Calif. ski resort turns to U.S. Army in its efforts to ensure skier safety
MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN, Calif. — Rescuing skiers and hikers is a life's work for men like Cliff Klock and Jeffrey Karl.
Klock is a ski patrolman, and Karl is a Forest Service emergency response expert. On Mammoth Mountain, they also have a time-tested approach for dealing with avalanches: They shoot at them with a 105-mm howitzer gun rented from the U.S. Army.
A Bumpy Ride Up The Mountain
If Klock and Karl take you along on gun duty, get ready for a bumpy ride. They will take you through a snowstorm to a concrete and steel bunker perched halfway up the mountain. The mountain attracts about 1.3 million visits a year from skiers.
On Sunday, their mission was to blast the snowy slopes with the gun. The snow had fallen overnight and could trigger avalanches.
As a lightning storm blasted the countryside before dawn, they uncovered the weapon from World War II, which is so large it is on two wheels. Then, they set to work checking its sights, barrel and frame and even kicking its tires.
The bunker hinges groaned as Karl opened a heavy steel door to reveal a basement room. They call it the "wine rack" because the shells are stored in its walls like wine bottles.
Together, they assembled the shells and screwed in the detonators that would set off the explosions. Klock planned to launch 15 rounds into the mountain, located about 300 miles north of Los Angeles.
Clearing A Potential Avalanche's Path
Around 5:30 a.m., Klock said, "All right, let's start shooting."
Wind and snow blew into the small room when the men opened a garage-style door. Then they wheeled the howitzer around on its wheels, pointing the barrel outside.
"This gun is so precise it's like shooting at point blank range," Klock said. "I could hit a rock at 1,000 yards."
The first target on his list was a popular ski run that is also a potential avalanche path.
Klock yelled, "Fire!" and the fearsome gun roared, lifting off the ground. A few seconds later, the sound of the bursting shell drifted back to them.
They fired 15 rounds of shells at ski slopes that were closed to the public.
The howitzer is only used when conditions are right, which differ from year to year, Mammoth Mountain officials said. It was rarely needed, for example, during the years of 2011 through 2014, when the area got little rain or snow.
A howitzer once again became a vital part of the Mammoth Mountain operation in the snowy winter of 2015, officials said.
U.S. Military Provided Howitzers To Ski Resorts
Decades ago, the military provided Mammoth and other ski areas with old-style rifles for controlling avalanches. But ammunition became hard to get, and in 2003, the Army decided to swap them for two-wheeled M-119 A-1 howitzers, officials said.
A year later, however, the U.S. military took back the howitzers it had rented out for avalanche control, including the one at Mammoth Mountain. It wanted to send the weapons to troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The howitzer taken from Mammoth Mountain in 2004 never came back. Instead, the Army replaced it later with the old weapon that saw action Sunday.
Ski Area Closed Due To Harsh Weather
The Forest Service and Mammoth Mountain has one of the world's most respected programs for avalanche prevention and warning.
But the staff had their hands full Sunday because of unpredictable weather. The mountain has received 10 feet of fresh snow over the last week, and the weekend saw a brew of warm rains and heavy snow, as well as a large number of people who wanted to go skiing.
Mammoth Mountain officials decided at 11 a.m. Sunday to shut down the ski area because the lightning strikes were dangerous.
As a result, Klock and Karl did not get to ski down the slopes that they fired on.
"As great as that gun is," Klock said, "it can't do anything about lightning."