Why Crystal Mountain Needs Gazex

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First a Little History

One of the perks of managing a ski area is that it gives my husband and I an excuse to go on ski vacations. Why? To check out the competition, of course! (Because what’s better than seeing someone else’s sagging rope lines and knowing that it’s not your job to stop and fix it?) If you’ve ever worked as a ski patroller than you know what I’m talking about.

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

A few years ago, John and I visited the Les 3 Vallées in France. One of the largest skiing complexes in the world consisting of eight interconnecting resorts, Les 3 Vallées has no less than 258 Gazex Exploders. Skiing and riding in Europe is a little different than in the States. The Piste Services, which includes the ski patrol (Sécurite dé Pistes) and the cat crew, only manage the actual “pistes.” In Europe a piste is equivalent to a named (and often groomed) run. So imagine if at Crystal we only did avalanche control on named runs or the slopes that overhung named runs. Also picture if we only put out hazard markings and tower pads and caution signs on the groomed runs. Furthermore, imagine that the ski patrol only provided free first aid to those injured on the groomers. Elsewhere, you have to call for your own helicopter and/or pay extra for assistance.

In Les 3 Vallées, Piste Services focus their efforts on the pistes. However, since so much of these slopes are threatened from above by avalanche terrain, skiers also benefit from their extensive use of Gazex exploders. The off-piste in Les 3 Vallées is steep and challenging and very often blasted for avalanche mitigation.

When John and I visited Les 3 Vallées a former Crystal exchange patroller Klébert Silvestre ran the Piste Services in Val Thorens, one of the interconnected resorts there. Klébert was kind enough to show us around. John was most impressed by the Gazex exploders. Gazex is certainly expensive and a little obtrusive, and I wasn’t convinced these would work at Crystal.

The Problem of Powder Bowl

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Powder Bowl is a steep bowl that overhangs a groomed run at Crystal. Snowcats use that run to access the upper mountain at night. Skiers and riders use the cat track below to access some of Crystal’s best terrain, including Lucky Shot and Bear Pits. After our trip to Les 3 Vallées John wanted to implement Gazex in Powder Bowl. Triggered remotely, exploders can mitigate avalanches even when the winds are too high to run the chairlift. Once I looked at Powder Bowl through his eyes, I understood his concern.

On a powder day at Crystal, we pride ourselves on opening the upper mountain (what we call our “in-area” terrain) by 9 am. While that’s not always possible, most mornings skiers and riders are enjoying fresh turns as soon as the lifts begin to spin. Many ski resorts with similar avalanche terrain suffer from chronic late openings of the best terrain. In the PNW, when a slight warmup can worsen the avalanche hazard, we want to get folks skiing and riding (and putting tracks in) that terrain ASAP. Even a slight delay can cause problems. The longer a slope sits unridden after we’ve thrown our explosives, the frownier we patrollers become.

Enter Gazex

This summer crews are installing three Gazex exploders (no, they are not called “boomers” or “pipes” or even really big “jibs”), in Powder Bowl. They will be called Gazex 1, 2, and 3. How’s that for originality? The first one is located in the Summit Chute and the other two are located to the skier’s left. In placing these exploders, we considered many factors. Most importantly, we placed them in the most effective avalanche starting zones. Since these exploders cannot be moved, we want to get the most “bang for the buck.” Also, we considered the traverse path to the left most chutes. These exploder locations are below that traverse, so they shouldn’t get in the way.

But Can I Jump off of it?

Funny thing how you build a big curving metal structure on a ski slope and the first question you get is, “can I jump it?” I suppose that’s possible. Just like jibbing off a chairlift tower is theoretically possible. The top of the structure isn’t exactly smooth. It contains ribs and tubes and various attachment points. So a clean rail slide probably isn’t going to happen. And then there’s the problem of the landing. These exploders are pretty far off the ground. With a little snow on the slope, they might feel a bit lower, but off course these exploders are there to blast the snow off the slope, so not sure how much snow will accumulate right below them. In short, I wouldn’t set my sites on jumping off these bad boys. It might be exciting to think about, but the logistics are pretty daunting.

That's a pretty big landing

That’s a pretty big landing

What Next?

If Gazex in Powder Bowl works as well as we anticipate, our next exploder location will be Rock Face. Since Rock Face is permanently closed, it never gets any skier compaction. In the spring, the entire slope has ripped to the ground. Rock Face also hangs over a cat track. Skiers and riders might have noticed in the past few years seeing the “No stopping beyond this point” signs. That’s pretty sage advice.

Gazex will never replace explosive hand routes at Crystal (phew!). We have too many small pockets. Our mandate in the States is to manage all the terrain, not just the pistes. Therefore we will always need ski patrollers to help mitigate the slopes. But Gazex has it’s place, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well it works this season.

Now let’s all pray to Ullr that we get enough snow to really put our Gazex to the test.

A Flying Ambassador for Wild Orcas

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Wild Orca SeaplaneMy good friends Anna Gullickson and Michael Hays are working to support wild orca populations. To raise awareness in the PNW through their foundation Wild Orca, Michael and Anna hope to transform a Kenmore DeHavilland Otter float plane into a whale. Check out the video below and consider donating to this great cause.

 

 

Surfing Behind a Yacht

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I’m here to tell you, surfing behind a yacht is amazing fun. While I didn’t make it out for this session on Lake Washington, the video below, put together by the great guys at Stohke, shows a little bit of the ridiculousness. And I thought yachts were for retirees. Silly me.

 

All-Woman Skiing Posse=Best Thing Ever

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As a woman and as a skier, I’m here to tell you something. Skiing with a group of ripping women is fun. It’s real fun. It’s pinch-yourself-in-your-thigh-cause-you’re-not-even-sure-life-is-supposed-to-be-this-fun kind of fun. I grew up chasing my older sister around the slopes, and so I know something else to be true. If those fellow skiers are just a little bit better than you (or a LOT better than you, let’s face it) your skills improve fast.

The old Chair 6, Christy and Kim

The old Chair 6, Christy and Kim

As a ski industry person, I want to promote women skiers. We are half the population for starters. Since last I checked skiing is more dudes than chicks, I’ve often wondered how to get more women into the sport. If I had a snowflake for every time I heard, “I used to ski, before I had kids,” then I’d have a full-blown powder day on my hands.

So what gives?

Lel Tone and Kim Kircher

Hanging with Lel Tone 

Maybe women just don’t know how much fun you can have on skis. Whether you’re skiing solo, taking the kids for a lap on the bunny hill, searching for powder with your husband/boyfriend/co-worker or slicing arcs across the groomers, skiing is just fun. Plain and simple.

Kim Kircher and Corinne Mariethoz

Me and Corinne 

But here’s another thing. This is a secret, so you’ll have to lean in close.

Skiing with women is even better. Don’t tell my husband I said that. No hard feelings JK, you’re a lot of fun too. But skiing with a posse of ladies makes me bolder. It makes me relish just a little longer in the sheer joy of the thing.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all poetic about the pure experience of the sport. We are still too far away from the start of the season to go there. But you get the gist.

Getting the Girls Out at Crystal Mountain

Getting the Girls Out at Crystal Mountain

This is why I’m looking forward to watching Unicorn Picnic’s Pretty Faces film. Lyndsey Dyer is on a mission to introduce more women to the sport. She spearheaded shejumps.org, an organization dedicated to increasing female participation in outdoor activities. Lyndsey hopes to provide women of all ages and abilities a, “source of inspiration through a unique look at what is possible when boundaries are broken, dreams captured and friendships cultivated.” Check out the trailer below and prepare to get inspired.

 

 

What’s So Cool About Gazex?

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Exciting, new avalanche control technology is coming to Crystal this season. Three Gazex exploders are currently being installed in Powder Bowl, and if you’re not familiar with the technology, you’ll have to trust me on this one. Gazex is cool.

Why?

Because nothing says all-caps AWESOME like a fiery ball of gas setting off an avalanche. That’s two Hollywood-style special effects for the price of one. Let’s call it the Powder Bowl Two-fer.

Gazex Explosion

So what is Gazex?

Here’s the official marketing speak from the maker’s of Gazex (T.A.S). website:

Gazex is a powerful, permanent remote avalanche control systems. Gazex operates without explosives: the blast is caused by the detonation of a propane and oxygen mixture. The exploders are connected to a central gas shelter capable of storing sufficient gas reserves for the entire season.

Essentially it breaks down like this: a few squirts (and by “squirts” I mean a highly scientific mixture) of propane and O2 are blended in the exploder tube and lit on fire. This is the kind of thing ten-year-old boys’ dreams are made of. A blast of fire explodes from the tip of the tube and points straight down at the snow. This, in turn, will start an avalanche if conditions are right. If not, just like with explosives AC (Avalanche Control), the slope is deemed safe enough to ride.

These exploders are permanent installations. For this reason, Gazex isn’t going to be replacing the ski patrol avalanche teams anytime soon (phew!). Instead, our goal is to use Gazex in places like PB and possibly Rock Face–avalanche paths that overhang heavily trafficked pistes. The Gazex exploders are triggered remotely, which means that the patrol can fire them off quickly and if the hazard ramps up during a storm.

Our Powder Bowl Gazex exploders won’t necessarily mean that Southback is going to open anytime sooner. But they will help us expedite our “in-area” Avalanche Control, keep our snowcat drivers safer and help to mitigate avalanche hazard in Powder Bowl.

Most importantly, Gazex is simply going to be cool to watch.

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Ski Area Operator’s Worst Nightmare

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You might have seen this one on Unofficial Networks. Basically it’s your worst nightmare. The title is Every Skiers Nightmare, but really this is every ski operator’s nightmare too. One big gust of wind and that cable comes right off the line. Scary stuff. Chairlifts in N. America are regulated by a tram board. One of the basic requirements on all chairlifts is that the sheeve assemblies (the little wheels that the cable rides on) have a cable catcher that doesn’t allow this to happen. I’m not even sure how this is possible. But it’s ugly.

Deropement

This is what it looks like without a cable catcher.

 

 

 

 

Last week in Slovakia a flood and subsequent landslide destroyed the base area of Vråtna ski area. This one, too, sent a chill down my spine. According to the ski area’s Facebook page, no one was injured. But several million dollars worth of damage has been done to the ski area. Those Dopplemeyer gondolas don’t come cheap.

Gondola cabins inundated with landslide

Gondola cabins inundated with landslide

Vråtna's Gondola gets destroyed in landslide

Vråtna’s Gondola gets destroyed in landslide

 

 

Another B Lot Boy Featured in Powder: Steve Fratella

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Photo by Matt Small

Photo by Matt Small

Julie Brown at Powder.com continued recently with her Pay It Forward interview series in which she finds the true locals in the ski/snowboard world, asks them a few soulful questions and then has them choose the next interviewee.

I love this series not only because she started at Crystal, but more importantly because these are the true heroes of our sport.

Her first interview was with Crystal Mountain’s Hugh Gren. Hugh paid it forward to Steve and the resulting interview can now be found at Powder.

People like Hugh and Steve aren’t skiing for sponsors. They aren’t posting their best runs to YouTube or even wearing POV cameras. On the chairlift, these guys aren’t worried about the battery life on their GoPro.

They’re scoping their next line.

They go to the mountains to ski, to hang out with their friends, and have fun. They aren’t there to burnish their image or work on their brand or post impossibly filtered photos to Instagram.

It’s no surprise, really, that Julie’s first two interviews were Crystal locals. Many of these guys and gals stay for weeks in trailers in B Lot, Crystal’s big parking lot ringed on one side with RV parking. A handful of the most colorful locals are known, simply, as the B Lot Boys.

Photo by Matt Small

Photo by Matt Small

Steve Fratella is the real deal. He’s been at Crystal for as many seasons as I have. He skis hard and flies well under the radar, and I’m thrilled to see him showcased in my favorite magazine. Thanks Steve for keeping it real.