Want to know what Utah's Alta ski area got for Christmas this year? In addition to a seemingly neverending storm cycle that's dropped over 220 inches of fluffy Wasatch powder this season, they also have a new 105mm Howitzer to use for avalanche control.
Since Alta sits on U.S. Forest Service land, the Alta ski patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) are allowed to use heavy artillery for avalanche control. But at the end of last winter, UDOT was faced with a huge issue: The US Army no longer manufactures artillery rounds for their 105mm Recoilless Rifle.
Without the rifle, it would be impossible to control the avalanche slide paths in Little Cottonwood Canyon, where avalanche forecasters from Alta, Snowbird and UDOT monitor 165 target points on 33 avalanche slide paths above a road that can see more than 5,000 cars on a busy winter day.
So UDOT lobbied the Utah state government for approximately $375,000 to purchase a new 105mm Howitzer and build a new staging facility for the gun on Peruvian Ridge within the Alta ski area. The state granted them the money and the new gun, installed in late September, will fire approximately 200 rounds annually and it's rated to shoot up to 30,000 rounds.
"Currently there is no suitable alternative to artillery for avalanche control above the town of Alta," says Liam Fitzgerald, who's on a team of four UDOT avalanche forecasters charged with monitoring the snowpack in Little Cottonwood Canyon. "Without military artillery the town of Alta would either not exist, or look considerably different than it currently does. This new weapon will allow us to continue to make it possible for people to visit Alta and the surrounding area."
Fitzgerald and his team are stationed across the road from Alta ski area in a bunker-style avalanche command center, where they make daily snowpack assessments and decide whether or not to use artillery to control avalanche slide paths.
Artillery firing was first introduced as a method for avalanche control at Alta in 1949 by Monty Atwater, a founding father of avalanche research and control methods in North America. Alta is one of 22 ski areas on U.S. Forest Service land or state and federal agencies in the western United States that use artillery for avalanche control.