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October 1, 2014

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Calling in the big guns for avalanche prevention

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Tiffany Brown / Las Vegas Sun

Gun loader Aaron Hemenway carries ammunition to the 105mm howitzer for avalanche safety blasting at Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard area, outside Las Vegas on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010.

Kaboom! Blasting from the Past

Last weekend's storm brought more than 40 new inches of snow to Mount Charleston, so the early morning crew broke out their WWII-era Howitzer canon. Before skiiers have gotten out of bed, the artillery team braves below-freezing temperatures to shoot massive explosive shells onto the slopes. They hope the 1943 canon will trigger an avalanche so that unstable snow doesn't cause one while the ski lifts are open.

Artillery on the mountain

Co-owner of Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard resort Tom Thomas starts shoveling the office deck while waiting for the morning safety meeting to begin at the resort on Mount Charleston, outside Las Vegas on Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. Launch slideshow »

“One, three, three, eight. Level. Level.”

“One, three, three, eight. Check”

“On target. Ready to fire.”

“Clear to the front.”

“Clear to the rear.”

“Fire!”

KA-BOOM!

The World War II-era 105 mm howitzer visibly launches 4.8 pounds of composition B high explosive ammunition toward the slopes of Lee Canyon on Mount Charleston, leaving a cloud of smoke and the pungent smell of gun powder mixing with falling snow.

The men pause in silence, all heads turned toward the mountain. Ten seconds later comes the thunderous explosion of the shell exploding on impact. The men wait, watching for an avalanche on the steep, snow-loaded mountain slopes above the area dedicated to the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort.

Two years after a deadly avalanche in 2005, the Lee Canyon resort acquired a refurbished 1943 howitzer, on loan from the United States Army, to use in snow safety efforts. By blasting snow-loaded slopes, the staff tries to induce avalanches when no one is on the mountain and prevent snow slides during business hours.

Of 20 blasts on Friday, January 22, only a few snow slides were visibly triggered, with one dramatic slide sending huge powder clouds of snow billowing up off the mountain. The men cheered and then calmly moved through the practiced routine of loading and firing the weapon, blasting three upper gullies and one rock face on the mountain. The mission: to make the slopes safer for that day’s skiers and snowboarders.

Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard is one of about a dozen ski areas in the United States that boast military artillery for assisting in avalanche-hazard mitigation after large snowfalls, said Brian Strait, president and general manager of the Southern Nevada resort. Friday was the second “mission” of the year for the resort.

Last week’s heavy snowfall kept many of the snow safety staff working through the night. Others were up before dawn to arrive in time to conduct snow tests, so skiers and snowboarders could lap up the fresh powder at daybreak.

“We just love what we do, all of us, that whole crew out there this morning," Strait said. "For the most part people come up here to have fun; people come to work here also to have fun. We all enjoy our jobs and that’s what motivates us all to set the alarm clock to three in the morning and get here and stay until the end of the day."

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