Out of the Frying Pan, into the Fire

I’d been waiting all week for some snowfall and it came December 31st. It was 4am on New Years Day as I stood in the dark focusing as my breath made frosty clouds .

I wasn’t allowed to meet them earlier. This would have resulted in my discovery of the local cache. Instead I stood at the foot of the mountain with skis, camera, and transceiver, donning nothing more than a single long sleeved t-shirt and salopettes.  Strangely it wasn’t cold.

The previous day about 12 inches of snow had fallen at 1500m with the snowline being around 600m. Although 12 inches would not be enough to cause a devastating avalanche, the key, is to keep on top of it and not allow the snow to accumulate, especially when layered on top of older layer from the week before. In most ski resorts this is why you will often be tormented in the early hours by what you could be forgiven for thinking was howitzer! In fact that is exactly what they use in part of Canada.

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Overlooking Chatel Village

At this time the gonadal lay silent and I was half expecting to be hurtling up the mountain on snowmobiles.  Looking down at a steel ammunition case containing what I guessed was the dynamite, I quickly understood why the lift was a better option.

A colourful kaleidoscope of personalities stood the cabin with me, each sharing a subtle curiosity towards my camera but remaining too focused to engage.  We approach the top overlooking the town. On night where many had just taken to their beds, we’d soon be responsible for neglecting them of any sleep.

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Snowpack chart

Thomas, my guide for the morning, showed me the chart he’d created over the last few days. It showed the various layers within the snowpack consisting of numerous types of snow crystal. He continued to explain how they change as some melt and re-freeze, creating strong and weak layers which remain at slightly different temperatures. Using this information he built a picture of how unstable the snow would be given that 12 inches had just fallen the day before and then decided where to start blasting. I’d been accustom to reading snow stability on a basic level for some years but this detail was quite extraordinary.

It was still remarkably warm considering out altitude. The team of six broke off into three groups of two. I put on my skis, head torch and double checked my transceiver. Myself, Thomas and his partner set off towards a small cabin that resembled a ski lift with cables that vanished upwards into the darkness. It was a lift of sorts but one where the package wouldn’t ideally be taking a on-way trip.

dsc_0125The Catex, short for ‘Cable Explosives’, is a ski lift for bombs. We spent the next hour in the hut making up packages of dynamite, inserting a fuse of ‘just the right length’ and sending it on its way. The cable continues up the mountain and traverses various avalanche hot spots, some only 500 yards away and the furthest over 3 km. When the explosives are in the correct place they are released to fall down into the snow. The contraption that holds and releases the dynamite is then winched back to the hut.

dsc_0147My tight lips and subtle filches gave away my ignorance as they manhandled the sticks of dynamite around the room, tossing it to each other like we were in a sausage factory. “Don’t worry it is harmless, I’d sleep with this in my bed” Thomas assured me, again hitting it on the table with considerable force.

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Thomas implanting the fuse & detonator

He then demonstrated how a length of the special fuse has an extremely predictable burn rate at both room temperature and when covered in snow. They cut the fuse depending on how long it will take the dynamite to travel up the Catex and be released in the correct location. I took it for granted that a certain margin for error was considered. Firstly, a small bullet shaped detonator is pushed about an inch into the end of the stick and then followed by the fuse. He used his fingers to push the putty closed around the hole and seal in the fused detonator. Even if a naked flame was put to a stick of this explosive it could not trigger it. It requires a certain amount of energy in order to start a chain reaction and then the explosion.

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Gazex - Gas Powered Explosives

After 6-8 successful explosions it was now 6am. We headed back off to the gondola station with two rucksacks full of pre-made explosives. One of the other pairs were returning also. They had been to the Gazex control room (Gas Explosives) where they remotely activated the propane powered explosives located all over the mountain.  A gas storage room is dug into the mountainside where oxygen and propane is combined and ignited remotely. Rather than the force of the explosion pushing down on the snow, it is the negative pressure after the initial explosion that lifts up the snowpack and triggers an avalanche.

Both teams had successfully triggered avalanches further up the mountain and now it was safe to specifically target smaller slopes. The air crackled with anticipation. We were out of the frying pan and into the fire!

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Up to the col as the sun rises

Within 5 minutes we’d packed our skis on to a couple of snowmobiles and hurtled up the mountain. Within no time we reached the top of a col and prepared to ski off in deep power. At this point the sun was rising and it had suddenly become bitterly cold. I had gone from wearing just a long sleeve top to my jacket, hood and balaclava.  I have skied for over 20 years, I’d never witnessed such a sudden temperature change.  In broken English one of the other guides explained,  the temperature regularly drops at sunrise in the mountains. A few factors contribute to it but basically the rising sun triggers energy transfer between the snow and air causing it not only to cool but to become more humid and tranfer heat away from your body more quickly.

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Thomas lighting a fuse before thowing

We broke into two groups so that the job could be completed more quickly. Thomas would literally light a stick of dynamite by a short fuse and, by hand, launch it to the offending area. Before long we’d triggered several small but still dangerous avalanches. As my mind grappled with how tenuous and unlikely an avalanche would be, he reminded me that handling dynamite in this way was not especially safe but the only feasible way of delivering it so precisely. Sometimes the absence of awareness is enough,  but this proved to be especially challenging to photograph.  If caught in an avalanche while skiing the snow can like concrete. If you are not dug out within 15 minutes your chances of survival decrease exponentially as you become asphyxiated in a small air pocket formed my melting snow as you breathe.

dsc_01922By 8am we were down to the top gondola station again and the Snowcats had already been given the all clear to start grooming the slopes. The sun was now up and we could see the fruits of our labour. I was full of energy after an exhilarating start to the New Year with an empty mountain at my feet for the descent.

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