MOUNTAIN VILLAGE — Taj Simon is charging up the narrow, windswept ridge. “Come on dad. Let’s go!” he yells to his father, Garrett, who is carrying the 7-year-old’s skis.
The valley locals are atop Black Iron Bowl, a steep basin below Telluride’s Palmyra Peak, a good 20-minute hike up from the top of the Prospect chairlift. Below them spills a bounty of steep powder, lined with rocky chutes.
In a backcountry scenario, the terrain would trigger some serious scrutiny, especially in this exceptionally active avalanche season. But this is Telluride’s famous hike-to inbounds terrain and ski patrollers for weeks have been shelling the bowl and the peak above it with a barrage of explosives, including mortars fired from Colorado skiing’s only World War II cannons.
“They’ve been howitzering the heck out of this in the last month. I have a high level of confidence in the snow here,” Simon says, shortly before chasing his beyond-expert son into the downy fluff, leaving wispy trails of cold smoke billowing around their knees. “I have 100 percent confidence in our ski patrol and maybe then some.”
The steepest ski areas in Colorado — Silverton Mountain, Crested Butte, Wolf Creek, Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Highlands and Telluride — deploy a wide array of strategies when it comes to reducing the risk of avalanches on inbounds terrain. Telluride stands out with a customized snow-compaction rolling machine, avalanche dogs trained to find buried people, a helicopter, Avalaunchers and a pair of howitzers, giving the steep-and-deep ski area one of the largest and most diverse tool boxes in all of North American skiing when it comes to mitigating avalanche hazards.
Every day of the ski season and in the weeks before lifts turn, dozens of Telluride ski patrollers study, stomp, ski and bomb every patch of steep snow in the 2,000-acre ski area. After every significant snowfall, before the chairs open, 36 Telluride ski patrollers, working in teams of two, fire Avalauncher rounds and throw hundreds of pounds of explosives into more than 300 avalanche hazards across the resort, from huge slide paths to tiny terrain traps.
“Still, and I need to say this right up front, there is no way to make avalanche terrain completely safe,” said Jon Tukman, the snow safety director at Telluride. He isn’t really fond of the word “safety” in his job title because there is no such thing as completely safe snow on any slope greater than 25 degrees. “There is no way to remove all the uncertainty around avalanches without removing all the snow.”
That lesson was painfully revealed at New Mexico’s Taos ski area in January, when an avalanche released on terrain patrollers had already bombed, sweeping two men to their deaths. They were the first avalanche fatalities in the 64-year-old resort’s history. But in Telluride — as in Taos and every other ski area with expert terrain — avalanche mitigation efforts are more robust than ever, with increasingly innovative mitigation strategies making inbounds avalanches exceptionally rare.
Of the 261 avalanche fatalities recorded in the U.S. between 2008 and 2018, six involved skiers on open terrain at a ski area, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center data compiled by the National Ski Areas Association. In those 10 seasons, there were about 441 million skier visits logged at U.S. ski areas. Seven of the 261 avalanche fatalities in that decade were ski patrollers, most of whom were conducting avalanche mitigation work.
Colorado almost always has a sketchy snowpack, thanks to early-season snow that turns to sugary facets, creating a weak layer that can release and send a season’s worth of snowfall barreling down mountains. The threat of a persistent slab avalanche reached epic proportions this week when the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an unprecedented warning across all of Central Colorado, urging everyone to avoid the backcountry with a forecast predicting “historic avalanches reaching valley floors.” The condition was so dire that Arapahoe Basin ski area did not open on Thursday.
And the San Juans of southern Colorado have the least stable snowpack in the state, with steep, rocky, wind-buffed slopes harboring snow all too ready to release.
The key to reducing the risk of catastrophic slides on that ground-level weak layer is to attack the snow early with every type of compaction possible. Crested Butte, Aspen Highlands and Silverton Mountain deploy armies of walking skiers to the resorts’ steepest pitches to break down the weak layer, often weeks before lifts even start turning. Those bootpackers knock the fragility out of that faceted bottom layer, breaking up the smooth, yet unstable, surface of the snow, making it more likely to bond with new layers of snow. Telluride ski patrollers this season started in October, skiing onto rocky slopes with barely 12 inches of snow to tear up the weak layer.
“One of the reasons you see big avalanches in the backcountry and so few in the resorts is because the resorts areas have been compacted, bombed repeatedly, avalanched and ski cut,” Tukman says. “Compaction is key to resort avalanche mitigation.”
Telluride also employs the Bosse Roller, a three-wheeled, remote-controlled tractor that connects to the winch of a snowcat and is lowered onto steep snow, where its paddles churn through early season snow, breaking down that weak layer. Created by Mark Bosse, a lift mechanic at Telluride, the tractor-tired roller is now used to beat down early-season snowpack at Monarch, Copper Mountain, Winter Park and Arapahoe Basin. A patroller with a remote control device at the bottom of the slope can steer the roller as its lowered from the winch on the snowcat above.
Bosse also designs and builds bomb trams from his Unique Fabrications shop in Norwood. Telluride patrollers once cobbled together the trolleys with snowmaking pipes and old chairlift pieces, creating a bomb-ferrying system that allows them to drop explosives into zones without actually being in that zone. Bosse’s trams are much easier to use and less cumbersome. His trams are strung above avalanche-prone slopes across Colorado ski slopes, including his most recent iterations at Arapahoe Basin’s newly opened Steep Gullies, creating a sort-of miniature chairlift for bombs.
Telluride patrollers also access terrain off Palmyra Peak, a 13,320-foot, north-facing pyramid that towers over the ski area, using the Eurocopter AS350 B3e AStar helicopter from nearby heli-skiing outfit Helitrax. The peak, with 50-degree chutes and 2,000 vertical-feet of skiing, opened in the winter of 2007-08 and requires about two hours of hard hiking to reach the summit. The peak offers some of the most extreme inbounds skiing on the continent. Last season, with one of the worst snowfalls in recent memory, Palmyra Peak never even opened.
The peak has the kind of terrain that really requires a helicopter for avalanche mitigation, much like Silverton Mountain, which has an AStar helicopter for heli-skiing and avalanche work. The Telluride team also uses the Helitrax helicopter to stash rescue and mitigation tools high on the ridge so patrollers don’t have to carry equipment and explosives on the grueling hike to the summit.
“It’s such a great tool. You can get several days worth of work done in 10 minutes with the helicopter,” Tukman says a few hours after hiking up Palmyra and skiing to a precipitous pitch to dig a snowpit and study the snow for treacherous layers that may shed a slab of snow. “It’s one of our most effective mitigation tools.”
And then there are the two howitzers, which the ski area installed in 2008. Locked in steel and concrete bunkers in remote corners of the ski area well off the trails, the cannons precisely fire shells into hanging snowfields on Palmyra. For the past decade, Telluride patrollers have used the howitzers — at least one of which, the one patrollers call Lynx, was fired in every U.S. military conflict from WWII through Desert Storm before the Army retired it — to trigger controlled avalanches on Palmyra.
The howitzers, on loan from the Army, are part of a Forest Service program that allows about eight ski areas across the U.S. to use artillery for avalanche mitigation. Oregon’s Mount Hood, California’s Kirkwood, Mammoth and Alpine Meadows, Lee Canyon in southern Nevada and Alta in Utah all use howitzers to help trigger controlled avalanches on remote, hard-to-access terrain. (Transportation departments in Alaska, California, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming also use military artillery to reduce avalanche danger.)
Through the Forest Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the military, ski patrollers undergo training, inspections and annual qualification tests — in addition to qualifying for state explosives licenses — to be a part of the howitzer program, which has every resort using the same type of M101A1 cannon. The National Ski Areas Association works closely with the Forest Service and ATF, making sure federal regulations guarding the storage, security, safety and accountability of explosives are followed. Uniformity and military standard operating procedures are essential when civilians use military weapons.
“What’s really the key about this program is that repetition and not deviating from that training standard or our operating procedures. We want to do the same thing every time,” says Scott Spielman, the U.S. Forest Service’s recreation manager for the Norwood Ranger District of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, who oversees Telluride’s avalanche artillery program.
In the Telluride howitzer bunkers there are maps and lists and procedural guidelines on every wall. With each shot, the team of patrollers roll through a host of double- and triple-checked processes. While every firing is documented on paper, Tukman records each shot on a 3D mapping app on his iPhone, part of a comprehensive computer program used by the patrollers to chart every compaction, explosive, ski cut and avalanche during the season, creating an annual database of every aspect of the patrol’s mitigation work.
“The howitzer is part of a public-private partnership in the name of public safety, but without the federal-to-federal connection, it would not happen,” Spielman says.
The tragic Taos avalanche on on Kachina Peak on Jan. 17 that killed Matthew Zonghetti, 26, of Massachusetts, and Vail’s 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari is one of very few fatal slides in the U.S. to happen on inbounds terrain that had been mitigated.
When fatal inbounds avalanches do happen, families often sue. And they never win. A wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the January 2012 avalanche death of 28-year-old Christopher Norris in dense trees at Winter Park’s Mary Jane ski area went to the Colorado Supreme Court. The high court ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing and resorts could not be held liable under the Colorado Ski Safety Act. That 40-year-old pioneering legislation outlines a litany of inherent dangers — like varying terrain, weather and snow conditions — that skiers must assume responsibility for when they ride at a resort.
Lawyers for the Norris family argued that if avalanches were an inherent risk of skiing, then resorts would not have any reason to mitigate the hazards posed by avalanches. It’s an argument that to this day riles ski patrollers and resort operators.
Bill Jensen, the part-owner and chief executive of Telluride ski area, said he never, ever pushes his patrollers to open terrain.
“I sent out something to patrol this season that said I realize that some of our terrain may not open at all this year, and that’s OK. I’m totally fine with that,” says Jensen, a couple days before Tukman and his team opened Palmyra for the first time in two seasons. “They drive the process, and that’s the key in a resort like this.”
After last season — with its paltry snowfall challenging patrollers trying to open steep terrain — Tukman and his team learned a few things. Primarily, they should never wait to get out and start compacting early-season snow. It’s hard to predict what the future may hold in terms of snowfall, but whatever happens, Tukman says, “get out on that new snow anyway you can, if it’s even remotely possible.”
Like Jensen, he bristles at the idea that the Colorado Supreme Court gives him legal cover to slack on reducing the risk of avalanches.
“No court decision is going to change the way anyone in this business — and certainly not at this resort — operates when it comes to avalanche mitigation,” he says. “It won’t change the way we do things. We have every reason in the world to reduce the risks at Telluride.”