What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

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“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

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

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

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.

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33 responses »

  1. wow
    The radio chatter is great.
    “okay you gotta be a little more descriptive”

    “it’s worse, it’s way worse”

    Thanks for posting the on hill video. That’s bold. Really helps convey the power of moving snow.

    • Yeah. I love Andy’s (the one taking the video) comments here. I wanted to share it even though you can’t see the actual slide happen because of the raw moment included in the radio and the videographer’s comments.

  2. Incredible post Kim! I look forward to reading what you are up to. This is AMAZING! I love it that it was 3 strong women behind this, thanks for keeping us all safe at the expense of so much. May chair 6 rest in peace.

  3. Wow! That’s incredible. We are having huge avalanches going in Utah too but this takes the price. Like you said, better to take out a chair lift than people. And so glad I came across your blog!

  4. Slides like this happen as a result of climate change. Climate change makes it so less storms occur. But when a storm does occur, It contains much more moisture. Instead of consistent snowfall which increases stability, we get infrequent huge dumps and more rain. So not only do we get less snow but the snow we do get is infrequent and much more unstable. I am pulling this information from Porter Fox’s book, Deep. Really great read. Highly recommend it!

  5. You are one of my real life heroines, Kim! I already told you that. I understand how problematic a material damage of this magnitude can be – money doesn’t flow like avis do but you save lives in every blast. I cannot even think without tremble what it could has it be if “that thing” were left unattended and eventually decided to go by it self. Crystal is one of the places I feel more safe because I know somebody if taking wise decisions before hand. Bravo to the Shivas!
    PS: and again, please take me to the bird on of these days ;)

    • Your words are so sweet Maria. Flying in the heli is pretty thrilling. Wish I could bring you along. But alas you’d need an avalanche blaster’s license first. 😉

  6. Great article, Kim. The decision making process and the actions taken by your team were just right – as you said, better to destroy a lift while closed with an intentional release of unknown magnitude than to have it hammered with a slide while running and occupied. There is no other responsible course of action. In the first three years of operation here at Squaw (late 40’s to early 50’s), one of the two lifts (and the only chairlift) was damaged and closed for long periods of time by avalanches from Headwall. This was the infancy of the practice of avalanche control in North America and to the great credit of the ski patrol and mountain manager, no one was hurt.

    The Three Shiva Destroyers rock, by the way! Be safe!

    • Thanks for chiming in Pete. There were actually a few people on Facebook that suggested we did it on purpose. Shows how little is known about avalanche mitigation. That’s a big reason to share my experience as well as the video: to educate others about what goes into operating a ski area is steep avalanche terrain.

  7. Hi Kim; Alex Illiave and I released an avalanche from the same path in 1984. It crossed Queens run. I still have nightmares about that. The ski area was open and lift ops were at the lift. The snow profile was the most interesting I have ever seen. It is fun to follow your blog. Funny thing I have a pullover with a burn hole in it. I was teaching you how to light off a pull wire igniter and shot myself. Hope you are well.

  8. I love the picture of the three of you gals. You can see which one has to go home and do some explaining. Your blog is a wonderful thing. Keep up this important work.

    • I remember taking that photo. I was sick to my stomach. My husband told us to “smile Three Shivas” and I just couldn’t. I was sick to my stomach. Megan and Michelle were equally devastated. But the moment caught us all in that giddy, post-apocalyptic state. Strange stuff.

  9. Legendary post. Right up there with the Eskimo Lift destruction video. Thankfully no one was hurt and machinery can be replaced. The alternative is far too horrific to contemplate. Thank you for posting and doing what had to be done.

  10. Great post! I don’t even want to imagine what could have been, had it gone off on its own. Scary stuff. The video was great too, as the damage was progressively revealed… Yikes – keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Anna. I actually loved this video, because being at the top of the slide I didn’t get to see the destruction. So watching it in the moment is quite something.

  11. What in Tarnation? Well, I Swanee. My Land!, My Stars! Heavenly Days! – that holler got covered right quick – quicker’n a New York minute, I’d say. I bet that was louder’n a tornado in a trailer park. Whoo-we. Bless your heart. Glad y’all came out fine and dandy………..Later, Alligator.

  12. Sad to see the demize of chair 6. I spent many a day riding it in the 80’s when i worked out there. What an amazing slide. It just makes me realize how lucky we were at the time. I remember days where we had 6′ of fresh powder one day disapear under the pineapple express the next day. Im guessing very similar to what you had.

    SO glad everyone was safe! So long to one of the most amazing chair lifts in north america.

    Kiwi

    • Thanks Kiwi. Actually this event is not like other Pineapples. What’s different this season is two things. First, deep slab instability from that early season snow that rotted out. Second, the cohesive slab formed by all the snow that came in at once. Normally our snowpack can absorb enormous amounts of rain due to layering which acts as a bridge. Not this time. There was nothing keeping the rain from penetrating deeply into the weak layer.

  13. Kim, I can imagine how frightening that must have been, especially not being able to see what was happening. You set something underway and then it just has a life of its own.
    I remember when that lift went in. We were all SO excited and spent a lot of time up there. I also remember thinking at the time how vulnerable the lift seemed, yet it has stood all these years. I think you three Shivas are conduits for the universal power that knew it was time for a new lift! I’ll miss skiing it this spring but am looking forward to riding a new lift (that can run at full speed) next year. Keep up the good work, and I enjoy your blog.

    • Jenelle,

      Thanks for your kind words. It was a scary moment. One for the ages. I loved Chair 6 mostly because of the terrain it accessed. The chair itself was a bit of a dinosaur. It was always challenging to carry bamboo and spools of rope up the lift. Hopefully the new chair will address those issues and even provide a better off ramp at the top.

  14. I gather the destroyed lift was soon to be slated for replacement, so i wonder if the new lift will follow the same lift line?

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  16. Thanks a bunch. Now Boyne will have to rebuild that lift and we won’t get raises at Big Sky.
    You say you didn’t have a choice, but did you think of closing that area and waiting a few days? In your narrative you say that control missions in the next few days produced no results. Maybe that slope would have adjusted to it’s new load.

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