By Evan Johnson
KILLINGTON— On Tuesday afternoon, my phone vibrated with a text from Killington Mountain School’s director of athlete development, Gar Trayner: “Meet me at the umbrella bar [at the] bottom of Superstar at 2:50.”
I replied that I was on my way, grabbed car keys and camera and was out the door. Blasting operations wait for no man and I couldn’t be late.
Next to the K1 base lodge, a group of people wearing reflective vests, radios and hardhats were gathering. Down the hill from the Umbrella Bar a broad orange sign warned: “Warning — Blasting Area.”
Up the hill from us on Superstar — the famed Killington black diamond trail that has seen the likes of World Cup champ Mikaela Shiffrin — a wide swath of hillside on skier’s left had been mowed and a pile of dirt and rock had been excavated.
For the majority of that day, workers from Maine Drilling and Blasting had been working to remove some 630 square feet of rock and earth to make room for the Killington Mountain School’s new practice jump. Designed for freestyle skiers, snowboarders and other aerialists, the jump system will feature two jumps onto a 100-by-80-foot air bag that can be used year-round.
“[Athletes] will be hitting this jump all summer long and then in the winter we’ll have a snow jump built beside it so we can take that air directly on the snow like they’ve been practicing,” Trayner said.
The group spread out to their respective assignments. Trayner handed me the remaining safety vest and hardhat and instructed me to follow him.
Lacking steel-toe work boots, my sneakers and socks were soaked within minutes as we marched over ground tracked from trucks and earth-moving machines. The stink of clay was heavy and a low mist obscured the upper mountain. As Trayner and I walked uphill, he talked into his radio, checking on the status of the nine-member team tasked with maintaining a perimeter at their respective stations. Pedestrians and drivers were instructed to either move away to a safe distance or remain indoors.
“Alexis on five,” Trayner said into his radio.
The radio chirped, “All clear.”
We stopped 50 yards uphill, where three workers from Maine Drilling and Blasting were making last-minute preparations between a bulldozer and a pickup truck. Trayner introduced me to Mark Billings, a blaster with 20 years of experience who was directing operations at Killington. Billings wore rimless safety glasses and high muck boots, and his hardhat sported a sticker from Dyno Nobel that said “I [heart] explosives.”
A 14-volt electronic airhorn and a metal object that looked like a cross between a meat thermometer and a penlight sat on the driver’s seat of the truck. A length of yellow fuse snaked out of the cab of the truck into the grass away from us. A small camcorder on a tripod pointed in the same direction.
“We record every one of the shots,” explained a worker named Cody.
It was the second day of blasting at the worksite and the crew had already moved a fair amount of rock and soil, removed with the help of a compound called Blastex, a water-resistant packaged emulsion explosive produced by commercial explosive manufacturer Dyno Nobel. The ground had been prepared with 18 mats made of recycled tires, each weighing 5,600 pounds, placed to absorb the upward force of the dentonation.
With the shot prepared and the crew in position, we waited by the truck.
“They said the sun was gonna shine this afternoon, didn’t they?” Billings said.
“I heard it’s shining above the clouds,” Trayner replied.
Billings produced the air horn from the cab and instructed us to cover our ears. He pointed the horn across the hillside and pulled the trigger in three sustained blasts, warning the area we were five minutes away from the shot. After four minutes, Billings let off two blasts to mark the one-minute mark. Before he issued the final “all clear” he told me to stand behind the bulldozer.
He took the “shooter” in his hand and yelled: “Fire in the hole!”
There was an initial crack as the shotgun primer ignited before a low thud rolled off the mountainside and rumbled in the soles of my feet and my chest. Looking through the viewfinder on my camera, I watched as a grey plume of smoke or dust shot out of the ground and those 100,000 pounds of mats leapt 15 feet into the air with the force of the blast, like simple throw-rugs being shaken loose of dust.
After the dust settled, Trayner and I walked forward to survey the results. Where solid ground had once stood, it had collapsed into a hole greater than 10 feet deep. A backhoe operator began flinging chunks of rock into a pile. Some pieces were as big as refrigerators or microwaves; others were the size of Volkswagen Beetles. These rocks would need to be broken down into smaller pieces before they could be removed.
I asked Mark Billings what would happen to all of the rock.
“I don’t care,” he said with a laugh. “I’m just the guy who makes the mess and then I go home.”
By Paul Holmes
A large membrane made of tires covers the blast spot, to reduce the boom.