June 14, 2008

Alta Studying New Lift to Cut Avalanche Risk

The use of old Army artillery for avalanche control is nearing an end.

So Alta Ski Area is toying with building a lift up the south-facing slope of Flagstaff Mountain and letting skiers help reduce the risk by compacting the snowpack.

This spring, Alta hired engineering consultant Beat VonAllmen to stake out a possible lift line up the mountain from just above the Little Cottonwood Canyon road, across the canyon from Alta's main facilities.

"I was watching it snow this spring and thought that this [end of artillery usage] is coming up fast on us and we need to do some homework," said Onno Wieringa, Alta's general manager.

"If anyone is going to build a lift in 3-5 years, they need to do all sorts of preliminary studies -- on capacity, where it will go, things like that. This is simply a homework step that was easy to do because there was so much snow and the contractor was available."

Wieringa knows the idea of a lift on that side of the canyon triggers heartburn in backcountry skiers, who fear it would make it far too easy for the masses to reach prime out-of-resort locations.

Carl Fisher, interim executive director of Save Our Canyons, said his group will monitor the evolving proposal closely to protect those interests and to challenge any attempts to use a lift to justify a ski-interconnect system with other northern Utah resorts.

Wieringa cautioned that any proposed changes in the avalanche control system -- erecting a lift, installing more Gazex concussion systems, building snow sheds over the canyon road or relocating it -- will be subject to environmental analysis by the U.S. Forest Service.

"Before anything is built, it will go through the process, get a hard look and we'll involve all parties," concurred Forest Service snow ranger Steve Scheid.

"We recognize the controversy. But this is part of the informal discovery period, where they're looking at all the issues. Right now there are more questions than answers," he said.

It's clear the number of shells available to the Wasatch Front's crack avalanche control team -- led by the Utah Department of Transportation but including the resorts and Forest Service -- is dwindling.

A 2006 study indicated the stockpile could last 9-12 years, but Wieringa said more recent estimates reduce that to five or six (about 500 rounds are used annually in two recoilless rifles and a howitzer).

In addition, he and Scheid said the Army is increasing pressure to discontinue the use of artillery, citing the dangers of shooting weapons over buildings and into areas where increasing numbers of "dawn patrol" skiers are out recreating, often unseen.

Pressure intensified after a howitzer being used for avalanche control work in Provo Canyon overshot its mark in April of 2005, dropping a 20-pound shell in the back yard of a Pleasant Grove home.

But replacing artillery is complex and expensive. Without it, the Avalanche Hazard Index for parts of Little Cottonwood Canyon is pegged at 1,045 -- on a scale in which 150 means very high.

With artillery and a bypass road between Snowbird and Alta, the risk has been reduced to a still high 104.

The 2006 study said skier compaction could be an alternative means of protecting Alta.

"Compaction reduces the likelihood of large deep-slab avalanches by mixing and strengthening snow layers," it noted.

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A winter for skiing

--SKI UTAH will release its 2007-08 skier visit total Monday. It will likely be down slightly from previous winter's record of 4.1 million.

--COLORADO Ski Country USA counted 12.54 million visits this winter, just under previous year's record 12.57 million.

--VERMONT resorts attracted 4.4 million, up 14 percent from winter before, "well above" its 10-year average.

--NEW HAMPSHIRE slopes were visited by 2.37 million people, 9,000 more than the record 2006-07 season.


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