SKIING Scene: The Nonproliferation Problem


Part of the magic of a deep-powder morning is the distant sound of bombs exploding as ski patrollers do their avalanche-control work. But to the growing alarm of patrollers around the country, those explosives are getting harder and harder to come by. In fact, as last season drew to a close, some ski areas nearly ran out. "It's an industry-wide problem," says Bruce Meek, patrol director at Mt. Ashland, Oregon. "And it's only getting worse."

What's going on? In a word, economics. Avalanche control depends on old-time cap-and-fuse initiation systems (think: light fuse and run), but the supply of those systems is shrinking as explosives manufacturers cater to much larger industries, like mining, that use modern, remotely ignited systems.

According to Larry Heywood, Alpine Meadows patrol director and chair of the National Ski Areas Association's Avalanche Explosive Committee, those modern systems are too complex for the unpredictable environments where avalanche control takes place. "Our system is antiquated," Heywood admits. "But when you're out there on that ridgetop in a big storm, I like low tech."

Still, about the only places you'll find somebody holding a lit bomb these days, Heywood explains, are in old western movies and avalanche control. And with the unimpressive amount of money to be made from the ski industry, explosives suppliers see little to love in the risk-versus-benefit equation. Since 1996, when a patroller at Big Sky, Montana, was killed in an avalanche-control-related explosion, their view of skiing has been especially dim.

So for now, patrol directors are walking a tightrope, thinking creatively in order to obtain bombs while striving to cultivate a better working relationship with explosives manufacturers who balk at selling to ski areas. They're also hoping for the appearance of a "bomb boutique"¿a new, smaller source for explosives that's willing to cater to the avalanche-control market. With any luck, they'll get enough bombs, and the ski season will go off.