Avalanche control team keeps Tahoe slopes safe

The late-season snow storms brought a bounty, but also danger to some Lake Tahoe ski resorts.

March 29, 2011 8:02:34 PM PDT
The late-season snow storms brought a bounty, but also danger to some Lake Tahoe ski resorts and experts are using explosives to bring down all that snow safely.

Heavenly's Killebrew Canyon is home to some of the steepest terrain in North America and as enticing as the steeps are to expert skiers, with the thrill, comes risk.

"The slope angle is a big part of what's required for an avalanche," ski patrol Colton Terry said.

Terry along with Erik Birkholm are members of Heavenly's Avalanche Control Team. After the recent storms, it's their job to bring down the snow on their terms and in Killebrew Canyon, there's still some work to be done with a synthetic explosive that packs the punch of two sticks of dynamite.

"And we hang them with rope, over the top of cornices to take the legs out, so to speak," Terry said.

On this day, Birkholm is the one who lights the fuse, throws the explosive over the cornice, then moves away. When the canyon is too dangerous to ski, the team will use a giant gun called an 'avalauncher.'

"It holds compressed air, we put rockets in it and shoot it out with compressed air. We can fire this off and reduce some of the risk before we sent out the teams with hand-placed charges," Birkholm said.

Whatever the method, the motive is to make sure Heavenly's steeps stay safe.