Heli-bombing

In January of 2005, western Canada was hit by a huge storm that dumped precipitation everywhere from the west coast and over the Rockies into Alberta. This was a pineapple express – a term for a warm and wet system that originates around Hawaii. If you remember, virtually the entire ski industry in western Canada was shut down or severely limited because this storm produced rain, and lots of it. The only resorts to benefit from this storm, in the form of snow, were the four in Banff and Jasper National Parks due to their higher elevations. Lake Louise received close to 60cm in this one storm, and for three or so glorious days, skiers were treated to conditions that were about as epic as it gets. Then the temperatures warmed, and what had been a deep layer of soft snow was quickly turned to mush. It could have been worse – there were reports that large parts of Whistler/Blackcomb had been reduced to grass, and many other resorts had to close until it snowed again.

At Lake Louise, there was a sea of smiles as skiers enjoyed their good fortune. The avalanche control team suddenly had a very full plate of work to do, as not only did the sudden and significant snowfall produce an extreme avalanche hazard, but we had to go to places that normally weren’t a concern. One of these places was the Skoki Slides area of Mt. Redoubt, which lies to the immediate north of the ski area. The Skoki Slides are so named because in periods of high snowfall they have the potential to run across the normal ski access route to Skoki Lodge, another 9 or 10 km’s away. Skoki Lodge is operated by Lake Louise, and with a large number of guests scheduled to be making their way to the backcountry lodge that morning, it was crucial that avalanche control was performed to protect the route. Given the difficulty in accessing the terrain and the short period in which we had to do it, it was decided to call in a helicopter so that this work could be done safely and quickly.

A permit from Parks Canada is required every time a helicopter is used, no matter the reason, but because a helicopter is a tool that gets used every season for various purposes, a standing permit is applied for and issued at the start of each season. Then, when we actually book the machine, we just need to call the Parks service with dates, times, flight paths, and reasons for use, and the go-ahead comes quickly, especially in cases of public safety as it was here.

While we waited for the helicopter to arrive from Canmore, we assembled the explosives and produced a plan of attack. Upon arrival, we had a quick chat with the pilot, and off we went. The avalanche forecaster sat up front with the pilot in order to guide him to the areas we needed to go. The patroller who would throw the explosives sat next to the rear door, which was wide open. Another one sat next to him, and his job was to ignite and pass the bombs to the thrower. My job, of course, was to document the whole thing (although I didn’t realise until after that the camera I was using at the time was set to black & white).

The short (0:52) video below shows some of the action, and if you look closely, you’ll see that each bomb is actually two taped together. We wanted to make sure that if a slope was going to avalanche, we would help it do just that as much as possible. Two bombs packs twice the punch of one, and our access to this terrain with the helicopter was limited, so we wanted to ensure that either we got the slopes to avalanche, or that we were satisfied with the stability of the snow.

The fuses on each shot are 2.5 minutes, and since we moved along the slope and placed the explosives so quickly, we usually had time to turn around and hover in our front row seats to await the explosions and see what results we got, if any. The whole operation took less than 20 minutes, and when you consider that it would have exposed the workers to danger and taken the whole day to do the same thing without the helicopter, the advantages are clear.

Bomb thrower surveys his results.

Bomb thrower surveys his results.

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