If any drivers had been traveling over Teton Pass from Idaho to Wyoming on Thursday they probably would have turned tail and sped back to Teton Valley upon seeing an M101 Howitzer firing rounds right over their heads.
But no cars, or traffic of any sort, got to experience the terror of getting blown away at 8,432 feet because the Wyoming Department of Transportation had closed the road to sight in its new avalanche gun.
WYDOT avalanche technician Jamie Yount manned the 19.5-foot-long, 4,980-pound gun, sending 12 live rounds west into Teton Pass avalanche terrain.
“It’s pretty entertaining, no doubt,” Yount said. “Not a lot of people get to do it. But we take it really seriously. When we go out and shoot it’s definitely fun, but it’s all business. We follow really strict procedures.”
The department recently switched weapons from an A102 Howitzer used since 1998. Both guns were leased from the United States Army, which recently required its 17 avalanche artillery programs around the country to switch to the M101.
From 9 to 10:50 a.m. Thursday WYDOT positioned the gun from a firing base near milepost 8 on the east side of the pass and went to work. Rounds were fired at Rocky Gulch, Surprise Slide and some targets below the cliff bands of Glory Bowl to acquire target data.
The decision to shoot Thursday morning was made Monday afternoon after forecasts showed clear weather.
“We needed clear weather because we needed to see exactly where the rounds were hitting,” Yount said. “And then we would kind of adjust fire and get that thing right exactly where we want it.”
The team then recorded the exact alignment of the gun to ensure accuracy when avalanche danger calls for action.
“We could go up there in the wintertime, and it could be snowing and blowing and you wouldn’t be able to see anything,” Yount said. “Then you just dial up that same azimuth and elevation, and you know that round’s going to hit. It’s incredibly accurate. Once you get the target data it’s totally repeatable. You don’t have to see the starting zone.”
The M101 Howitzer was the standard light field howitzer used by the U.S. during World War II. After being used extensively against the Japanese army in the Pacific the gun gained a reputation for its accuracy and force.
“I’m sure if it could tell a story it would have some good ones,” Yount said of his crew’s new weapon.
Now retired by the U.S. Army, the gun is used for extreme avalanche situations, but it is being phased out by instruments such as fixed Gazex systems.
Yount said that when he started with the department 13 years ago WYDOT shot around 75 rounds a winter, compared with “around 30” today.
“Honestly, we’re kind of phasing out of it, but it’s still a tool we have in our toolbox,” he said.
Although the last-minute closure announcement threw a wrench into some commuters’ morning, Yount said there was only one minor incident over the 1-hour-and-50-minute procedure.
“There was a guy at the west gate who was having an allergic reaction, and he wanted to get to St. John’s,” he said. “That was the only thing I heard of.”