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The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
Wednesday, March 17, 2004
Montana Warning: Don't Get in the Way Of the 'Avalauncher'
Weapon Prevents Snowslides, But Shots Can Go Awry; Ski Resorts Head to Court
By Christina Binkley
BIG SKY, Mont. -- To the dangers of skiing, add the possibility of getting hit
by shrapnel. At the Big Sky Resort, ski patrollers are worried about blasts
from a neighboring ski resort called Moonlight Basin Ranch. "We don't like them
shooting at us," says Taylor Middleton, general manager of Big Sky, which is
seeking a court injunction against the blasts.
Ski-slope weapons are fired in the name of safety. To prevent avalanches after
snowfalls and spring melts, resort operators like to blast unstable piles of
snow before the day's skiing begins. That assures patrons they won't be buried
in a surprise slough.
Things get tricky when two ski resorts are neighbors. Big Sky, a venerable name
in Montana's ski business, and newcomer Moonlight Basin are separated only by a
For its everyday avalanche-blasting needs, Moonlight Basin fires a gun called
an avalauncher. It's a nitrogen-fueled cannon whose blasts often go astray. So
far none of its rounds have landed on Big Sky's side of the mountain. Lee
Poole, Moonlight's co-owner, says it's "ridiculous" to talk about such
dangers. "It's impossible, with all the systems we have in place, for anything
to happen," he says.
Big Sky used to fire its own avalaunchers in a direction that could have put
Moonlight Basin's turf at risk. But it stopped last November, fearing
casualties. Then it sued Moonlight last month in Madison County District Court,
seeking a permanent injunction against the artillery fire, among other things.
The court hasn't ruled yet on the request.
The avalauncher is among the biggest of ski slope weapons. Ski patrollers also
lob small bombs at avalanche-prone areas, and some fire antitank weapons. If
successful, the force of the explosion triggers an avalanche while people are
at a safe distance. Then patrollers head in, using their skis to test and
compact the snow. "It's like using the artillery before the ground troops go
in," says Alex Hassman, a Moonlight Basin patroller.
Several ski areas in Europe, South America and the U.S. share the problem of
too-close neighbors. In Utah, the ski areas of Alta and Snowbird are back-to-
back. "We have to be real careful because we shoot at each other, essentially,"
says Onno Wieringa, Alta's president and general manager.
Alta fires more than 10,000 pounds of explosives each year at its slopes. In
addition to a half-dozen avalaunchers, Mr. Wieringa counts on an Army-surplus
105mm recoilless rifle loaded with antitank rounds. On early mornings when
these weapons are deployed, the ski area asks patrons to stay inside "so they
don't go home with a shrapnel wound," Mr. Wieringa says.
Alta and Snowbird communicate constantly by cellphone and radio. But in
Montana, Big Sky and Moonlight Basin haven't achieved detente.
Big Sky was the retirement dream of NBC newscaster Chet Huntley. He helped
persuade investors to buy land around the south slope of Lone Mountain, an
11,166-foot-high peak between Bozeman, Mont., and Wyoming's Yellowstone
National Park. The ski area opened in 1973, a few months before Mr. Huntley's
death. It was sold in 1976 to Boyne USA Resorts, a family-owned ski company
based in Boyne Falls, Mich.
Boyne expanded Big Sky, creating ski runs as long as six miles. It built
condominiums, hotels and a small shopping mall. In 1995, Moonlight Basin Ranch
developed the north slope of Lone Mountain. At first Big Sky managed the
Moonlight slope. Then last summer Moonlight struck out on its own and tripled
the size of its resort.
As it geared up last fall, Moonlight bought a new $10,000 avalauncher and
placed it on a windswept steel platform below the ridgeline. The gun aims up at
a wide bowl that represents some of the resort's steepest, most avalanche-prone
terrain. It's also popular territory for expert skiers.
While heavy snowfall is a big cause of avalanches, the danger remains in April
and May, when snow warms and can suddenly crash down the slopes. Avalanche
deaths are rising along with the popularity of extreme sports. Last year, 30
people died in avalanches in the U.S. -- half of them snowmobilers -- up from
13 a decade ago. But it's rare for anyone to meet with a killer avalanche in a
patrolled ski area. That's happened only once since 1987, according to the
American Avalanche Association.
Lone Mountain, the peak shared by Big Sky and Moonlight, is rated Class-A for
avalanches, meaning they're almost a daily risk. If Moonlight didn't use the
avalauncher, patrollers would be forced to hike nearly an hour along the
treacherous ridgeline, where they would bomb the bowl with hand-tossed charges
before skiing down. "It isn't for the faint of heart," says Burt Mills,
Moonlight's chief executive.
To prevent accidents, Moonlight uses welded safety guards to control the
avalauncher's aim. It also calls Big Sky to warn of impending fire. Then Big
Sky clears lift attendants, patrollers and other employees from the area for a
half hour or so until the bombing stops. Big Sky complains that this frequently
causes it to miss its promised 9 a.m. opening time.
On its side, Big Sky can reach the ridge more easily via a gondola that spirits
skiers 1,450 feet up the summit. Patroller Mike Buotte and two other blasting
experts work from "the fort" -- a 12-by-16-foot slope-side cabin that houses
precast explosives, fuses and blasting caps.
A slightly built 35-year-old, Mr. Buotte (pronounced Bee-aht) was caught and
nearly buried two years ago in an avalanche he inadvertently set off as he was
skiing. After it was over, he pulled his feet out of his boots and skis in
order to free himself from the snow, then dug them out and continued working.
"It's good work," he says, glancing around at miles of the Northern Rockies
wilderness. "I'm getting paid right now, you know."
All the blast residues on his clothes and equipment make him a frequent
detainee at airport security counters these days. He carries a letter from the
resort that explains what he does for a living.
On a recent morning, he and 42-year-old Eddie Garcia got started just after
daybreak. In the fort, they assembled a hand charge by attaching two 90-second
fuses to a 2-pound cast of a mixture of TNT and PETN, another explosive. Double
fuses offer more assurance that the bomb won't end up a dud -- which would then
have to be tenderly retrieved. They headed out on snowmobiles.
At the summit, Mr. Buotte lit the fuses and dangled the explosives on a 60-foot
string, using the ridge he was standing on to shield him from the blast. Mr.
Garcia hid behind the concrete gondola base and counted down the seconds. Both
men plugged their fingers in their ears and opened their mouths to equalize the
pressure from the concussive explosion that followed.
They also used the avalauncher -- but in keeping with Big Sky's unilateral
ceasefire, they only aimed in the opposite direction from Moonlight. The
avalauncher is as big as a prone body, with three long metal tubes. "Breach is
open, ready to load!" Mr. Buotte hollered. The pair inserted the round. "Fire
in the hole!" Mr. Garcia shouted. With a percussive boom, a crater appeared in
the snow across the slope.
With a groan, Mr. Buotte noted that the round hit roughly 75 feet off target.
Unlike bullets, these rounds don't spin as they travel, making them highly
inaccurate. "These things come out like a knuckleball in baseball," says Mr.
It's the kind of misfire that concerns Mr. Middleton, Big Sky's general
manager. "I have no doubt that the Moonlight operation is attempting to be
safe," he says. "But it's human beings operating machines and mistakes happen."
Not to worry, says Moonlight's Mr. Poole. "Could we [inadvertently] launch a
round over the top of that?" he asks, staring up at the lofty peak. "It's about
as possible as getting hit by a meteor."