Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project Home
Montomery M. Atwater - The Avalanche Hunters
I concentrated on material pertinent to the Northwest or to the entire United States. I skimmed over stories about avalanche work in regions outside the Northwest.
Chapter 1 - Skiing and Avalanches
p. 4: When Alta, Utah was initially developed for skiing around 1940, Alf Engen and Felix C. Koziol, Wasatch National Forest supervisor, agreed that the public lease would provide for a Forest Service avalanche guard with authority to close the area based on avalanche conditions. In autumn 1945, Monty Atwater took the job after his discharge from the army. Atwater was a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division and a participant in the Kiska campaign. On December 27, 1945, Atwater took part in his first avalanche rescue mission, one that taught him several key factors for success (p. 14).
p. 20: Photo sequence of Ed LaChapelle triggering and surviving an avalanche on Peruvian Ridge at Alta.
p. 25: "To me the mystery has never been that it avalanches but that it usually stays on the mountain so well."
Chapter 2 - Snow and Avalanches
p. 16: The author describes being caught in an avalanche in Lone Pine Gully at Alta in January 1951.
Chapter 3 - Avalanche Research: The Beginning
p. 36: The Wellington avalanche below Stevens Pass on March 1, 1910, killed at least 96 people. Twenty-two people survived. The author provides a short account of the disaster.
p. 41: "The avalanche is the only one of the destructive natural forces that man can trigger at a time and place of his choosing. The Swiss were already using explosives to fight avalanches. I planned to do the same..."
p. 42: Andre Roch of the Swiss Avalanche Institute visited Alta during the winter of 1948-49. Roch's visit prompted the Forest Service to set up research stations in the Colorado Rockies and Washington Cascades.
Chapter 4 - Avalanche Control: Part One
p. 50: Atwater began using explosives to trigger avalanches during the winter of 1948-49. Tetrytol was the preferred explosive because of its high detonation rate. Forest Service regulations initially required electrical firing which was slow and restrictive. The author eventually switched to ignition fuses, which enabled him to "ski along a ridge tossing bombs like a newsboy delivering papers (p. 52)." This success led him to try using artillery (p. 57). Explosive avalanche control was almost too successful. "As the years went by and no one got killed in areas where snow rangers were on duty, the reactionaries crawled out of the bureaucratic woodwork, piping a new theme: 'What's the use of putting more money into avalanche research? An avalanche hardly raises its head now but you shoot it off.'" (p. 63)
Chapter 7 - Avalanche Research: Second Stage
p. 111: At the end of 1952, Atwater wrote the Forest Service's first Avalanche Handbook. This was almost entirely a single-handed effort, a compendium of what he had learned for himself or gleaned from others. In 1950 an avalanche center was established at Berthoud Pass, Colorado (under Dick Stillman) and later at Stevens Pass, Washington (under Frank Foto).
p. 114: "The man who should have been there in the first place came to Alta in 1952-53. To describe Ed LaChapelle is to write the specifications for an avalanche researcher: graduate physicist, glaciologist with a year's study at the Avalanche Institute, skilled craftsman in the shop, expert ski mountaineer."
p. 120: In 1953, Frank Foto made a classic storm study at Stevens Pass, manually recording snowfall every hour for 103 hours straight. During the storm, 136 inches of snow fell, at intensities as high as five inches per hour. The Precipitation Intensity, a metric developed by Atwater, never reached one. There were no avalanches.
p. 113: By 1961, all the avalanche research stations operated by the Forest Service except Alta had been closed down. Research picked up gradually after being disrupted by the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic Games (p. 169).
Chapter 10 - Avalanche Research: Third Stage
p. 169: In 1961, Ed LaChapelle edited a revised and updated version of the Forest Service Avalanche Handbook. It was both a comprehensive textbook and a practical manual of operations for avalanche hunters.
p. 182: On March 5, 1910, just days after the Wellington disaster, nearly sixty men in a railroad plow crew were killed by an avalanche at Rogers Pass.
p. 183: During the winters from 1954-56, Noel Gardner led survey parties on skis to gather avalanche information for a potential highway route over Rogers Pass. The pass was chosen for the trans-Canada highway in 1956 and construction took place between 1959 and 1962.
p. 184: Avalanche research in Canada is supported by the country's National Research Council. In the U.S., avalanche research is "the stepchild of the Forest Service, and not a particularly welcome one either."
p. 186: In 1968, Dr. Lawton of the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory designed a radio transmitter that sends out a directional beep tone that can be picked up by any transistor radio. Ed LaChapelle made improvements in the circuit and power supply and called the system the Snow Ranger Finder. (LaChapelle's version of the story reverses the two men's role in developing the Skadi. See lachapelle-ed.)
p. 187: In 1966, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service declared that the Service was in the avalanche business to stay. He decreed that the Forest Service has a basic responsibility for public safety on National Forest ski areas. "Thus, for the first time since a snow ranger marched out with the assigned job of protecting people from avalanches at Alta in 1945, the push [came] from the top," writes the author.
Chapter 13 - Conclusion
p. 223: "After twenty years, there has yet to be a skier killed in the Western Hemisphere, by an avalanche, who was under the wing of an avalanche hunter, unless he made an elementary mistake such as passing a CLOSED AREA sign or the equivalent."
Return to the Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project home page