It’s the end of an era for ‘The Last Gunners’ as Alta’s howitzer falls silent
“I have been a gunner since 2008 and it wakes you up in the morning,” said Dave Richards, the director of the Alta Avalanche Office. “It's better than coffee by a long shot.”
Seventy-five years ago, dislodging unsafe snow through firepower was pioneered at Alta “when a gentleman named Monty Atwater started shooting military artillery for avalanche mitigation in Little Cottonwood Canyon, it was state of the art and was unheard of.”
“It was Atwater and the Snow Rangers of Little Cottonwood Canyon that developed it and it spread all over the world,” he explained. “There are people using artillery to mitigate avalanches in places like Canada and Afghanistan and it all started here.”
But, after all those years, the howitzer’s booming report will no longer reverberate off the steep walls of the canyon. Time comes for everything and the resort is now relying on new Remote Avalanche Control Systems. These “alien” looking pods are installed on slide-prone sites and use hydrogen and oxygen to create a concussive blast.
“In the modern era, there are newer, safer, more effective methods of doing avalanche mitigation that don't involve the use of Second World War surplus military artillery,” said Richards.
The howitzers might be silenced, but their history won’t be forgotten. A new mini-documentary, “The Last Gunners,” tells the story of how Richards and others before him went about the cannon’s avalanche work.
“There's a lot of power involved with shooting artillery, and as much as it looks like great fun playing with big guns, it's not,” Richards intoned. “It's work and we take it very, very seriously.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Pamela McCall: What was it like firing the howitzer for the last time knowing that it was going to be retired?
Dave Richards: It was kind of sad, honestly. Like I said, it's been a wonderful tool and it's been really fun being part of that history. At the same time, it was very, very gratifying. When I took the position as the director of Alta’s Avalanche program, one of my goals was to get us out of the artillery business. It was time. The time had come and it feels wonderful to have achieved that goal.
PM: In “The Last Gunner,” you describe using howitzers to save lives instead of taking them. Why do you say there's something really romantic about it?
DR: There's the sense of being part of history. In the ‘40s when Atwater developed the artillery program, nobody knew that it would be the tool for avalanche mitigation for a long time. And to be part of that story has been wonderful. My father was part of that story too. He was an artillery gunner for avalanche work in Little Cottonwood Canyon in the ‘70s, and I feel honored to share in kind of that romantic history of avalanche work.
PM: So how does the new technology work?
DR: We call them “racks” affectionately — which are Remote Avalanche Control Systems. They're permanently fixed to the mountainside, and we can remotely fire these things to trigger avalanches at a time and place of our choosing. It's safe for the avalanche worker and can literally be done from a computer inside. There's no avalanche worker stepping out onto the slope; there's no projectile flying through the air. It also changes your avalanche forecasting program radically. We now have our explosives fixed in certain locations, so you have to really think about which one you need to shoot and when to trigger avalanches to provide the highest margin of safety for the skier within the area or that person transiting the highway.
PM: The howitzer sounds like an old Buick that you could get under with a wrench and fix it, whereas the new computer-generated system sounds quite fiddly.
DR: We figured out most of the kinks, and we are very confident in the reliability and how they work. That said, things break. The old Buick breaks. The brand-new Tesla breaks. You know, things just break and especially working in very, very harsh mountain environments. And artillery breaks too. We have great confidence in the fancy toys. We really do.