Category Archives: Avalanches

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.

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.

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.

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

Update: The New Chair 6

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Vertol Helicopter putting the final touches on the bullweel.

Vertol Helicopter putting the final touches on the bullweel. PC Andrew Longstreth

A few months ago, I had to break some very bad news to my husband that. “Honey, we broke your chairlift.” This is much harder than telling your husband that you dented the car. Or that you ran over his bike shoes. Or that you burned those thick New York steaks he bought special at Costco. Because I’ve had to do all those things too. This one is much, much worse. Not that he was openly upset. My husband is a cool cucumber. But still.

The new view at the top of 6. FC Jim Jarnagin

The new view at the top of 6. PC Jim Jarnagin

I also told him that he’d thank me some day, and I’ve even had to remind him of this a few times since the avalanche we set off killed the chair. Maybe not that first day when the snow was piled up thirty feet under the now destroyed lift. And maybe not in the days since then as the replacement costs have begun to create their own little debris pile.

Today, however, things are finally looking up. With beautiful weather and a really big helicopter, anything is possible. The crews flew the old towers and bullwheels out and brought in the new bullwheel. And everything fit. Lunch was open at the Summit House and plenty of patrons got a front row seat.

Out with the old and in with the new. I suppose it’s true that everything does happen for a reason.

Now I’m counting down the days until first ride on the new Chair 6. The view at the top of the new lift is looking pretty darn good.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

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I haven’t been here in a while. Instead, I’ve been working on a novel like a madwoman and neglecting my blog. While this isn’t a typical author’s blog, where I tell you all about my WIP and get you excited so maybe you’ll pre-order my book (although that’s okay too *wink wink*), I thought I’d share a secret with you.

Well not a secret really. More like a preview.

In the first chapter of my novel the main character witnesses an avalanche that destroys a chairlift. But here’s the kicker: I wrote that chapter way back in November. Before we set off the avalanche that destroyed Chair 6. And why am I telling you this now?

Because it’s kind of freaking me out.

The real avalanche that took out Chair 6

How to destroy a chairlift in ninety seconds

As some of you might know, the big kahuna that destroyed the lift in March was the biggest slide that area has most likely ever seen. In the snow science world, we have some pretty brainy professor types that talk about things like alpha and beta angles. An alpha angle is also known as the angle of reach and beta angles are a little more complicated than that. I’m not going to go into it all here, because it would take a while and I’m not a brainy professor type myself. But in essence these angles are used in zoning and land use planning and at ski areas to determine just how far a potential avalanche can go.

And guess what? The Chair 6 slide exceeded the alpha angle by a large margin.

But what is even weirder, and the thing that’s freaking me out a tiny bit, is that I wrote a chapter in a work of fiction that very much resembled the Chair 6 slide. Before it even happened. Except in my book, of course, there was even more at stake. In fiction we don’t have to adhere to rules of physics like alpha angles. That’s why we author types write fiction–so we can put our main characters in dire straits and then turn the heat up on them. It’s fun stuff, and one reason that I hope if there really is a Master Galactic Puppeteer in the sky keeping an eye on the human race, I really hope He or She is into writing fiction. Because if so, we’re all doomed.

But I digress.

Now that I got that off my chest I feel better. I didn’t want anyone reading my future novel and saying, “Well duh Kim. Where’d you get that idea?” Because I actually wrote it first. I just hope that the other plot points in the novel don’t some how come true. Because if so, well, we’re all in for a wild ride.

 

Chinook Pass Opens Tomorrow

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Chinook Pass officially opens tomorrow, Friday May 23rd, 2014 at noon just in time for Memorial Weekend. Cayuse Pass opened last Friday. According to the WSDOT Chinook Pass page crews needed to inspect a damaged wall. Check out more photos on Flickr.

Crews conduct Avalanche Control on Chinook Pass

Crews conduct Avalanche Control on Chinook Pass