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.

I’m a Sucker for a Snowstorm

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Not a bad lunch spot.

Not a bad lunch spot.

I’m like a moth to the flame. When it snows, I can’t help myself. I have to go towards those flakes like my life depends on it.

I woke this morning to a fresh snowfall. This time I debated on whether or not to bring my skis. From my apartment at the base of Crystal, the peaks looked pretty salt and peppery this morning, pretty chocolate-chippy (to quote Tom Winter). So I decided not to bring my skis.

Maybe I made the wrong decision, because I could have made about ten legitimate turns today. They’d have been hop turns, trying-to-stay-light-on-my-feet turns, praying that I didn’t hook a tip under something awful and immovable. But I brought my camera instead. Which was nice since the sun was out. With all that fresh snow (a compacted 7-9″ inches at the top of Green Valley) it was legit bluebird.

Snow Guardians: A Documentary about Ski Patrolling

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Ever wonder what it’s like to be a professional ski patroller? Perhaps you have wondered about the lives of avalanche forecasters, or you have considered joining a Search and Rescue group.

The film Snow Guardians documents the lives and work of patrollers and rescuers. Based in Montana and focusing on Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol, with footage from Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort, Snow Guardians depicts an accurate portrait of patrol life.

This is no small feat.

A documentary on ski patrolling seems like a no brainer. Of course viewers would find explosive control and snow-related emergencies interesting. Saving lives and throwing bombs? Why wouldn’t today’s viewers lap that up? Well, of course there’s more to it than that.

Camera crews often clamber for access to our lives. At Crystal a few years ago, reality television crews followed some of us around, hoping to capture the daily ups and downs of the job. Their task proved difficult. Few members of that camera crew were strong enough skiers and riders to truly “shadow” us. Plus, they were carrying an extra hundred pounds in camera gear.

Most ski patrols aren’t too keen on having a camera crew join them on their avalanche control missions. The use of explosives in the mountains is tightly regulated, and adding in anything extraneous would seem unnecessary and maybe dangerous. By the looks of it, the makers of Snow Guardians do an excellent job of showcasing avalanche control without getting in the way. No doubt the videographers were highly skilled themselves and able to get great footage without endangering anyone. As a ski patroller, I have a keen appreciation for how hard it must have been to film this documentary.

Add to that the nature of the job, when emergencies happen at the most inopportune moments, and you can begin to see how challenging a task this is. Furthermore, ski patrollers tend not to be attention-seekers. We aren’t the sharing type, by nature. It helps that the producers of this film had friends on the Bridger Patrol, which no doubt opened some doors.

What makes Snow Guardians so good is the level of access they had to the inner workings of the Bridger Bowl Patrol. Billed as a documentary that teaches the importance of backcountry knowledge and skills, I see it as a clear glimpse into our world. Snow Guardians is for sale. It’s about the price of a hard cover book, and it’s worth the money. Check out the trailer below.

Tracking Ultimate Human Performance: The Flow Genome Project

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What is Flow?

Andres Marin finding flow

Andres Marin finding flow

Steven Kottler and Jamie Wheal want you experience flow. What, exactly, is flow, you might ask, and why do I want to experience it? Flow is “being in the zone.” It happens when you drop into a sweet line whether on a mountain, the ocean, single track, or wherever. I happens when your mind calms and your body takes over.

You become one with the task. You stop thinking, you lose track of time, and you ride that perfect line between your skill level and the challenge at hand. In other words, flow is happiness itself.

Not only do athletes experience flow. Artists, musicians, writers, computer programmers, surgeons–anyone can reach flow states.

A while back, I interviewed the father of flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, who invented the idea of flow.

Kottler and Wheal are taking Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas to the next level. They are combining the work of scientists and neurologists studying flow with the athletes and flow-hackers out there getting into the zone on a regular basis.

They state their mission on their website:

Flow Genome Project is a trans-disciplinary, international organization committed to mapping the genome of Flow by 2020 and open sourcing it to everyone

In essence, the guys at the Flow Genome Project want to make this most elusive and wonderful of physical/mental states available to every one of us. They want to map the “deep science of ultimate human performance.”

Who are these guys?

The Rise of SupermanSteven Kottler is the Director of Research at the Flow Genome Project. He’s an author and journalist. His book The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, maps out how extreme athletes use flow to perform amazing feats and how everyone–even non-athletes–can use flow to improve their lives. This book is an excellent read, conjuring many of the usual suspects in the extreme sports world. Not only are these athletes performing creative feats, they are doing so at an unprecedented level of progression. Kottler explains why in this book.

Jamie Wheal is the Director of Programs at Flow Genome. He is a leading expert on the neuro-somatics of ultimate human performance and leads a team of the world’s top scientists, athletes and artists dedicated to reverse-engineering the genome of the peak-performance state known as Flow.

Check out this video that explains their project.

Flow Genome Project – The Documentary from Flow Genome Project on Vimeo.

 

How Can I Get Involved?

Chuck Patterson getting creative at Jaws

Chuck Patterson getting creative at Jaws

This is where it gets cool. Kottler and Wheal want you to join them. They need your flow experiences to create their open-source flow study.

Here’s what it says on their website:

Tell us about your best flow experience. Use your iPhone. Use your webcam. Use your Go-Pro. Use any video device you have available. Create a short video detailing your most poignant, powerful, mind-blowing, changed-my-life-forever flow state experience, then send it to us.

You don’t have to record yourself in the flow state, just record yourself talking about it. They have some specific questions they want you to answer. Check out their page for all the details.

What’s in it for Me?

The guys at Flow Genome have a few exciting innovations up their sleeves. Number one, they hope to create Flow Dojos. Defined as a hands-on science museum meets Cirque du Soleil, the Flow Dojo will mimic extreme sports feats (without the risk) while capturing your body-brain data to see how and when you get into flow. The idea is for individuals to learn how to jump-start the flow process, so you can access it in your real life.

Still with me? Good. Now’s your chance to find out what kinds of experiences best launch you into flow. Check on the Flow Profile image below to take the quiz. Kottler and Wheal seem pretty serious about getting all of us into flow more often. I, for one, applaud their efforts. Now go out and find some flow. Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 8.59.01 AM

I Might Be Getting a Little Bored Waiting For Snow

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While the ski season is right around the corner, it’s still no where in sight. It’s mid-October, the weather forecast is hinting at an Atmospheric River event next week and the mountains are still brown. So what’s a girl to do? Certainly there are some fun ski porn premieres to attend. And the Snow Angels event fired up the season stoke. There’s even another ski patrol fundraiser aimed specifically at Crystal Mountain’s avalanche dogs coming next month if you missed it.

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These events are fun, but they aren’t the same as skiing.

So, instead it might be time to bring back one of the best online viral videos of a few years ago. Why? Because you never really can get enough of Jian Sword Dancing. It’s not skiing, but maybe it’s the next best thing. You’re welcome.

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.