Avalanche control takes know-how, ingenuity

Associated Press

SNOQUALMIE PASS — The tools used to guard against avalanches in the Cascades are nothing fancy: an empty salsa jar, a beer can, bubble gum and a surplus Army tank.

They’re the low-tech trappings of a poorly funded network of snow scientists, skiers and winter backcountry experts the region depends on for avalanche defense.

"We’re barely able to keep everything running," said Craig Wilbour, avalanche-control chief at Snoqualmie Pass for the state Department of Transportation.

Wilbour and his three-man seasonal crew work on a budget of $200,000, which leaves little money left over to buy things such as solar detectors that cost $1,000 a pop, a Seattle newspaper reported.

So they improvise.

Wilbour, who grew up in a mining town and knows how to make do with less, bought some cheap solar cells and transistors at RadioShack, soldered them together with wires and placed them in the salsa jar.

"It works fine," he said with a shrug.

Solar radiation is one of several real-time measurements needed to assess avalanche risk. Wind, precipitation, snowpack and temperature are also tracked constantly on the computer in Wilbour’s office.

Avalanches kill two or three people each year in Washington state — home to the worst avalanche disaster in American history. In 1910, 96 people were killed when two trains that had stopped on the west side of Stevens Pass were hit by massive avalanches.

Those who run the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, based out of the National Weather Service’s Seattle Office, are trying to keep history from repeating itself, even as they face budget cuts.

"A lot of people think the avalanche center is a luxury," said center director Mark Moore, one of the nation’s leading avalanche experts. "They don’t understand that it’s at the core of a community of people who perform a critical service."

The center squeaks by on about $240,000 a year from the state transportation department, state and national park services, the weather service, ski resorts and the British Columbia Ministry of Highways and Transportation.

"For some reason, it’s always been very difficult to get funding for avalanche work," Moore said.

Less than two weeks into the winter season, snow levels have already reached 120 percent to 140 percent of normal, and the recent stretch of sunshine and cold nights are likely to increase avalanche risk by creating frost layers that weaken the structure of the snowpack.

At Stevens Pass, the transportation department uses a donated Vietnam-era tank to fire shells at the riskiest slopes. It’s a tough task when the clouds roll in and obscure the targets.

Moore and his colleagues maintain and operate 21 remote weather stations monitoring avalanche and mountain weather conditions in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia to compile the most comprehensive avalanche information database in the nation.

They can only spare so much time hiking out to check on their remote weather stations. Once, they discovered a magnet had fallen off a precipitation gauge. They used chewing gum to reattach it.

"It worked flawlessly for three months," Moore said. Another time, a ski patroller at Crystal used a beer can to fix a rain gauge.

Despite that patchwork maintenance, the center is widely regarded as one of the nation’s leading centers for avalanche and mountain weather forecasting.

It was launched 25 years ago by former University of Washington snow scientist Ed LaChapelle, considered by to be the "father of American avalanche science."

Crystal Mountain ski patrol director Paul Baugher said he depends on the center’s work. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

"We rely on these guys, and they rely on us," Baugher said. "We just hope the center can stay solvent."

Avalanches are expensive. Economists estimate that for every hour I-90 is closed, businesses lose about $750,000 because of stalled shipping, lost perishables and rerouting costs.

In 1996-97, avalanches closed Snoqualmie Pass for more than seven days, costing businesses $130 million.

For an avalanche forecast and other information, log on to the Northwest Avalanche and Weather Center at www.nwac.noaa.gov.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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