Taming the Mountain

Seven Norwegians educate Strong Resolve troops on dangers of avalanches.

In four years of conflict during WW I, on the Italian Alpine Front, 50,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches. These days, according to the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, avalanches kill about 150 people per year worldwide. The key to avoiding becoming a number in an avalanche statistic is education and knowledge, and that's the job of seven Norwegian men deployed to Exercise Strong Resolve in Central Norway.

Led by Norwegian Army Lt. Col. John Petter Bachke, Chief of Staff for the North Hålogaland Regiment, these five army officers and two scientists from the Norwegian Institute make up the Strong Resolve Avalanche Team and are charged with educating the commander and units of 13 NATO nations, ensuring the safety of the exercise's 15,000 participants.

Armed with snowmobiles, skis, shovels and a 3-meter long collapsible aluminium pole, these men patrol daily the 11,000 square kilometres of land that makes up the snowy exercise area.

"We like to say we can find our way when others can't," said Bachke as he pulled a tracking device from his backpack. "And if we do have a problem, everyone of us on the team wears one of these," he said pointing to the bright yellow box about the size of two cigarette packs laid side by side with a flashing red light on top. "This sends out a tone so other members of the team can locate another in case someone was trapped under the snow."

A typical day begins around 6 a.m. They split up into three teams and head out either on snowmobiles or on a 2-hour helicopter ride, courtesy of the Norwegian Air Force.

The snowmobile group does reconnaissance on an area predetermined the night before based on the previous days' assessments. They create a snow profile by checking the snow in all four compass directions and above and below the tree line in avalanche prone spots.

"This is done to find the different snow layers and different weather layers," said Bachke. "Seeing an ice layer or a snow blown layer, tells us how the weather has changed and lets us know this is an area to watch or not."

The helicopter group sets out surveying the exercise area for problem or trouble spots and then sets down on the peak of a mountain in a different region each time. The team then sets out on skis toward the bottom of the mountain, creating a snow profile along the way.

Their day usually ends around 5 p.m. after they've produced the daily Avalanche Hazard Warning, which predicts avalanche potential for the next 24 hours.

Though they are capable of search and rescue, Bachke insists his group of seven is not a rescue team. "We are here to give advice to the exercise director, the exercise umpires and to educate the units on how to prevent an avalanche and what to do if they're caught in one," he said.

Since an avalanche can travel at speeds reaching 130 kilometres per hour, and usually reaches its top speed within 5 seconds, it is imperative for soldiers in the field to be aware of their surroundings and to look for signs of an avalanche.

"This means look for open areas of trees where trees should be," said Bachke. A mass of snow sliding down a mountainside can push objects the size of automobiles for hundreds of meters, and a tell tale sign of an avalanche is the absence of trees in the middle of a forest.

Since most avalanches occur on slopes of 30-45 degrees, Bachke recommends units stay away from these areas when possible. "Also, units preparing to head into the field or planning operations should check their routes using maps specifically outlining avalanche danger zones and they should also check the prior days' posted Avalanche Hazard Warning," he said.

Two other things to remember, Bachke said, are that snow is most unstable after and during snowfalls or prolonged heating by the sun. Also gullies are many times more hazardous than open slopes because they act as natural avalanche chutes.

Exercise Strong Resolve '02 is a NATO exercise demonstrating the capability of the alliance to conduct two simultaneous operations coping with two simultaneous crises. One crisis setting consists of a NATO Article Five war-fighting scenario in response to an aggressive act against a NATO member. Article Five of the NATO charter states that an attack on any NATO member state will be considered an attack on all NATO member states.

The second setting is a crisis response operations exercise and scheduled in Poland. This setting will focus on peace support operations, specifically a peace enforcement operation.

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