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The bombing of Ajax Peak: How regular avalanche mitigation became a beloved spectacle in Telluride

"It kind of releases something inside of you — can't help but whoop it up just a little bit."
Posted: 2:41 PM, Feb 16, 2024
Updated: 2024-02-16 19:50:55-05
Ryan Bonneau / Telluride Tourism Board Ajax avalanche

TELLURIDE, Colo. — People trickled out of stores to stand on the main street in Telluride on Monday afternoon and squint their eyes at the summit of a snowy mountain perfectly framed by the buildings. And waited.

At nearly 13,000 feet, Ajax Peak is a behemoth of rock that looms in the outskirts of the mountain community like a tidal wave.

All eyes were trained on its snow-laden summit, above treeline, as a poof of snow suddenly sprung skyward from the slope — a sign that an explosive had been set off. Excited voices grew louder. Kids shrieked.

"There it goes!" somebody yelled. "Wow, look at that."

The bombing of Ajax Peak: How regular avalanche mitigation became a beloved spectacle in Telluride

Cracks extended across the mountain face and the snow began to slide downward, seemingly slow at first before entering the trees and two gulleys, where it accelerated and rapidly grew both up and out. It slammed into the floor of Telluride Valley, ballooning up, close enough for the crowds to see its power, but a safe distance from town. It was the best show in years, residents reported.

The iconic mountain undergoes these controlled slides to reduce the risks of a natural — and unexpected — one occurring when people are near its base.

This kind of mitigation work happens regularly all over the state's mountain ranges, but something is different about Ajax. Special. Completely unique.

Because over the years, the bombing of Ajax has become somewhat of a block party with a unique Telluride twist: an avalanche.

It starts with a phone notification and a social media post about 48 hours in advance. Word travels fast around the tightly knit town: "Helitrax is bombing Ajax on Monday."

That's Telluride Helitrax, a heli-skiing operation that also contracts with entities for avalanche mitigation work. Once avalanche hazards become high and endanger people below, they work with the San Miguel Sheriff's Office to inform the public that the area and road around the base of Ajax Peak, at the far end of the box canyon, will close.

People mark their calendars. Local radio stations share the news.

This year, hundreds upon hundreds, if not thousands, of people gathered along Telluride's Colorado Avenue, which the locals call Main Street, on Monday afternoon, said Telluride Town Manager Scott Robson. Stores closed their doors and local government paused. Everybody shrugged on their winter coats and walked outside.

"We want to shut it down and (have) everyone be outside and just enjoy that moment together," he said. "It's also a chance to just see neighbors or people from around the community you haven't run into for maybe a few days or a few weeks. And truly everybody is out, from the mayor to business owners to school kids. It's truly a community event."

Chris Dickson, an Ophir-based avalanche educator behind the San Juan SnowCast podcast, recalled people starting to stand outside about an hour ahead of time.

"People just pull over their cars, open the door, stand there in the street," he said. "People come out of restaurants. Traffic comes to a screeching halt on Main Street because it's just packed with people. And everyone just stops to watch."

Around 4 p.m., the crowd followed a Helitrax helicopter as it zoomed over town toward Ajax, the signal that the show would start shortly.

"There's a hush to the crowd for a couple of minutes, knowing what's coming, but not knowing exactly when," Robson said. "And watching the chopper do its work and search for just the right spot to drop the charges on the Ajax— it's an amazing buzz and then quiet."

Seeing the first hint of action — that initial explosive on the mountain — is akin to the first firework on the Fourth of July.

Early season snow became a weak layer under recent larger snowfalls, on top of significant wind deposits, Robson explained. Nature hasn't nudged the snow off the slope, so that's when Telluride Helitrax stepped in.

"So, you had a big snow load, which makes for a big firework, if you will," Robson said. "This bombing that occurred on Monday really brought down largely a season's worth of snow on certain slopes that cascade off of these big, beautiful, sunny, sloped sides into these very narrow, rocky drainages that cascade over 200- and 300-foot cliffs into the valley."


Monday's avalanche sent a debris cloud hundreds of feet in the air, covering the view of Ajax.

"I think for the people who've never seen anything like that before, it's pretty astonishing. And for the people who've seen it before, you know, this year was especially good," Dickson said. "It's just that kind of release of seeing something truly impressive, but knowing you're safe, and being able to just take in the raw power of that event. It kind of releases something inside of you — can't help but whoop it up just a little bit."

Robson said in the aftermath, the Telluride public works equipment operators went to work clearing the roads impacted by the avalanche, which lead to several structures, including one of the town's primary water treatment plants at the end of the box canyon. After fighting their way through hundreds of tons of snow upwards of 12 feet high, they can reopen the road.


The day is breathtaking, memorable and rugged for all involved. Robson counts himself lucky that he lives in one of the few, or only, places in the west where the key viewpoint for avalanche mitigation is his main street.

"I think that's what we pride ourselves on in Telluride — we are a real mountain community," Robson said. "There are events like this that bring us together that just don't happen in other places around the world, frankly."

It's one of those few times in life when a large crowd can soak in a collective experience, Dickson said.

"It's a powerful connection and point of connection," he continued. "And it allows you to just kind of all take a break from life and see something really special. And remember it for the rest of your life."

Few people had a better seat on Monday than Matt Steen.

High above the buzzing crowds gathered in the streets, Steen sat in the helicopter that dropped the explosive. He has done this work for years, but it has yet to get old.

"You know, we are flying around, throwing explosives out of a helicopter and watching beautiful snow slide down the mountain," he said with a smile.

Steen is the director of snow safety and a guide for Telluride Helitrax, which was contracted by the private and historic Idarado Mine in conjunction with the Town of Telluride to perform avalanche forecasting and mitigation on Ajax. They are typically contracted for this specific task once or twice a year.

"We build the explosives and we plan it out," he said. "We time it as well as we can when we're up there... It's kind of a tradition that there's a helicopter flyby on our way up there so everyone knows that we're gonna go do it."

Ajax bombing_Telluride Helitrax

On Monday, the crew flew over downtown Telluride toward Ajax, an indication for those down below that the avalanche would happen soon. The helicopter crew determined where to drop the explosive and let the burning fuse loose. Multiple minutes went by as the helicopter orbited the peak, its shadow playing across the flat, bright snow clinging to the mountainside. And then that grip loosened.

"As an avalanche forecaster and in the industry for many years, you get to see the snowpack react to this force of energy in a specific way," Steen explained. "There are weak layers that are failing deeper in the snowpack. And you can kind of see how that transitions through the slope."

Some years, the work results in no avalanches. But this year was "super special," he said.

"Usually avalanches, when we hear about them, it's because of someone potentially triggering them and being involved with them and being injured. But this time, it's kind of a celebration in town where people get to witness Mother Nature and its beauty," Steen said.

bombing of Ajax Peak_Telluride Tourism Board

Steen and the rest of the crew circled Ajax and monitored the avalanches as they raced into the valley. Not unlike the mass of people congregated in town, they were also in awe.

"You get an amazing view of Mother Nature and avalanches streaming off of peaks and we get to get some pretty amazing photographs as well," he said, adding that his work inspired him to open a photography business, called Lens 44.

Other photographers in town, while lacking the unique access for a bird's eye view, know exactly how to find the best vantage points on the ground.

Clarke Dyar, a local photographer who has lived in Telluride off and on since 1999, said he has his "own little spot" outside of town. In years past, he has hiked through the avalanche track in the springtime to see all the trees, rocks and other debris that the melted-away snow left behind.

"It's really cool for the tourists when they come up here because you hear 'avalanche' — it's like this mythical phenomenon that you are never going to see," Dyar said. "And so when you see it, you see the raw power of it and how massive it actually is."

It's a humbling sight, he said, and stands as a good reminder to stay aware of conditions in the backcountry.

"As a photographer up here, you go into these shoots with zero expectations. You come up with hopes," he said.

Clarke Dyar_Ajax Peak avalanche

By the time the snow settled, Dyar had captured countless crisp shots of the Ajax avalanche on Monday and stitched 10 together into a singular photo. People are already requesting prints.

"The fact that you can just be in the middle of this picturesque town and see just the roaring nature coming down — all the elements put together," Dyar said. "It's one of the most beautiful things you can witness here in town in the wintertime."

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