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October 24, 2014

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Safety team at Mount Charleston uses Army artillery to clear snow for skiers

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Tiffany Brown / Las Vegas Sun

Greg French carries ammunition to the 105mm Army howitzer for slope stability evaluation with explosives at Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard resort, 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 skiers 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.

Mount Charleston Avalanche Safety

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 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 to 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 Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort.

Of 20 blasts Friday only a few snow slides are visibly triggered, with one dramatic, billowing huge powder cloud of snow. The men cheer and then calmly move through a practiced routine of preparing to repeat the sequence of loading and firing the weapon to blast 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 with military artillery for assisting in avalanche-hazard mitigation after large snowfalls, says Brian Strait, president and general manager of the Southern Nevada resort. Friday was the second “mission” of the year for the resort.

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

Last week’s weather kept many of the snow safety staff working all night, and others were up in the predawn to arrive in time to conduct snow tests so skiers and snowboarders could lap up all the fresh powder at daybreak.

“We just love what we do, all of us, that whole crew out there this morning ... For the most part people come up here to have fun,” Strait says. “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 3 in the morning and get here and stay until the end of the day.”

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