[Editor's note: In our latest interview series, Behind the Curtain, we talk to the people backstage in the ski industry, the often-invisible, always hard-working coaches, techs, ski patrollers, course builders and more. Here is part five of the series (check out part one with ski tuner Kenny Nault, part two with event announcer Frankie Alisuag, part three with coach Elana Chase and part four with course builder David Ny). Stay tuned to ESPN Freeskiing next Thursday for the final installment, an interview with a longtime freeskiing contest judge.]
As one of seven forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center contracted by the state's Department of Transportation, Lee Metzger is responsible for keeping the highways safe, which allows everyone else to go skiing. He's been doing this job since 1993, helping to control snow on Berthoud, Loveland and Vail passes, as well as the I-70 corridor. The No. 1 goal, he says, is to keep an avalanche from hitting a car. We spoke to him recently in his windowless office at Eisenhower Tunnel.
It's always great to watch slides run. I don't care if they're big or little or whatever. If your forecast thinks you're gonna get a slide and you get it, then you're gonna feel good about it. The bad side is sometimes you think that's gonna happen and you shoot it four or five times, and it doesn't happen, then you're sitting here pulling your hair out: Why isn't it doing what my tests, my numbers, my records say it should be doing? And then you just worry about it more and more.
This time of year, there are starting zones that have 30 feet of snow in them.
Ski areas have a lot of clout in this state. And if the road's closed, they're calling and saying, 'How come the road's closed, and what can we do about it?'
The Seven Sisters on Loveland Pass have been written up and talked about many times as the most active avalanche paths in the United States. It's illegal to ski them. This past week with all the snow, we were out there shooting four days in a row. We've had slides there bury the road when we got two inches of snow.
It's not easy to get a helicopter anymore. In the old days, people had extra helicopters, but now some of these companies only have one or two. So if somebody from the Forest Service calls and says, 'I'll use [the helicopter] for seven days to count elk,' and then we call, the helicopter's gone.
The advantages to the helicopter are, one, you can get all the passes in one swipe. It takes a half a day, because you gotta land and load more charges. You can also use much bigger charges. Usually at least 32, 34 pounds. And we've used even bigger, up to 65 pounds. They make those with a handle; you just hold it out and drop it.
Eighteen years ago when I started, there were probably half the number of cars on the road that there are now. And there's not a hazard in an avalanche unless there's somebody below to get hit.
That Berthoud slide back in 2007, when two cars got knocked off the road, we weren't getting little slides that year. It was after a really big storm, we had test results in snowpits that said there was a potential you could get a bigger slide. So we got the helicopter two days before that happened -- it was the first time we ever used 65-pound charges. Because we were a little worried about it, we put almost 200 pounds in that same starting zone, and nothing happened.
Then it snowed the next day, I think it was seven inches. But after shooting it with all those explosives, we said, 'Oh man, it ain't gonna break deep. If this seven inches slides, it won't even reach the highway.' And it was a Saturday. We try not to shoot on the weekends because of all the cars; people going skiing, everybody's out on the weekend. So we didn't shoot, but we didn't think there was any way that slide would break deep. And it broke nine feet deep, totally natural.