A snowstorm is raging around Gerd Baumgartner. He gropes his way forward with a shovel in his hand and 21 kilos of pure dynamite slung over his shoulder.
The Fellhorn summit ridge to which he trudges is 2037 meters above sea level. Up there are the dangerous snow cornices (heavily compacted snow deposits), also known as the white death. Baumgartner is a demolition expert and has been chasing avalanches for 46 years.
“Most of the time, the mountain railway operators or municipalities call us the day before the blast. If there is a lot of precipitation and drifts, ski slopes or farms are threatened by the snow masses, ”explains the native of Augsburg.
Blowing up avalanches is work for early risers: the alarm clock rings at two o’clock, explosives have to be prepared. Baumeister stores the special Riomon T1 avalanche explosive in a bunker. He can have up to 2.5 tons there. The explosive is stable down to minus 25 degrees Celsius and dissolves in the snow without leaving any residue. Price per kilo: seven euros. The team earns 500 euros per blast.
Baumgartner’s nephew Mirko Hieble (32) has also been an avalanche sprinkler for eight years. Three hours later they are both on the mountain. The blasting takes place either from a helicopter or on foot: “During the helicopter blasting, we are picked up by a mountain rescue team and flown to the slope that needs to be blasted. In the helicopter, the explosive charge is detonated via a fuse and thrown onto the snow field.” After two minutes, the charge detonates on the slope.
Last year, the duo blasted 300 fields of snow from a helicopter and 20 from the ground. “In 1999 we blasted 14 days in a row. I was done. That’s where the plug goes,” says Baumgartner.
The explosive charges on the Fellhorn have to be placed on foot. The advantage: the charges can be placed with pinpoint accuracy. A 50-kilo rucksack filled with a blasting machine, rope and cable makes the ascent more difficult. Baumgartner carries the explosive charges in his hand – another 30 kilos of additional weight.
Secured by the mountain rescue service, the sprinklers scramble under the pillars and attach the Riomon T1. A total of 21 kilos are ignited today, spread over a width of 200 meters.
Before the blasting, there is “snapping”, then the blasters lie flat on the slope. The 64-year-old: “Before each blast we drink a glass of wine. Once we forgot the schnapps and promptly the charge didn’t go up.”
But then: “IGNITION!” The blasting is done electrically. The detonations are exactly simultaneous at the push of a button. The avalanche is controlled.
At 9 a.m. the descent into the valley begins. Baumgartner jokes, “It gets harder because the guy is getting old, but it’s fun. I want to jump a few more years, then my nephew will take over. There must be some nerds out there that will do the job.”
In the Austrian Alps, nine people have died from avalanches since Friday alone. There were eight deaths in Tyrol and one in Vorarlberg.