Category Archives: Avalanches

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

 

Project Zero: An initiative to reduce avalanche fatalities

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projzerologoProject Zero, a collaborative effort by premiere avalanche forecasters and professionals in North America, is on a mission to reduce avalanche fatalities. Through crafting an effective safety message and a straightforward method for decision-making, they hope to educate all backcountry users to understand the risks in the backcountry and make better decisions to mitigate those risks.

This season, Project Zero launched Know the Snowa social media campaign that included a video contest aimed at engaging the lift-served backcountry skier and rider. You can find out more about the contest winners here

Crystal Mountain SouthbackLocal videographer Jacob Hase won fifth place for his video based at Crystal Mountain. On his vimeo page, Jacob describes the video as, “a day trip into the Crystal Mountain Washington back country with additional avalanche beacon training. Video is narrated by Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher.”

As many of you know, Crystal Mountain is a great launching pad for backcountry terrain. Not only do we have the hike-to controlled Southback, but numerous true backcountry lines nearby as well.

Many of those lines can be accessed from the lifts. With the current phase of Project Zero focussing on lift-served backcountry, Crystal terrain is a perfect fit for Project Zero’s first initiative, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Congratulations Jacob!

 

New and Improved Chair 6 for 2014-15 Season

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As promised, Crystal Mountain will rebuild Chair 6 this summer. The chair, formerly known as High Campbell, was demolished in an avalanche earlier this year. I happened to see it firsthand since I was on the avalanche team that set off the slide. It was an historic wet slab avalanche that slid well down onto Queens Run, the green circle groomer below the slide path. The avalanche occurred at 4:40pm on March 10th after the ski area was closed. If you’ve been to Crystal in the last month, then you’ve seen the destruction not just on The Throne, but in Bear Pits, Employee Housing and Powder Bowl. (During the same time that these explosive-released avalanches occurred at Crystal, natural avalanches of similar size were happening around us in Crystal Lakes Basin as well as on Governor’s Ridge, both in Mt. Rainier National Park.)

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

Skytrac to build the new Chair 6 at Crystal Mountain

The new Chair 6 will be a new double chair made by Skytrac, the only American ski lift manufacturer. Both terminals will be in the same place as the old High Campbell chair. The old concrete footings for the towers will also be used, which will reduce cost and materials. The capacity will be the same as the old one, which means it won’t get tracked any faster.

The chairs themselves will be more than double the weight of the old chairs, which means that the new Chair 6 will operate better in high winds. John Kircher, my husband and Crystal’s GM, expects to run the new chair in higher winds. He says that winds exceeding the chair’s ability to run would be too strong for skiers and riders anyways. In addition, the unload area will be bigger and will ease the double black diamond offload of the old days.

Gazex Exploder

Gazex Exploder

Since we’ve got the helicopters hauling materials to the summit, we might as well make the most of it. Crystal is also installing three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl to help mitigate avalanches. These exploders, ubiquitous in the Alps and relatively new to North America, use propane and oxygen to deliver a 360 degree blast. The mixing shed that houses the tanks will be at the summit of the Queen and the three exploders (which look like bent-over lift towers) will be spread out on the left side of Powder Bowl.

Another improvement slated for the top of the new Chair 6 is–get this–snowmaking! We won’t be installing the snowmaking this summer due to some necessary environmental work, but we hope to get it going for 2015-16. Gone will be the rock-hopping, ski/board removal and side-stepping of yore.

We are hoping to solve a myriad of problems with this new lift. Moments after that ill-fated avalanche ripped off The Throne over a month ago, I was sick to my stomach. We’d destroyed an iconic lift. We’d cost the company tons of money. An entire pod of skiing was done for the season. My husband wasn’t going to be happy with me.

But as it turns out, the insurance is covering the replacement cost and the new lift will be better than the old one. It will operate at higher winds; the off-load will more user-friendly; and it will give us a chance to install Gazex and snowmaking.

So things are looking up.

 

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.