Innovation from the Swiss mountains triggering what can't be stopped. Christian Wyssen, Wyssen Avalanche Control AG, makes avalanche towers with international appeal.
Wyssen Avalanche Control AG: The avalanche experts
The family firm Wyssen Avalanche Control AG tames avalanches. The company develops and manufactures avalanche towers, which can be used to trigger the dangerous masses of snow via an app. And this can be done at all times of the day, in all weathers, and from a safe location.
At the time this text is being written in the middle of January 2019, it is snowing, and heavily. The Weissfluhjoch weather station has registered 2.5 meters of fresh snow in one day, a record for this time of year. There is a serious risk of an avalanche occurring – level five on a scale of one to five; the Institute for Avalanche Research reports that the last comparable situation was in the winter of 1999.
From the forestry ropeway to the avalanche blasting ropeway
"The avalanche winter of 1999 gave rise to our business idea of the avalanche towers," says Christian Wyssen, member of the board of Wyssen Avalanche Control AG. The company is based in Reichenbach im Kandertal, at the entrance to the valley. There are steep slopes to the left and right so it's natural that people think about avalanches here. But it wasn't topography that led to the product.
A fearless and creative ancestor
"The company Wyssen Seilbahnen has been in existence since 1926," says Wyssen. "My grandfather, Jakob Wyssen, developed ropeways for forestry work so that tree trunks could be transported more easily and safely from the forest. This led to the creation of a company for making ropeways to transport materials," explains the grandson. Jakob Wyssen saw great potential in export as early as the 1950s and therefore took an unusual step: "At a time when a trip to Bern was almost a trip around the world for most people in Kandertal, he got on a steamer with his entire family and crossed the ocean to reach the US. He wanted to fell trees in North American forests. He took his ropeway technology with him, for which he found some interested buyers in the US Forest Service," explains Christian Wyssen. The company grew and specialized in various ropeways for transporting materials. In 1974, the family-owned company Wyssen built a small ropeway over an avalanche-prone slope for the first time. Using a crank, the explosive charges could be moved to where they were needed by hand, and later with a small motor, and then they could be detonated.
Triggering avalanches from a warm office
But the ropeway solution also has disadvantages: "You have to go up into the mountains to operate an avalanche blasting ropeway. That takes time," Wyssen explains. For detonations by helicopter or by hand, the problem of time is even more significant, because you often have to wait until the weather has calmed down, in addition to the larger risk. Closed pistes and cut-off roads affect the revenues of winter sports resorts directly – accordingly, there is great interest in avalanche dispersion methods that are as fast and safe as possible.
And so, at the time of the heavy snowfall in the winter of 1999, the Wyssens developed their vision of avalanche towers that could be permanently installed on avalanche-prone slopes, and from which the charges could be detonated from a safe distance or even from an office – at any time and in all weathers. The first prototype was in place two years later. The company Wyssen Avalanche Control was founded in 2009 and was separated from the original firm Wyssen Seilbahnen. Both companies are still based at the same location, however, and use the same offices and production facilities.
A tower with an explosive head
An avalanche tower comprises a steel column with a kind of spike at the top. The counterpart to this is a cylindrical deployment box with a funnel-shaped recess in the middle. The deployment boxes are lowered onto the towers by helicopter. As soon as the sensor-equipped cylinder with its 12 explosive charges is correctly engaged, this is indicated to the helicopter pilot using a flashing light. Depending on the amount of snow, the 12 explosive packets can be enough for a whole winter. If not, the deployment box can be refilled when the weather is suitable for flying.
An app for big hands
Christian Wyssen thinks there is still great potential for innovation in the WAC.3 web app, and in the area of detection. "Detection means surveillance from the towers or the valleys. We use a laser to measure the snow depth every six hours so that we know an avalanche was really triggered or to see how much snow has accumulated," says Wyssen. The aim is for the web app to become even more sophisticated in the future and provide operators with additional information: "At the moment, we have too few people for the many ideas we're developing. One important aspect is user-friendliness. Our software is intended to provide people outside in the snow and in stormy weather with all-round support, and people with big hands should also find it easy to use," says Wyssen.
The team is at the heart of the company
"Innovation workshops and such activities are not really our thing," Wyssen points out with a laugh. Rather, at Wyssen Avalanche Control, innovation occurs unintentionally – when chatting in a corridor or during a break, or perhaps out in the snow during a day's skiing. And Wyssen, whose team has a total of 65 members, has no doubt: "We give our employees challenging tasks and simultaneously a great deal of responsibility and freedom. This creates a culture where creativity develops naturally." The team is hugely important for Wyssen. He mentions it again and again, stressing that innovation often comes about through informal discussions within the group.
The team also includes the other family members who work in the company, the third generation of Wyssens. The managing director of Wyssen Avalanche Control is Sam Wyssen, one of Christian Wyssen's cousins. His two brothers Jakob Martin and Jürg Wyssen sit on the board of Wyssen Seilbahnen. The two companies are not just physically close to each other, they also benefit from each other's expertise.
There are now Wyssen ropeways in 65 countries. By contrast, the newer company Avalanche Control has only been exporting for a few years. "Today, we have erected around 250 installations in Switzerland, and some 200 abroad. We export about 50 percent at present," says Wyssen. The installations are imported by Austria, Norway, Chile, Canada, and the US.
To Chile with Credit Suisse's support
"We depend on an international bank for our exports," Wyssen continues. "Credit Suisse helps us with the necessary bank guarantees, and if we have any questions, our relationship manager always strives to find the best solution for us as quickly as possible. It may sound trite, but it's true: We trust Credit Suisse and the bank trusts us." In Chile, Wyssen Avalanche Control is at present involved in using its avalanche blasting installations to secure the mountain roads for the miners who work there. "Especially with orders like this, our bank's experience is a big plus," says Wyssen.
Potential for the fourth generation
What limits are there to the growth of Wyssen Avalanche Control? For example, if there is less snow owing to climate change? "That doesn't worry us," says Wyssen. "Although the snow line is rising, weather events are becoming more extreme and on each occasion a lot of snow falls very quickly – like now in January 2019. Avalanche blasting installations will still be needed – or even more so." Wyssen says he can imagine that the market for new avalanche towers in Switzerland could be exhausted at some stage, but he still sees plenty of potential abroad. The fourth generation of Wyssens are still in their infancy, proverbially speaking. "One day, if our children want to, I can well imagine that they too will be involved with snow and avalanches," says Wyssen, as he looks at the gray clouds over the Kander valley. And the snow continues to fall.
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