Look Out Donner Pass: The Avalauncher Is Here

Large Retina | Inside Track: Avalauncher main
Medium | Inside Track: Avalauncher launcher crop 2

The avalauncher releases two pounds of explosives at the mountain to create a controlled avalanche.

California’s Donner Pass averages 411 inches of annual snowfall – 34 feet! What is there to do to handle Old Man Winter?

They beat him to the action and create a controlled avalanche.

You read that right.

With a specialized piece of equipment, Engineering crews on Union Pacific’s Roseville Subdivision deploy the avalauncher, which launches two pounds of explosives at the mountain to create a controlled avalanche.

“We bring an avalanche down to us when we want it instead of when Mother Nature wants it,” said Mike Upton, senior manager-Track Maintenance, Engineering.

This action reduces the risk of an uncontrolled avalanche that could create potentially hazardous situations on the tracks.

Medium | Inside Track: Avalauncher Locomotive buried in snow

Donner Pass receives 34 feet of snowfall annually, causing track issues.

Numerous winter storms and resulting avalanches have caused derailments and other track issues since Upton joined UP 23 years ago. Avalanches can bring a half a football field sized sheet of snow, 2-3 feet deep, going up to 80 mph.

“There had to be a better way than just muscling through everything, and I mean muscling,” Upton said. “We essentially fast forwarded the snow program into the 21st century with this change.”

In hopes of determining that better way, an avalanche mitigation plan has been in the works since 2010. That includes the use of an avalanche forecast team – experts in the field who monitor snow pack, wind, moisture and several parameters to determine when to launch the explosives to mitigate risk.

Upton said other research included reaching out to ski resorts dealing with these same issues. It quickly became clear this was the best option. And he ensures it’s not a new idea – ski resorts have used a program like this for 40 years.

The system allows the clearing of the track, reducing the chance of potentially dangerous situations.

“It’s the best for employee safety,” Upton said. “This is going to hopefully prevent avalanche-caused problems.”

The avalauncher could be used between the months of November and April.

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