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Avalanche! How lasers and wind tunnels make mountains safer

Wired, October 2012

Avalanches travel at 130kph and kill 300 people a year. That’s why, deep in the Swiss Alps, scientists are turning to lasers, CT scans and wind tunnels to understand snow better

At 9.30 on the morning of 17 August, 2008, a British former pro-snowboarder turned cameraman was shooting footage in the Southern Alps of New Zealand near the 3,754-metre Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak. Johno Verity had been hired by a UK TV-production team making a show, Gethin Jones’ Danger Hunters, about extreme sports. His job that day was to film Austrian snowboarder Eric Themel in action, keeping pace beside him with a camera as Themel arced on his board through deep snow.

For the previous three days heavy snow had fallen, making a planned ascent into the mountains by helicopter impossible. But on the 17th, the team woke to better weather. “It was epic,” says Verity. “Blue skies, light breeze, perfect light snow. You couldn’t ask for better conditions. We were brimming with excitement.” Themel, Verity and a local mountain guide boarded a red-and-white Eurocopter AStar 350 and touched down on an unnamed peak deep in the range. Following standard back-country safety procedure, the guide shovelled a metre-deep hole in the snow, exposing the numerous layers of snow that had built up over the past days, and checked for any weak layer that signalled avalanche risk. more