The Colorado Department of Transportation this summer will install the state's first automated avalanche control system to protect a heavily traveled section of mountain highway.

The fixed Gazex system will remotely trigger propane-fueled blasts of compressed air to reduce the threat of large avalanches on the Stanley slide path, which crosses two sections of U.S. 40 on the east side of Berthoud Pass.

While Wolf Creek ski area owner Davey Pitcher has used Gazex systems for years in his remote terrain, the $2 million project will mark the first time CDOT has employed the remote-controlled mitigation system. The agency typically fires 105mm howitzer shells or drop explosives from a helicopter to tame avalanche danger on mountain passes.

The Berthoud Pass project's five Gazex exploders — each fixed in loading zones that feed the notorious Stanley slide path — will be a test that could see the exploders installed atop mountain passes across the state.


Advertisement

"I would like to see us to a statewide inventory of where we currently do avalanche reduction on a regular basis and start developing a statewide plan to address those areas," said Peter Kozinski, CDOT's project engineer managing the Gazex pilot project on Berthoud Pass.

While the Berthoud Pass program has been studied for a couple years — a partnership between the highway department and the Forest Service that included many meetings with backcountry users and locals in Grand and Clear Creek counties — the project took on a sense of urgency in the last month.

In late March, a CDOT employee and a Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster were injured when an avalanche mitigation explosive blew up in the barrel of an Avalauncher as the men fired rounds into the avalanche-prone Seven Sisters slide paths on the east side of Loveland Pass.

The highway department suspended use the Avalauncher and is investigating the accident.

The accident didn't change the desire for Gazex, but "it brought renewed focus on the issues we are dealing with," Kosinski said.

"We have to work in a very dangerous environment and improvements need to be made on how we do things," he said.

Lobbing WWII-era munitions at avalanche loading zones is effective, but it is a 50-year-old strategy that is dangerous for the workers handling the explosives.

The Gazex system can be triggered remotely and routinely, allowing avalanche forecasters and CDOT workers to regularly clear loading zones with a flip of a switch during avalanche cycles. The consistent explosions of compressed air keeps dangerously large amounts of snow from accumulating, reducing the risk of catastrophic avalanches that can close U.S. 40, a vital artery for the Winter Park ski area and all of Grand County.

Adding the Gazex system will lead to fewer delays and easier access for skiers, Winter Park president Gary DeFrange said.

"Rather than waiting for large avalanches to build up, which can endanger drivers and close the roadway for hours, the Gazex system incrementally removes the snow throughout a major storm event, making Berthoud Pass travel not only more convenient, but significantly safer during the winter months," DeFrange said.

Highway departments in three western U.S. states — Wyoming, Utah and California — use Gazex exploders and the systems in wide use in Canada and Europe. There are roughly 2,000 of the French-made Gazex systems in use around the world.

Russian resort operators installed more than 40 of the curved pipe exploders above Olympic venues before the Sochi Winter Olympics. (The Rosa Khutor resort, for political reasons, doesn't use any hand-tossed explosives and an avalanche killed two skiers last month only two days after it opened to the public.)

Backcountry skiers who flock to Berthoud Pass were consulted by both the Forest Service and CDOT during the planning phase. The grassroots Friends of Berthoud Pass group supports the installation of the Gazex system.

Friends of Berthoud Pass president Carl Dowdy spoke with avalanche forecasters and highway departments across the West and Canada while he studied the effectiveness of the Gazex system.

"The results are incredible. The folks in Canada were just amazed at their ability to have only very small avalanches crossing the highway," Dowdy said. "It not only mitigates instability, but also controls the size of the avalanche."

CDOT will stick with its existing avalanche mitigation protocol for the first one or two years of the Gazex system, Kozinski said. That means they will trigger the exploders only during daylight hours and after visual inspection of the area.

Kosinski said the department wants to "ease into the system," making sure backcountry skiers and workers are well acquainted with the system before following the lead of other states, which deploy Gazex exploders in the dark of night.

If all goes well, Kosinski said the system could be installed in other loading zones of Berthoud Pass, on Loveland Pass and beyond.

"We are excited to have CDOT develop a familiarity and start expanding," Dowdy said. "It will be interesting to see how long it takes before it's used on Loveland Pass and Red Mountain Pass and across the state."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins