Swiss high-tech solution for avalanche control installed on Lizard Head Pass

Sep 11, 2020

The steep slopes above Highway 145 near Rico are notorious for being prone to avalanches. A series of newly-installed towers that can set off explosives will let crews trigger slides on these slopes remotely.
Credit Wyssen Avalanche Control Co.

A new avalanche control system on Lizard Head Pass southwest of Telluride aims to make it easier and safer for crews to manually trigger slides.

 

Every winter, sudden avalanches bury roadways and threaten the lives of travelers, both on the road and in the backcountry.

Avalanche control crews are also at risk. They’re out in often-nasty weather, trudging up relatively safe slopes to fire explosives at unsafe ones.

The idea is to trigger an avalanche on a snow-loaded slope under a controlled setting, e.g. when roads are closed and the area is cleared of the public.

The alternative is a slide that comes without warning, potentially sweeping up backcountry skiers and burying vehicles on nearby highways.

Sometimes they launch the charges with a gun. Sometimes they use a howitzer cannon. They might even drop ordnance from a helicopter. But it’s all dangerous work.

 

Crews install a new remote-controlled avalanche mitigation system on Lizard Head Pass.
Credit Wyssen Avalanche Control Co.

Enter a high-tech solution from Switzerland. The Wyssen Avalanche Tower. Installed on avalanche-prone slopes, it elevates a payload of explosives, which can be dropped by remote control.

The new towers are on steep slopes above Highway 145 just north of Rico. That stretch of roadway is at particular risk. The Colorado Department of Transportation’s Avalanche Mitigation Program will run the system in collaboration with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s forecasting team.

Essentially, a crew member logs into an app in the safety of their vehicle or office and tells the system to bomb the heck out of such-and-such drainage. But just enough to start an avalanche in a controlled setting. Ideally, it relieves the slope of its load of layered snow, forcing Mother Nature’s hand.

 

 

The new avalanche mitigation system on Lizard Head Pass near Rico will be operational by mid-September, 2020.
Credit Wyssen Avalanche Control Co.

We wanted to find out how they work. And whether they could eventually be installed on Highway 550 between Durango and Ouray, home to so many avalanche zones and frequent slide-related closures

To learn more, we spoke to Jamie Yount, Winter Operations Manager for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

They work with another state agency, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, to manage controlled avalanches.