, last March, where someone stole several hand charges (one charge is roughly equal to two sticks of dynamite). To experts, the incident proved that security will remain an issue. Says Ed Ryberg, USFS ski area program coordinator: "Anyone can find out where that stuff is.

But don't go pawning your fat skis and resigning yourself to the groomers; avalanche control is unlikely to go away any time soon. "It's not like we have an ax over our heads, says Doug Abromeit, director of the forest service's National Avalanche Center. "But all this scrutiny is going to make everyone stay on his game even more. Nonetheless, Crested Butte's Sherwood, and avy experts across the U.S., are nervous. "It's a whole new world since 9/11, he says. "I don't know what the net result will be. But if we have another problem, we could be in trouble.

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