Fast Company

Cold Warrior

Extreme Jobs

Icicles form on Jerry Balint's graying mustache during his 7:30 AM commute. Fighting fierce winds, he traverses the high ridge above Rendezvous Bowl -- one of the vast, steep snowfields at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, in Wyoming -- hauling a backpack loaded with explosives. Approaching an area known as the Far Drift, near the 10,450-foot summit, Balint pauses on a safe perch and reaches for a two-pound bomb. He cuts the end of a 90-second fuse with clippers, slides on an ignitor, then pulls. "Fire in the hole!" he yells, as he lofts the explosive into a windblown cornice that teeters above a couloir.

For a moment, the high alpine is quiet. Then, with a crack and a deafening whomp, the ground jumps. Beneath a swath of black smoke, the snowfield shatters and a frothy whitecap rolls down the rocky chute, accelerating and gathering mass.

Balint is one of about four dozen patrollers whose mission it is to tame the snowpack on Jackson Hole's notoriously extreme terrain. The patrol stabilizes the mountain by blowing it up -- blasting out windblown drifts and slabs that load up overnight. "Without avalanche control, there's no way we could put the public up here," Balint explains. Indeed, the 2000 season began with two fatalities in the untamed backcountry nearby. And during the 1986 season, two patrolmen were fatally buried in separate slides. But no skier has ever died in an avalanche on the resort's slopes, thanks to the early-morning avalanche hunters.

A former ski bum, Balint, 64, has worked on Jackson Hole's legendary patrol for nearly a quarter century. Lithe and fit, he has no trouble keeping up with colleagues who are many years younger than he is. But it takes more than strength and stamina to make it up here: Training, judgment, and routine are critical to controlling risk in such severe conditions. Balint skis the same route with the same two partners all season, and they have to know the mountain tree to tree and barricade to barricade. "When the wind is howling," says Balint, "and we're in whiteout conditions, we're skiing on memory."

Todd Shapera (todds@cloud9.net) is a writer based in New York.

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