In Alta, Utah, when heavy storms blow in, snow safety experts fire 105mm recoilless rifles across the highway to blast unstable snow off the steep slopes of Mt. Superior. Explosives have become the tool of choice across the globe for mitigating avalanche risk since their introduction to the field in the 1940s, and there’s one man to thank for the ingenuity: Montgomery Atwater, a 10th Mountain Division-trained skier, Harvard graduate, and maverick who moved to Alta, Utah, in 1945. Indeed, Atwater is the founding father of avalanche safety and forecasting as we know it in North America.
Modern snow science in the West is a developed field of study complete with a national organization, an educational framework, and departments at universities across the nation. In the mid-20th century, however, it was a little understood issue that fell to groups like the Forest Service and privately held ski areas to mitigate. The heart of the budding field of study—and system of public safety—was the Wasatch mountains. And Monty Atwater was at the center of it all.
When Atwater first came to Utah, he became a “snow ranger” under the supervisor of the Wasatch National Forest, Felix C. Koziol. He and Koziol were responsible for keeping the public safe from avalanche danger in Little Cottonwood Canyon, but they were given just a few rudimentary tools to do so: thermometers, snow-depth measurement tools, a few “Area Closed” signs, and a Forest Service record of avalanches in the area. Over the next two decades, Atwater would develop the foundations for modern snow forecasting, found the first avalanche forecasting center in the United States, and revolutionize the way we think about and move through the mountains in the winter.
Through careful observation, Atwater mapped out active avalanche terrain throughout the range and gathered weather data to better understand factors that created unstable snow. He developed mitigation and stabilization techniques like ski cutting, and brought his experience in the military to the mountains by way of explosives. Using surplus military and mining explosives, Atwater and his team of snow rangers—which included Edward LaChapelle, who helped design the first avalanche beacon—began using hand-thrown explosives to control slopes at Alta and in the surrounding areas. But he had his sights set on bigger guns, and petitioned the government to allow the use of heavy artillery in combating slides. Eventually, the Utah National Guard oversaw the introduction of a French 75mm—developed in the late 1800s for field combat—to the canyon’s arsenal.
Atwater was recognized internationally for his expertise. He oversaw snow safety for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California (an area known at the time for its chairlift-destroying avalanches), and was brought to Chile to help establish safety protocol for a copper mine in the Andes. Also, after the Chilean ski area Portillo was plagued by avalanches in what became known as the Hundred Year Storm, he was brought in to oversee safety at the FIS World Ski Championships. Atwater laid the foundations for snow safety in the region, educating Andean mountain folk on the proper way to predict and avoid avalanches, and, of course, teaching local experts how to use ammunition to control dangerous slopes. Legend has it they nicknamed him “Señor Boom Boom.”
Atwater would go on to author five books about avalanche safety, from technical handbooks to historical accounts of his time in Little Cottonwood Canyon. He passed away in 1976, but his legacy lives on in the ever-evolving world of snow science; in the young skier heading into the backcountry with an educated awareness of risk, in the snow patroller tossing charges at freshly-blanketed slopes, and in the scientist at work in the field and the lab.
Photo courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah