The most dangerous part of any ski patroller’s job is avalanche control. But surprisingly, perhaps, it isn't the avalanche that they are most afraid of but the explosion used to trigger it. I’m sure a few of our readers remember the fatal 2017 tragedy at Squaw Valley that killed a patroller in an accident involving explosives used to artificially trigger a slide, or when a howitzer used to shoot bombs onto slopes exploded prematurely on the ground in Loveland pass injuring two workers in 2014.
Now, the natural hazards control company TAS has created the next generation of avalanche control systems called O’bellx that can perform avalanche mitigation remotely with no human interaction. For anyone familiar with the European Asterix comics from yesteryear, remember Asterix's big friend Obelix who smashed all those Romans? Well, looks like that might be where the French company got the name from. O'bellx is an updated version to that of Gazex, which is the avalanche control system used at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and on Teton Pass, and in mountains all over the world.
O'bellx's avalanche control unit uses a hydrogen/oxygen gas mixture housed inside an open cone shell to create pin-point explosions to trigger avalanches. The structure is semi-permanent and positioned in known avalanche start areas before the snow season begins. Once installed, it can be detonated remotely 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of weather conditions. With the multi-sync mode, up to four can be detonated at the same time. This past week, the Colorado Department of Transportation installed two O’bellx remote avalanche control units on Berthoud Pass, which is one of the most heavily trafficked backcountry destinations in the world.
There are no pipelines attached to the cone, meaning it requires very little work in terms of installation. At the end of the year, the cones are removed easily and stored until next season. The technology makes a lot of sense to have near highways and backcountry zones that have high-frequency avalanche areas which require routine bombing but are often hard to access on foot. TAS is marketing the O’Bellx as an eco-friendly solution that greatly minimizes the risks which patrollers take on a regular basis to help the lot of us ski and snowboard.