Let’s Get This Ski Season Started, Shall We?

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It’s a Christmas miracle. Or maybe our anti-pineapple campaign did the trick. Or perhaps all of the snow dances and frozen spoons and ice cubes flushed down the toilet helped too. Thanks to all who did their part,  Crystal will open tomorrow for skiing and riding. We will start out with the Gondola and Green Valley Chair, then hope to add more terrain, including Forest Queen, Rainier Express and the new Chair 6 this week. Check the website for more details.

Crystal base area Saturday morning.

Crystal base area Saturday morning

The conditions are actually pretty good. According to the telemetry, as well as eye-witness accounts, the upper mountain did fairly well out of this latest storm. We picked up about 16″ of snow Friday night and Saturday morning (according to people who skied Saturday). It briefly went above freezing at the top Saturday night, and only rained .18″ during those three hours. The rest of the time it was snowing up in Green Valley.

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

At the base, it snowed about 12″ before it warmed , and we got another 1″ or so of rain. But the good news, is that we still came out ahead of where we were before it all started. At 10 am Sunday morning, it is still raining at the base and snowing at the bottom of Forest Queen.

My guess is that anything above 5,000 feet will ski well. It should be smooth and supportive and a lot of fun.

So what do you say? Let’s get this ski season started, shall we?

The Beautiful World of Avalanche Control

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Avalanche mitigation seems to be having a moment. In the very small world of snow sports, avalanche mitigation is an even tinier niche. It’s the realm of professional ski patrollers and DOT highway workers and a few avalanche consultants. We call it “avalanche control” or “AC” or “Avi”. Some call it “avalanche reduction” or “control work.” Others call it simply “hazard mitigation.”

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

I’ve been doing it up at Crystal for years. Up until recently I had a hard time explaining what it was like. Before POV cameras that strap to a helmet or a chest harness, few patrollers could hold a video camera in one hand and also plug their ears at the same time.

Besides, ski patrollers don’t want to slow down the process. Time is of the essence on avalanche control mornings. Crowds of powder hunters often wait in long, snaking lines at the chairlift, listening to the bombs explode in the starting zones and waiting for the all clear. Quality video takes time and it also takes good visibility–two things in low quantity on a powder day.

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Good avalanche footage is hard to come by. That’s why I like this video by Chris Morgan at twosherpas.com. It’s called PROfile: Ski Patroller G.R. Fletcher. It takes place at Snow Basin in Utah. The avalanche footage is clean and beautiful. It’s nothing historic or scary, just good sharp surface slabs that allow the patrol to open up some nice-looking terrain.

I can appreciate G.R.’s discussion on group dynamics. Ski patrollers must trust one another. Whether ski cutting a starting zone or working side by side on a medical call, the job requires a certain closeness. G.R. has been patrolling for 25 years, and you can detect a little wariness in his voice. The job is not easy. There are some hard days. Some days are boring, when the crowds are low and the snow is icy–not even worth taking a lap.

Other days are so scary that you can’t sleep that night. We work on serious accidents, some that even end in tragedy. But then there are days like the one pictured in this video. These days are crisp and beautiful and covered in a skein of soft snow. Near-perfect days require enough challenge and uncertainty to keep the flow going. That’s what keeps me coming back to the job every year. It’s days like this.

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

On another note: Crystal isn’t open at the moment. But things are looking better for a limited opening this weekend. Stay tuned on the website. Oh, and by the way. It’s currently snowing at Crystal. Keep doing those snow dances.

Snowman Film: When heli-blasting goes wrong

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I’m hoping my mother never sees this movie. It looks brilliant and fascinating and on-the-edge-of-your-seat exhilarating. As a heli-blaster myself, the trailer for this film captures that mixture of awe and horror that roils inside while watching a big avalanche pull away and wreak havoc on a mountain side.

Kevin Fologin is an avalanche forecaster and consultant in B.C.’s rugged Coast Range, where he regularly drops explosives from helicopters to start avalanches.  One day, one of these missions goes horribly wrong. Check out the trailer below.

In the first segment of this film to drop on Salomon FreeskiTV Kevin describes the ironic fascination of purposely creating avalanches. Most of us try to avoid avalanches. Snow safety consultants like Kevin (and ski patrollers across the world) hunt them.

Our job isn’t necessarily to prevent avalanches, but rather to create them. Once a slope has avalanched, the cartridge in the barrel has been spent. My favorite part of the first segment of the film below is during the big avalanche footage. Just listen to Kevin’s voice on the radio. “Go, go, go. Look at that thing go,” he says just as the toe of the avalanche launches over a beautiful slope toward the valley bottom. He lets out a laugh while the camera follows the cascading mass pushing harder and harder over the terrain. It’s a great piece of camera work and it resonated deeply for me.

How can avalanches be so awesome and so horrible all at once? There’s something truly humbling about watching one of these large slides devastate the landscape. And yet there’s also something addictive about causing one. Usually we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. With explosives, we can push the avalanches to happen when we want them to.

It’s a recipe for hubris. Perhaps that’s what makes this movie so intriguing–it explores that fine line through the aftermath of a devastating accident.

Kevin Fogolin hunting avalanches by helicopter

Kevin Fogolin hunting avalanches by helicopter

The film debuted last weekend at the 2014 Whistler Film Festival, winning “Best Mountain Culture Film.” According to the film’s website the film was very well received, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

I’m looking forward to seeing more. Just don’t tell my mom.

Crystal Opens Tomorrow

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It’s time to do my happy dance. Crystal Mountain opens tomorrow. I’m pretty sure this is directly related to the frozen spoon I slept with under my pillow on Friday night. I went to sleep with no precip at Crystal and woke to a foot of new snow. Obviously this is due to my super scientific snow forecasting abilities. *grin*

With this new foot of snow, plus the leftovers from last week’s storm (that was rained upon on Tuesday), we have just enough. It’s been a thin start weather-wise so far, and for now we will be opening Green Valley only.

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

The skiing in Green Valley is good. It’s a light and fluffy foot of new over about 4-6″ of frozen slush. The past few days, many skiers and boarders have been hiking up and taking laps. But there’s still some untracked lines to be had. There’s also a few rocks mixed in there too.

Green Valley

Green Valley

Looking ahead, the weather forecast doesn’t look that promising in the short term. So hopefully the snow we have now lasts until we get a little bit more snow–perhaps later in the week or next weekend. (By the way, if you’re playing along, now is the time to put your spoon in the freezer, so it’s ready for the next stormlette. Just sleep with it under your pillow when you need a snow day. Which is going to be very soon. So if you could all help out, we’d really appreciate it. Thanks.)

It's another blown edge for Paul H.

It’s another blown edge for Paul H.

Until then, I recommend taking it a little easy. The season is long and you don’t want to get hurt on the first day. Fellow patroller, Paul Harrington, tore out his edge today. To be fair, his edge was a little shaky to start with. But there are still some rocks out there, so bring your rock skis.

Here's a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

Here’s a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

On that note, let’s all have a good time out there tomorrow. Be safe.

It’s Hard to Be Patient When You’re Waiting for the Ski Season to Start

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A Prelude to Winter

Waiting for snow is hard. It’s especially difficult at the beginning of the season. November can be a bit like Christmas–either full of good tidings and warm family moments or wrought with awkward gyrations brought on by that one crazy family member that chooses to literally rain on your snowy parade.

Better make up the hide-a-bed, because it looks like that rainy relative is swooping into town tonight. But I digress. Let’s first take a look at the bright side.

Smiles from Reid Pitman

Smiles from Reid Pitman on Sunday

 

Conditions Update

Yesterday morning A Lot at Crystal was nearly half full with eager skiers and riders who skinned to the top to take part in the snow. It was a little heavy–those with fat skis and snowboards had the biggest smiles on their faces–and a little wind-effected. The ridge at the top of Green Valley was scoured down to the rocks. The valley itself was filled with two to three feet of cream cheese topped by a few inches of confectioner’s sugar. In other words, the conditions were classic PNW snow and perfect base-building material.

It’s times like these when I wish we didn’t have such a thing as a weather forecast. Because if you’ve taken a close look at it lately, you’ll understand why Crystal isn’t open yet. It’s because of the forecast.

Because Rain

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

Here’s a snippet from the text forecast:

LOTS OF PRECIPITATION LATER TODAY THROUGH TUESDAY NIGHT OR WEDNESDAY WITH THE SNOW LEVEL MAINLY 6500 TO 7500 FT….WE CAN SAY WITH CONFIDENCE THAT 3 TO 6 INCHES OF PRECIPITATION WILL FALL ALONG THE WEST SLOPES OF THE CASCADES DURING THE 48 HOUR PERIOD FROM MIDDAY TODAY THROUGH MIDDAY WEDNESDAY.

You know what, NOAA forecasters? No one wants your bad news. Why do you have to go and rain on our parade? Here we were having visions of snowy sugar plums dancing in our heads and you go and give us this?? Why couldn’t you have just kept this one to yourselves for a change?

Crystal’s Modus Operandi

Crystal Mountain is usually pretty aggressive getting the slopes open. We understand the pent-up demand and bursting enthusiasm this time of year, and we are willing to roll the dice on a forecast. Most ski areas wait until their snowpack is a sure thing before opening. We are one of the few areas willing to skate on thin ice, so to speak.

So why isn’t Crystal opening today? We have to wait and see about this rain. While it’s difficult to wait on snow this time of year, I’m hear to tell you. It’s even harder waiting on the rain.

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley Sunday

John wrote up an update on the website about his thought process. It’s a little window into his mindset, and a good dose of his mountain voice. It’s worth a read. In short, we are bashing down the snow with our cats, hoping to retain as much as we can through this big melt. If we don’t lose it all, and if Mt. Rainier blocks some of that rain (which it very often does), we could still open by the weekend. To quote John, “it’s day to day.”

While we wait to see what this next round of storms will bring, here’s a really cool video of snowflakes forming.

Super Scientific Recipe for an Early Ski Season

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“Early” is a relative word. In our household, we divide ski seasons along a very defined line. If we open before Thanksgiving weekend, it’s an early start. After–even by a single day–and it’s a late start. Either you ski/ride on this long weekend, or you don’t. I’m still holding out for an early season. But the clock is ticking.

Early turns on Lucky Shot last season opening

Early turns on Lucky Shot last season opening

It’s getting to be that time of year when “talking about the weather” is about the most real conversation in our house. As my husband likes to say, “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Maybe it’s high time we did something about it. That’s where I need your help. If you all follow this little recipe, we might just have hope.

My weather forecasting is a little like a cocktail recipe:

  • One part GFS model (preferably the extended model, because who wants to rely on the more accurate short-term forecast when you can dream about the cold storms lining up more than a week out?)
  • Two parts superstition
  • Three parts wishful thinking

Superstition

First, let’s talk about the superstition. Just Google up, “how to make it snow,” and you’ll find heaps of information. This is something you can all do right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

The most common tips you’ll find include wearing your pajamas inside out/backward as well as flushing ice cubes down the toilet.

My husband says he’s not going to shave until we open. I’m not sure where he got that one, but I don’t want to monkey with his superstition. I’d hate to convince him this half-beard has to go only to see a blocking high set up off the coast. I just hope he gets to shave soon. His mother in law might also prefer him to shave before Thanksgiving so our family photos aren’t marred by “the guy with half a beard.”

My favorite snow superstition, however, is the legend of Heikki Lunta. Heikki is the Finnish god of snow, but really came into his own in the 1970’s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A local radio host, David Riutta created the “Heikki Lunta Song”, which asked the god for snow in time for an upcoming snowmobile race. The snow fell so hard and for so long, Riutta created a separate track titled, “Heikki Lunta Go Away.” Below is the original.

Wishful Thinking

There’s a lot of wishful thinking that goes into snow rituals. Sleeping with a frozen spoon under your pillow is supposed to make you dream of snow, which in turn awakens the snow gods. Others recommend stacking pennies on your windowsill. Each penny translates to an inch of snow that will fall overnight.

I’ve been watching plenty of ski movies the past few weeks, and those are a very potent form of wishful thinking. Speaking of which, Warren Miller’s No Turning Back plays this weekend in Seattle. There’s nothing like watching a little ski porn on a big screen in a packed stadium to max out on wishful thinking. I’m pretty sure several hundred friends hoping for snow simultaneously will bring a few cold storms our way. It’s practically guaranteed actually, when you really think about it. So, if you do nothing else, go to this ski movie, sit in the stadium and wish really hard that you will soon be schussing through the deep stuff.

The Forecast

Then there’s this little thing called “the weather forecast.” Some people believe in it, others are skeptics. Disciples claim that meteorologists use “scientific models” to forecast the weather. They can even look far into the future to predict the weather. I prefer these extended forecasts. I figure that if you don’t like the weather, you can just look far enough ahead until you see something you like.

Then you fixate on that.

Fixating on a cold storm ten days off is my specialty.

The UW Atmospheric Sciences models are optimized for our terrain. If you’re a forecast disciple, you should really bookmark this page. Here’s a screenshot of their 24 Hour snow forecast for 4pm Sunday night. Looks like we are in the 10″ range at Crystal, while Baker is sitting pretty in the 16-20″ range (lucky bastards).

24 Hour totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever the case may be, we will all be skiing and riding soon. That’s especially true if we all ban together and start doing something about this weather. So, if you don’t have something else going on tonight, could you please wear those pajamas inside out and backward?

Thanks.

Chair 6 is Gone, Dude: What I learned about big avalanches

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This weekend at the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop, fellow ski patrollers Megan McCarthy, Michelle Longstreth and I presented our story about the big slide that destroyed Chair 6 last season. In our presentation, which we titled, “Chair 6 is Gone, Dude!” we discussed the season’s snowpack, the crazy weather that preceded the big slide and the decision process that lead up to that fateful afternoon we called “ladies night on the Throne.”

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

Afterward the presentation, in both the Q and A that followed as well as in the hallways, many people asked, “how did it feel to start such a big slide.”

It’s a good question.

Wisdom comes through the stories we tell about our experience. Without a narrative, a near-miss becomes nothing more than an incident. If I told myself that the Chair 6 avalanche was an unlikely event I’d never see again, I could more easily dismiss it. However, I don’t want to forget how it felt to witness such force. We tell stories to invoke feelings. It’s that emotional response that reinforces learning, that leads back to wisdom. As a writer, I believe wholly in the power of story. The important part is that our stories invoke the proper feelings in order to instill wisdom.

So, how did it feel to witness such power and destruction?

Avalanche control is a funny thing. Like storm watchers and tornado chasers, ski patrollers are often present to the awesome power of Mother Nature. But unlike Anderson Cooper during Hurricane Sandy, we aren’t reporting from the front lines of a natural disaster, we are actually coaxing mother nature to do her worst.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the avalanche moments after we started it.

On that early evening of March 10th just moments after we’d lit our 25 lb. charge and watched that 10 foot deep avalanche peel away from the ridge, it felt scary. But first, it felt exhilarating. There was even a brief moment there when Megan and I high-fived each other. It was like, “Wow. Look what we did!” Then, as the avalanche disappeared into the clouds and we could hear trees snapping and the low rumble of heavy debris scraping over dirt and rocks, our hearts sank. My exhilaration changed to foreboding. While it was closer to thirty seconds, the avalanche seemed to charge into the midst for several minutes. It seemed to go on forever. (It seems even now to still be rolling down the slope below me.)

Then we heard the sound of metal crunching. That’s when my foreboding turned to gut-wrenching angst. My world was falling, it was letting loose from it’s foundation and sliding with great power and force and it was destroying everything in its path. Word came over the radio from a group of patrollers watching from a safe distance. One patroller recorded the slide on his phone and said, “Chair 6 is gone, dude.”

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Indeed it was.

But our work was not complete. Michelle, Megan and I had yet to release our full payload. We still carried 50 more lbs. of explosives up and over the ridge. We worked in a sort of focussed trance. We were in the zone now–communicating in precise staccato, making clear-cut decisions, moving in a safe rhythm. It would take us another hour before our route was complete and we finally reached the bottom of the debris pile.

It was only then that I realized it was Mother Nature who was holding all the cards. We could try to set off these slides with our explosives, so they’d happen when we wanted them to, but we couldn’t stop them. We could only hope to make them happen when the slopes were closed.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. Even though most of our starting zones had slid in the past few days, I still felt vulnerable in my bed at the bottom of that valley. It felt as thought the world could let loose on me at any moment.

To say that I was scared was an understatement. It’s a feeling and a moment that I will never forget. While we’d always called it avalanche “control” I realized with clarity that we weren’t controlling anything. Even a slope I’d skied a million times could go bigger and longer than anyone could have imagined. Now as we turn the corner into ski season in the weeks ahead, I’ll be thinking of it still. It’s a story that I will keep with me always.

I hope I’m not the only one. Anyone who witnessed the aftermath of that storm cycle, whether at Crystal or elsewhere in the Cascades, most likely has a mark on his or her psyche. Don’t let that mark get covered up by bravado and the steady march of time. Instead, bring it out once again as we start to accumulate snow in the mountains. Keep it close to your heart as you head out into the backcountry this season. Hold the image of those deep debris piles in your brain as you drop into your first big powder run of the year. Remind yourself of just how small you felt when you realized the breadth of those slide paths.

Let’s all remember how big it really can go. That’s the story we should carry with us this season.