Amid Record Snowfall, A Tragedy
The morning of Jan. 24, at Squaw Valley Ski Resort was one of the most spectacular in recent memory. After years of drought, three storms in a row had blanketed Squaw’s legendary slopes with a dry, crystalline powder, the stuff of skiers’ dreams. Along with the rest of Squaw's ski patrollers, 42-year-old Joe Zuiches prepared dozens of hand charges – cap-and-fuse initiated explosives — and traveled by snowcat or chairlift up into the mountain’s most rugged terrain.
Normally, patrollers and other employees opening the mountain work a delicate dance of movement and communication to trigger avalanches in unstable terrain. The snow must be blasted from places where it builds up during storms from wind and snowfall and becomes unstable enough to topple onto ski runs. That can happen with a loud sound, a blast of wind, the movement of a skier, or the changing weight of the snowpack as the sun warms and binds the top layers. This day, something went terribly wrong.
By 8:35 a.m., Zuiches stood on a planned blasting route along Gold Coast Ridge, peaks of the snowbound Sierra Crest spreading north and south around him. The 42-year-old was killed when one of the hand chargers exploded before he could toss it at its target. He left behind a wife and an infant child, as well as shocked and grieving peers. The incident set off an explosion investigation, still ongoing, involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, and Cal/OSHA.
“Joe was a beloved leader in our ski patrol, one who served as a great mentor for his team, and we will never forget his dedication to his fellow patrollers and to the safety of our guests, said Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings. A professional mountain guide and mountaineer, Zuiches climbed Mt. Rainer, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, and Villarrica volcano in Chile, and summited Mount Shasta 50 times. He’d been involved in ski patrol at Squaw and earlier at Winter Park Resort in Colorado for 17 years.
Death by an exploding hand charge has occurred twice previously since 1973, when a Mammoth Mountain patroller was killed, according to snow and ski safety consultant Larry Heywood //OF WHERE?//. There are strict protocols and many guidelines to ensure safe use of explosives at resorts, but on this, one of the most anticipated powder days in years, the hand charge claimed its third victim.
Using hand charges in resort avalanche mitigation is a common practice around the world, according to Geraldine Link, director of public policy at the National Ski Areas Association. The blasting creates a controlled slide before it can become a hazard. In addition to the hand charges, resort patrollers control unstable snow with projected explosives from mounted military artillery and avalaunchers (air-powered cannons). They also release snow by skiing patterns across areas of unstable buildup, a practice called ski cutting.
Hand charges are used to trigger snow in areas that the avalaunchers and artillery can’t hit, according to Heywood, who was ski patrol director at Squaw’s neighboring Alpine Meadows Resort for 17 years. “Given squaw’s steep terrain and at times intense snowfall and wind, Squaw has one of the largest and most complex hand charge programs of ski areas in the country,” he said. “There are a lot of small pockets that the other equipment wouldn’t be appropriate for. The artillery can’t hit every nook and cranny. You can get to all of those spots on skis.”
Patrollers travel well-established routes that put them into position, usually above a targeted slope, said Heywood. Squaw, the site of 1960s Olympic Games, has 60 full- and part-time professional patrollers who handle thousands of rounds of ammunition per year at the resort.
Recently the resort added to its arsenal five Gazex Inertia Exploders, remotely controlled systems using propane gas and oxygen to create a concussive blast.
Hand charges are shaped as slender cylinders, 2 inches wide and about 12 inches long, and weigh two pounds, Heywood said. They are filled with an ammonium nitrate putty and wrapped in heavy paper. An 18-inch fuse is attached with enough length to allow 90 seconds to pass between ignition and detonation -- a requirement by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
“Within 10 seconds the charges are supposed to be out of their hands” said Heywood, who helped write the “Avalanche Blasting Resource Guide” for the National Ski Areas Association. “Most of the time you are throwing it downhill, so it can travel a good distance. You’re supposed to then get behind a barrier – sometimes a terrain barrier like a ridgeline – and protect your ears during the blast.”
With the explosion, the hand charge is vaporized, he said.
Patrollers take years of classes, pass tests, apprentice with each other before they become, like Zuiches, a team leader. “Ski areas send patrollers to national avalanche school, and they bring in people to train them at the resort,” Heywood said. “The State of California requires they apprentice for three years under the supervision of a licensed blaster before they can take an avalanche blasting test administered by Cal/OSHA.”
Team members learn about not only the area’s snow behavior and avalanche history, but also how to work in concert with other crews opening the resort. “The job takes a whole lot of people and a lot of focus,” Heywood said.
Link said that safety requirements and avalanche mitigation programs are inseparable. “Unfortunately avalanche work can be dangerous,” she said. “That goes without saying. But three incidents over 43 years — it is just such a rare occurrence.”