Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In the moments before the explosion

A tale from Snoqualmie Pass avalanche control

The snow was falling heavily as I kneeled in the snow high above Snoqualmie Pass. It was 11 p.m. and I was at the normal ignition site, for East Snow Shed avalanche #4.  

For the last six hours, our snowplow drivers had been fighting snow, struggling to keep traffic moving across the busiest mountain pass in the state. Crews were out plowing, pushing semis over Heartbreak Hill, and assisting unprepared motorists who were stuck.

Snoqualmie Pass was closed and everyone was waiting for me. It was time to detonate the explosives that would trigger controlled avalanches.

Three explosive bags were assembled and hanging on their respective lines above the starting points. All three were connected with 18-grain detonation cord. A non-electric ignition cap was taped to the trunk detonation cord and I was clear to ignite the cap with a device called a shooter. Normally, the pressure to get a good light is never an issue. You just move methodically and do it right the first time.

Then, as if in slow motion, the shooter rolled off my fingers and sunk into the snow. I picked it up out of snow and started brushing the snow off of it. I couldn’t seem to get it clean. It was then that I realized just how heavily it was snowing. Each snowflake that landed on the shooter seemed to get bigger and bigger.

Finally, I got it cleaned off. I then carefully assembled the shooter with its ignition cap and tried to lace the non-electric cord through the shooter. Only, I couldn’t get the cord to go through the hole in the shooter. I tried again and failed. 

Time seemed to slow down. I noticed my wet hands shaking; I hunkered down even more over the shooter to shelter it from the snow. My head lamp blazed brightly onto my wet hands, wet shooter and unlaced cord. Then I heard my partner’s bomb explode. Now everyone was truly waiting on me. I forced myself to breathe and move methodically.

The cord easily slipped through the lacing hole and seated nicely into the firing chamber. I looked the whole system over one last time; everything looked good. I went for the light… BOOM!  

PHEW! I bounced up off the snow and gazed at the starting zones. I saw fractures in the upper part of the starting zones. I loosened the trams and headed for the other side of the pass for the next round of blasting at 1 a.m.

Jeff Taipale
WSDOT Avalanche Technician  

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