Every winter, our state's transportation department monitors more than 500 known avalanche paths in the high country. Crews spend thousands of hours, triggering and cleaning up hundreds of slides to keep travelers safe.
But as 7NEWS reporter Kristen Skovira discovered, the days of live munition and explosions are changing on two of Colorado’s most avalanche-prone passes.
“Colorado is one of the leaders in how we do avalanche mitigation, obviously we need to be,” said Amy Ford with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Now, Colorado will again take the lead, installing two massive avalanche mitigation systems high above Loveland and Berthoud pass.
“We are going to be deploying a system called Gazex. It's French and it means that it's been in Europe. Some of the ski resorts in the US have it, but it's never been deployed as part of something that would be part of a department of transportation,” Ford said.
It is a big change from the traditional cannons and live rounds.
“We actually fire rounds to the mountains or drop explosives from helicopters as a way of triggering avalanches and then we go and we clear it out,” Ford said.
So how will the new system work? Gazex explodes an oxygen-propane mixture in specially designed tubes located at the top of risk zones. The exploders are connected to gas storage tanks with capacities high enough to operate for the entire season without needing to be refilled.
When the gas mixture explodes, the force of the explosion is directed towards the snow producing a shock wave.
“There's a safety element really also for our people. Instead of having to handle live munition, our folks are going to be doing this from a remote location,” she said.
CDOT said it is safer for their crews and better for the mountains themselves.
“A lot less debris on the mountain because prior to this we were literally shooting up rounds into the mountains. Now you have this installed system that we've cleared environmentally and the like,” said Ford.
Now, it's a race against mother nature as crews hurry to get these tubes high above the treeline before the first snow.
“We expect that we should have most of these systems installed here really before the first snows start to hit in late October, perhaps even sooner,” she said.