The Telluride Ski Patrol got a jump on their avalanche mitigation work last week, bombarding the high reaches of Palmyra Peak and the slopes of Gold Hill with the help of two very special new acquisitions.
Two vintage 105-mm Howitzer guns settled into their new posts on the Telluride Ski Resort, bringing with them a new dimension in avalanche control. Telluride joins only a handful of other ski resorts in the nation, and is the only resort in Colorado, to have been granted a permit to utilize Howitzers in their avalanche control program.
“It’s going to provide dramatic improvement to employee safety – that’s the bottom line,” said the Telluride Ski Resort’s Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz of the patrol’s new Avalanche Artillery Control Program, which utilizes the completely refurbished WWII weapons in combat against the San Juans’ notoriously menacing enemy – its avalanche-prone snowpack.
The Howitzers, on lease from the U.S. Army, arrived in Telluride at the end of October and have since been stationed at two different locations in the Prospect Bowl area. From there, the guns will be able to provide the safest and most effective means to control the steep slopes of the resort’s recently opened hike-to terrain on Palmyra Peak and Gold Hill.
The Howitzers are “the best possible tool out there,” thanks to their long range, reliability, and accuracy, Sterbenz said. They will make opening those extreme slopes a much less daunting task for the Telluride Ski Patrol’s workers, whose only option in the past for controlling some of the area’s highest slopes was to run explosives routes by hand.
And unlike the Avalauncher, which has been used on the Telluride Ski Resort for avalanche control for close to 20 years, the Howitzers can be shot in poor visibility conditions, and have a much lower misfire rate. While the Avalauncher misfired about 38 percent of the time (in other words, launched a dud about four out of every ten times,) the Howitzer’s misfire rate is a mere quarter of one percent.
“They give us the ability to precisely and reliably place our explosives where we want them,” said Sterbenz, noting that while the guns’ effectiveness will likely lead to the patrol being able to open those areas faster on snow mornings, the time-saving element wasn’t the driving factor behind pushing to install them: A safe work environment, on the other hand, was.
A select group of Telluride Ski Patrollers received extensive on-hill training last week, with three-decade TSP veteran Sterbenz taking the honor of initiating the first Howitzer shot in Telluride Ski Area history. Acquiring Howitzers for avalanche control at Telluride has been a project 20 years in the making, spearheaded by the patrol’s distinguished Snow Safety Director Sterbenz.
Ever since skiers have been tapping into the steep and avalanche-prone slopes of Gold Hill, Sterbenz has had his eye on acquiring a Howitzer. But as the last nearly two decades of pushing for Howitzers at Telluride has proven, getting the required permits isn’t easy.
In fact, Telluride joins Mt. Hood Meadows, in Oregon, as the only two ski resorts in modern history to be granted permits by the U.S. Forest Service to operate an Avalanche Artillery Control Program. Resorts like Taos, Jackson Hole, Mammoth Mountain, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, Alta, and Snowbird received permits to operate Howitzers in their snow safety programs prior to the late 1960s, after which the privatization of government programs undertaken while President Nixon was in office made it virtually impossible to receive new permits for Howitzer use at ski areas in the United States. That was until now.
Sterbenz, a veritable guru in the field of snow science, has been studying avalanches in Telluride for nearly three decades. He has been pushing a Howitzer program here for years, and was recently approached by Mt. Hood Meadows operators to assist them in applying for a permit to initiate a Howitzer program as well.
With strong support from Telluride Ski and Golf Company CEO Dave Riley, Sterbenz and the Telluride Ski Area embarked upon a research and paperwork-heavy route to getting through the dense bureaucracy surrounding Howitzer permitting. Riley sent a formal request to the U.S. Forest Service, after which an outside consultant visited Telluride to confirm that an artillery program was indeed necessary here, and furthermore verify that Howitzers were the only tools able to provide adequate avalanche mitigation for Telluride’s terrain. The proposal was then formally accepted, and Telluride was granted a permit to initiate an Avalanche Artillery Control program with their newly acquired Howitzers.
Telluride’s two Howitzers were first used by the Army around 1938, but had been sitting idle since 1959. After undergoing complete refurbishments this summer, the two guns arrived in Telluride from Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base on October 30. Telluride Ski Patrol Supervisor Keith Renke has been trained as the program’s head gunner, assisted by a group of specially trained veteran Telluride ski patrollers.
"It represents a new day for the Telluride Ski Resort in terms of what we're doing to get these steep slopes open, and create a safer environment for our patrollers," Riley said of the Resort's new Howitzer program.
The firing and training on the Howitzers will continue next week, in preparation for the ski resort’s Thanksgiving opening day on November 27.