Time For a New Approach to Avalanche Control on Mt. Hood

Wy'east windslab

Winter has come to an end for Mt Hood ski areas and we can be thankful for a yet another great snow year and a relatively calm and safe season for Oregon’s skiers. This was the first season for Mt Hood Meadows Ski Area to use Howitzer artillery shells in avalanche control, yet its sensibility has already been called into question by snow safety practitioners.

Artillery control has been used by larger, steeper resorts like Alta and Jackson Hole for nearly 60 years by shooting and detonating a 105mm artillery shell to induce avalanches. While this type of avalanche control has allowed ski patrollers to remotely trigger high-risk avalanche targets in steeper, harder-to-access terrain, it is being reconsidered by snow safety officials at these areas because of the unintended danger the process poses to other mountain users.

It seems archaic and untimely that Oregon’s Mt. Hood Meadows would now begin this form of avalanche control when industry-leading snow safety specialists are reconsidering or abandoning it due to public safety concerns. This, coupled with Mt Hood Meadows’ prohibition of backcountry access through ski area boundaries, leads us to question the integrity and consideration of safety in Mt. Hood Meadows’ snow control policy.

Increasingly, ski areas throughout the nation are being forced to share their terrain with a rapidly growing population of backcountry skiers. According to industry trends research, backcountry ski equipment sales have increased an average of 129% annually since 2001 with a 53% increase in sales of accessories. Most ski areas are accommodating this trend, taking a holistic approach and allowing ski area users to access backcountry terrain through resort boundaries in exchange for signing a liability waiver. Whitewater Ski Area in Nelson, British Columbia operates on this system while many other ski areas also allow access after a quick check-in with ski patrol prior to exiting ski area boundaries to verify an awareness of current avalanche conditions.

Snowrider PDX is encouraging Mt Hood Meadows to think proactively about future development and land usage and seek new methods of avalanche control and backcountry access that do not endanger backcountry skiers and adventurers. Additionally, we are urging Mt Hood Meadows, the U.S. Forest Service, and Hood River County to spend the 2009 summer and fall devising new, safe methods for avalanche control that ensure the safety of all mountain recreationalists. As the lessons of Alta and Jackson Hole have shown, while snow sports grow in popularity, a new, holistic approach to ski area operations is absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of all.

-Michael Harrison
herzogsiesta [at] yahoo [dot] com

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