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Off and Running | Preparing for the Slides
Swiss Snow Science | Fire in the Hole

Monday Nov. 4, 1996

Mountains We fly to Bozeman, arriving after dark, and find our way to the Silver Forest Inn in a snow squall. It is already winter here, which worries me. We are supposed to be filming the early season, developing the characters, and building anticipation for the coming of snow, winter, and the danger in the mountains.

Tuesday Nov. 5
At Montana State University (MSU) we meet with the scientists. They are as charming, interesting, and talkative as they were when Kate and I met them on our research trip to the ISSW, or International Snow Science Workshop. But what a lot of facial hair! Each and every one of them. And we plan to shoot with them again mid-winter, so I tell them all not to shave, or the audience won't recognize them.

Ed Adams takes me through the lab, and I get a chance to see the experiments they are doing in the cold room. He explains that the little tiny balls of ice I see in the world's smallest ice trays are models for snow, and sticking them together and watching them attach to each other and then change over time is going to help the scientists understand snow and how it bonds. As he talks, I am surprised by how little scientists actually know about snow, and at the same time struck by what a complex a material it is.

Wednesday Nov. 6
This day has been set aside to film a sequence in a helicopter with local forecaster and researcher Karl Birkeland that will give us an overview of the area and the research being done here. We're up before dawn, and Bob, Dave and I meet Karl at the helipad on the south side of town. We have cell phones and are talking to Kate who is over at Bridger Bowl looking at the weather data. It isn't looking good, but we hold out hope. There are clouds around, but maybe that is a break, maybe there is a hole...

Forecast Center Finally around noon, we are forced to give up on filming with the helicopter, and head over to meet Kate and Dave and Karl's partner Ron at the Forecast Center to film the avalanche specialists in their other work environment. About halfway through the shoot, we glance out the window to see that the sun has come out and it looks like beautiful flying weather. But the lights are in place, the camera is rolling, and so we continue where we are.

That night, we all meet for dinner in town. It is old home week for Bob around here. The scientists know him. The forecasters know his friends. He went to MSU. I'm teasing him that I am sick of people hugging him in the street. But he is very funny and easy to be around. He really gives the crew a lift.

Thursday Nov. 7
Karl in helicopter Another day begins, looking as frustrating as yesterday. We are hoping to fly and again the weather isn't cooperating. We decide to give it up and leave, but when we get back near the Bridgers, it starts to clear up. We call Karl, tear back to the helipad, and give it a go. Karl, Dave and Bob join pilot Mark Duffy in the Lama. It isn't perfect weather, so the ride is bumpy. And we opted not to spend the money on expensive mounts. This isn't great for filming. And it isn't great for Karl. As they fly over the Bridgers, he tries to describes his research project. But he is getting sicker and sicker. He says a couple of times "I'm feeling a little green."

Snow pit When they finally land to meet the rest of the crew, waiting with Ron by snowmobile, he really IS green. But he gamely carries on and films a sequence with us, putting climbing skins on the bottom of his skies to hike up to Bradley Meadows, a scenic spot in the Bridgers. At this location he and Ron dig a snowpit and demonstrate for us what tests they will be running and what measurements they will be taking when they do the snowpit project later this winter.

Friday Nov. 8
Again the weather is dicey. But we hear from Fay, the head of the ski patrol at Bridger Bowl that they are planning to fly today. We are going to film a scene where the ski area crew is helping the MSU researchers get ready for winter. The research team maintains a site just north of the ski area in the Bridger Range. It is a shack built onto the back of a rock, and it sits right in the middle of an active avalanche path. When conditions are just right, they set off avalanches and use equipment to gather data on densities, velocities, depth, pressure and sheer strength, from inside an avalanche.

Shed The ski area isn't open yet. It is scheduled to open in a week. On the day that Bridger Bowl flies its bombs to the ridgetop, they traditionally help the MSU researchers get their heavy equipment flown up to the research site. They need to fly up a generator to run computers and some lumber to repair the shack from Marmot damage. This is the one time during the year that they access the site by helicopter. Later they will hike on their skis, and everything they need will have to be carried.

Fay arranges for mountain manager Randy Elliott to drive us in a snowcat up the ski area to the helicopter staging area. Fay follows us on a snowmobile, and we realize this is another filming opportunity. Here is a woman who is head of the ski patrol at a small mountain that has some of the most extreme, and most avalanche prone, terrain in the country. And she is organizing for the winter and making bombs, and leading a crew that is getting ready for the season. She is willing to help us out with filming the MSU researchers, but we decide to film her work too.

Wrapping boxes in nets Fay isn't more than an inch or two over five feet tall, with short dark hair. Despite the fact that Bridger has an extremely busy day ahead, she is incredibly friendly and helpful to a film crew lugging around a lot of gear. About halfway up the ski area, near the bomb cache that will be the staging area, 4 large cargo nets are spread out on the wind scoured rock and snow. Randy and Fay begin loading them with ski area supplies. Boxes of explosives, trail signs, and toboggans used to bring injured skiers out are arranged on the nets.

Pouring bombs Once the nets are loaded, each with thirteen boxes of explosives, Fay sets her mind to a new task—making jug bombs. Standing in the gun shack as she pours ampho into plastic milk gallons, Fay tells us that these bombs provide "more bang for your buck" and are relatively easy to make. After a really huge storm, the jugbombs are easier to use than having to tape several hand charges together. Fay systematically fills the jug, puts glue on the inside of the cap and firmly puts the cap on top of the loaded jug, happily letting us interview her as she works. After she makes a dozen bombs, Fay loads up each of the ski patrol nets with three jug bombs.

As we wait for the helicopter to start carrying the sling loads up to the Ridge, we finish packing our combined MSU/NOVA cargo net. We have the generator, lumber, tools and some new instrumentation from the MSU researchers already in the net; to this load we add all of our skis, packs (there isn't enough room inside the helicopter to have any packs or gear), and of course our two boxes of lunch, which look disturbingly similar to the boxes of explosives. As Fay picks up the lunch boxes she jokes about not wanting to lose them—and making sure they are packed in tightly. In those two boxes we have lunch for our crew and the MSU researchers whom we have told to not worry about bringing food—we'll supply the lunch.

Packages arriving We have two helicopters flying today. One will be slinging loads up to the ridge and over to the MSU site. The other will carry Bob and Dave so they can film air to air, and then will shuttle the rest of us to the MSU site. Our flight to the site is only a few minutes long, but it is my first ride in a helicopter and it definitely gets my juices going! These ships can maneuver up and down slopes, around trees, and land almost anywhere as long as you have good conditions and a good pilot.

Generator We arrive at the MSU site and reassemble. Bob and Dave have to warm up from shooting on the ridge—the winds were strong. A call comes in over the walkie talkie from the Lama heli pilot to let us know he is coming in with our load. It looks like everything has made it safely. I am relieved to see that all of our skis made it—I kept thinking about what the trip down would be like on one ski. The MSU researchers get to work; before they unpack they start doing what they all do well—shovel. Even though it is early November there are at least four feet of snow covering the shack; winter has started early here. Next they crank up the generator and start rebuilding the shack's roof. Scott and Jim start working on fitting the metal covering for the velocity sensors into the side wall.

As they continue to work we hear Fay speaking to all patrollers over the radio. Apparently someone saw a box fall from one of the sling loads while it was in the air. They are concerned there is a box of bombs lying in the woods or on a ski trail somewhere. She asks each team to count their boxes of explosives. The teams report one by one that they do have their thirteen boxes. Fay then asks us to check our load for a missing box. We look through and then it hits me—there is only one lunch box! Kate opens the box (which is the smaller of the two) and breaks the news to the scientists and crew that all we have to feed 12 people are two sandwiches and one box of cookies. There is going to be one happy marmot out there and a very hungry crew up here.

Despite the lack of food everyone stays in good cheer and we spend the afternoon filming the researchers as they install a new instrument to measure shear strength, adjust a "strain rosette" to measure elasticity of the snow, and complete their work on the shack. The light is starting to go, so we all pack up and ski down.

Chris Stone When we reach the ski area base, Fay tells us that the first avalanche accident and rescue of the season happened this afternoon. Chris Stone, a local skier, was out with his partner skiing the backside of one of the peaks in the Bridger Range. Chris got caught in an avalanche that took him for a ride of approximately 1000 vertical feet. He was partially buried and with the help of his dog was able to dig himself out. His partner had alerted the ski patrol I who were only in the area because they were doing their pre-season bomb work) and Fay had coordinated an extremely efficient rescue. Chris had just been airlifted out by the same pilot that we were flying with today.

It seems too early in the season to be hearing this story, but it's also stories like these that reveal the human cost of avalanches. Fay is telling us all of these details as the sun is setting over the mountains. The sky looks great and this is a very good story—and then I remember that we have no more film. It is unbearable to think that we have a story and perfect lighting and no film. Bob remembers he has a short end (a partial roll) back at the Inn and races off to get it. I stand there with Fay, watching this beautiful sunset fade and swearing to myself that I will never again be caught without a back-up supply of film, especially on a weather related project where you really never know what will happen. Kate is in the patrol shack calling any production company that she can find listed in Bozeman, desperately trying to buy some film. The fact that it is 5:30 on a Friday is not helping her efforts.

Fay telling story Bob comes racing back, ready to go and we do try to film Fay explaining what has happened, but the sun is gone and I know it isn't going to look good. This was supposed to be the last day of filming. We are all booked on flights leaving tomorrow morning, but it is hard to leave without finishing this story. We head into town to have our dinner and try to decide what we should do. Chris Stone's story has spread pretty quickly around town. We hear that he has been released from the hospital to go home, and aside from some bad bruises he is fine. Different folks in town give us their opinions about whether Chris would be interested in telling us his story.

We decide to go for it—if he won't speak to us we're heading home anyway. The next morning Kate starts trying to track him down, but his line seems to be constantly busy. Finally she gets through, and after some discussion he agrees to speak with us. It helps that he knows Bob. We head to his house, having promised him we would only come over for a hour, and with 2 cans of film get his interview in the can. He seems to still be in shock about the fact that he could have died yesterday, so he gives us quite a reflective and compelling interview, explaining what it was like to be caught in an avalanche.

Off and Running | Preparing for the Slides
Swiss Snow Science | Fire in the Hole

Photos: (1), (5) Kate Churchill/WGBH Educational Foundation; (2-4), (6-11) WGBH.

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