Category Archives: Avalanches

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.

Avalanche Control at Crystal Mountain

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Seeing a big avalanche in person can kind of change your perspective. In many ways I wish that I could take skiers and riders along with me when I do avalanche control so they can hear the sound of a roaring slide, listen to trees break and watch the destructive force of a big slide. Because once you’ve seen a slope fail, the entire snowpack come crashing down through trees and scraping the surface clean, you will never want to duck a rope again. Below is a video of the avalanche on Sunday March 9th at Crystal Mountain in the slide path known as Employee Housing.

With all the rain on Saturday and continued warm temperatures on Sunday, the avalanche hazard spiked in the Cascades. At Crystal, the patrol closed avalanche prone slopes and used explosives to set off some big slides. In Bear Pits a large slide wrapped around from Shot 1 and ran along the rope line that runs above Downhill. The crown was about 6 feet deep and took out timber.

Slidepath known as "Employee Housing" at Crystal

Slidepath known as “Employee Housing” at Crystal

I posted a photo on Facebook of another avalanche in the slide path known as “Employee Housing”. One of the comments gave me pause. It said, “Unfortunately, I’ve seen people ducking ropes to get back there when it’s closed.”

This is a problem.

We don’t close slopes for our own good. We close terrain for a number of reasons. Most importantly, we keep avalanche prone slopes closed during high hazard. We close terrain when we are using explosives to start avalanches. Today was one of those days.

Fortunately no one ducked the ropes in either Employee Housing or the two other domains we controlled on Sunday (Bear Pits and Rock Face).

Bear Pits avalanche that wrapped around and took out part of the rope line.

Bear Pits avalanche that wrapped around and took out part of the rope line.

You might think that ducking a rope to ski or ride just on the other side of the ropes is okay. Kind of a gray area. Again, that’s not the case. The Bear Pits results prove that. So did the Employee Housing slide.

The moral of the story is this: avalanche hazard is high right now. Don’t duck ropes. Be careful in the backbountry. Give mother nature the respect she’s due.

Six Foot Crown in Bear Pits

Six Foot Crown in Bear Pits

Big Avalanche Results and More About Treewell Safety

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Paul Baugher, the Ski Patrol Director at Crystal Mountain, is concerned about treewell safety. Treewells are the airy voids around trees draped heavily with snow. If you fall into one headfirst you might not be able to get out. Check out this video with Crystal’s Paul Baugher and patroller Christina Von Mertens that offers tips about how to avoid getting stuck in one.

Tree Wells & SIS Safety: What To Do If You Go Down from SIS Safety Videos on Vimeo.

The snow is still draped heavily on the trees here in the Cascades, and the forecast is calling for one last storm tonight. Then it looks like things will mellow out. We might even get some warm high pressure later in the week. In the mean time, the dangers still lurk. We set off some big explosives yesterday in Southback, both from the helicopter and on foot. I was on the hand route, and we worked mainly in Avalanche Basin. We got some big results below Appliances Chutes that wrapped around to lower starting zones. The debris ripped out trees in Damn Fine Forest and ran all the way to Elizabeth Lake. In my 25 years at Crystal I’ve never seen these slide paths run this far.

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

 

All This Snow: Be careful out there

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The weather at Crystal is either on or off. There’s no in between up here in the Cascades. And for the past seven days a cold, snowy hose has been pointed straight at us.

Skiing the Deep under Shaker's Left

Skiing the Deep under Shaker’s Left

Since last Wednesday, we’ve received OVER 7 FEET OF SNOW. Just think about that for a second. If you’re a skier or rider, than you’re probably like me. We get excited about snow. Our pupils start to circle. But we have to be careful. There are hazards that accompany all this snow.

I, personally, have a love affair with snow. I marvel at tiny snow crystals; I’m giddy when I feel snowflakes on my chin; I live to slice through powder. But I must also remember to check myself.

During big storm cycles like this we ski patrollers work hard. We take pride in getting the mountain open on time (or at least as early as we possibly can), and we don’t mind slogging through snow to do avalanche control or carrying a heavy pack laden with explosives or digging out signs buried several feet under the snow. That’s our job. And we’re happy to do it.

Natural Avalanche in Kemper's Slidepath

Natural Avalanche in Kemper’s Slidepath

But sometimes even our best efforts can’t change the outcome. On Monday the ski area had a power outage when PSE’s backup generator didn’t work. While our main line goes down quite often, it isn’t usually a problem. The generator is large enough to handle all our needs. But here we were on a busy holiday with loads of new snow and a huge crowd of people headed our way, and no way to power the resort. It was a bummer.

Explosive Triggered Avalanche in Eagle's Chute

Explosive Triggered Avalanche in Eagle’s Chute

Bu with all this new snow we’ve had more serious hazards than a lack of power. The avalanche cycle has been dabgerous. On Monday Kemper’s (an avalanche path outside our boundary) slid naturally. When avalanches occur naturally (without a human trigger) then you know the danger is high or extreme.

Yesterday we brought in a helicopter to drop large explosives in Northway. With conditions like this, it’s too dangerous for patrollers to set out on skis. Instead we use a helicopter to drop 25 pound shots in those hard-to-get pockets. We saw widespread results. Northway Bowl produced a large avalanche with a 4-5 foot crown. Niagra’s (sic) slid wall-to-wall. We saw evidence of natural avalanches throughout Northway.

Treewells are deep and dangerous

Treewells are deep and dangerous

Most tragically, the treewell danger is also extremely high. All this snow creates airy voids at the base of alpine firs, creating dangerous traps. Yesterday one skier at Crystal (near Dick’s Face below Neanderthal Rocks) slid head first into a treewell and died. Even though he was skiing with a partner, and the two had skied together for years, just a few minutes in a treewell was enough to cause suffocation. For these two men, their day started with enthusiasm and thrills. It ended in tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

If you plan to come up to the Cascades and enjoy this storm cycle, remember these hazards. These are part of the inherent risk in the sport.

This isn’t Disneyland. While the thrills and excitement of new snow can blind us all to the dangers, they still exist and deserve our respect.

The forecast is just calling for more snow. Saturday there will be a short lull in the action, with more storms rolling in next week.

Let’s all be safe out there and return to ski/ride another day.

The Four W’s: When Winter Packs a Punch

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Winter finally arrived last week and so did the four w’s: wild, windy, wet and wacky. Really, it’s the three w’s but we like to throw the wacky in there because you just never know. This is Crystal and things can get pretty crazy sometimes. On Saturday the Crystal telemetry recorded a spike to 111 mph at the top of Rainier Express. That’s a Category 3 hurricane.

By Sunday morning we’d picked up 24 inches of snow in 24 hours according to the human observation at the Green Valley weather station. From 5am to 8am Sunday morning it snowed 10″. That’s more than 3″ an hour. This fluffy “bonus snow” caused quite a bit of chaos in the parking lot as the plowing crews had to re-plow at the exact time that everyone was arriving. It made for a long drive and an even longer time parking.

It also made for some excellent skiing.

Speaking of wind, check out this video taken recently at Bridger Bowl. The winds were in the 70s this day. Just imagine what Rex looked like on Saturday with those spikes in the Category 3 range. Makes me shiver.

Hopefully most of you were able to partake in the Sunday morning goods. It doesn’t get like that very often in the PNW and when it happens on a weekend, the untracked snow goes fast. We opened Northway for the first time this season at 1:30 on Sunday, and those that stuck around got some good skiing there too.

We are implementing a new program at the Northway gates on big days. Skiers and riders with beacons and partners get to come to the front of the line and go through the gates first. Even though we use explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard, Northway and Southback are still avalanche prone areas. They simply do not see the same skier compaction as our “in area” terrain. Thus, we recommend skiing with a partner and carrying a beacon and shovel. We are also tweeting our openings, and giving our followers an early heads up. So follow us at @crystalmtpatrol and help us spread the message by retweeting.

The forecast is now calling for a return to high pressure. This should give the snowpack a chance to settle out. While doing avalanche control in Southback this morning, we saw evidence of some big natural avalanches in the backcountry. So giving the layers a chance to bond and the snowpack an opportunity to find some equilibrium is a good thing. Let’s just hope this return to spring doesn’t last too long. I’m kind of partial to winter.

Mountain Girl Power: A Day on the Slopes with the SAFE AS Crew

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Saturday was an extravaganza of girl power. Between spending the morning with the K2 International Woman’s Ski Day posse and the afternoon with the S.A.F.E. A.S crew, I was brimming with female superpowers.

Me and Lel Tone at the Summit of Crystal

Me and Lel Tone at the Summit of Crystal

Ingrid Backstrom said it best yesterday during our beacon training session led by Lel Tone. After spending several days with these amazing women, her communication skills were “well honed.” Women like to talk to each other. We like to check in with each other, and as these women demonstrated, we are pretty inclusive.

S.A.F.E. A.S. stands for Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety and is led by some amazing women. In addition to Lel and Ingrid, Michelle Parker, Jackie Paaso and Elyse Saugstad offered Crystal ladies an amazing avalanche awareness clinic designed for women. Not only did I get to join Lel in teaching the field session in the afternoon, I also had the chance to ski with these women the past few days at Crystal.

SAFE AS group photo

SAFE AS group photo

It wasn’t merely an estrogen overload. Nor was it the testosterone fest that usually fuels any group of skiers–male or female–that love to ski hard and fast. These ladies charge hard, but know how to manage risks. As Elyse says, it’s not just about charging hard today. It’s also about getting to go back out and do it again tomorrow. We all love to ski hard, to find that smooth line of snowy perfection and leave our mark on the mountain, our faces freezing into cold smiles. But it means nothing if you don’t make it back alive.

On Friday, we headed to Southback to find some untracked snow. With 3″ of new over a wind packed base, we hoped to find some nice turns. Even though we Crystal skiers are lamenting the slow start to the season, these professional skiers were thrilled. Michelle Parker called her two days skiing at Crystal the best of the season so far. Enthusiasm is infectious, and soon I, too, was caught up in the thrill of new snow, an all-girl crew, and the fun of rampaging around my local hill.

In all my years of skiing Southback, I have never discussed the conditions so much as I did with this group. Elyse asked specifics. Was this true backcountry we were headed into? Had the avalanche conditions changed? How was this terrain managed? She turned her beacon to receive and checked us all as we headed through the access gate.

At the summit of the King, we talked about rocks that I’d seen the day before hidden now by a mere skein of snow. Ingrid pointed to Brain Damage and we talked about where photographer Re Wikstrom should position herself. As Lel would say, the north side of the King is still at low tide. Rocks line Pin Ball, and shark teeth still poke out in various spots along the chutes. Instead of blindly charging into a line, these ladies asked questions, took their time and encouraged each other. It was safe, but fun. Careful but still exciting.

Elyse Saugstad dropping into Brain Damage

Elyse Saugstad dropping into Brain Damage

I followed Ingrid and Elyse into Brain Damage, while Michelle and Jackie dropped into Hourglass and Appliances. The chute is still a bit narrow at the top, and my heart raced a little hoping not to embarrass myself in front of two of the best skiers in the world. In the end, I held my own and embraced the camaraderie and high-fives at the bottom of the chute. Next, Re set up to take a few powder shots of the professionals. Journalist Megan Michelson and I held back while the others found their positions. Ingrid insisted Megan take the next line, and for a moment we all laughed. Megan reminded Ingrid that Re could sell a photo of her skiing powder and Megan and I would find another way down. But we both appreciated the gesture. For Ingrid, she wasn’t pretending. It really was about the skiing. “We’re all girls skiing today,” she said. And it was true.

These women are leaders in the ski industry. Not only do they ski with power and grace, beauty and fluidity, they also model how to do so prudently. This balancing act requires humility and honesty. For these women, it isn’t an act. They walk  their talk. And do so with passion.

The S.A.F.E. A.S. clinics conclude today with the final one at Stevens Pass. For Elyse, the lessons she learned during and after the tragic avalanche accident that took place near Stevens two years ago come full circle. I spoke to her Saturday night about her willingness to teach others through her own tragedy. She wanted to give something back, she said. She hopes that through teaching women to make prudent choices in the backcountry, they can enjoy the mountains and live to tell about it.

New Zealand Buried in Snow

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Avalanche aftermath

Avalanche aftermath

I’ve often heard that we in the PNW can forecast our winters based on the previous season in New Zealand. I hope that’s true. Because if next winter in the northern hemisphere is anything like the winter currently raging in New Zealand, we snow lovers in the Cascades will be golden.

Clearing the access road

Clearing the access road

New Zealand’s Mt. Hutt ski area is currently closed. They have too much snow. In the past two days, they’ve been inundated. And it isn’t letting up. Their latest update on Facebook claims they gave up counting the new snow last night when they’d received 120cm from the latest storm. Wind drifts are 5+ meters deep. That’s over 15 feet of snow in drifts. It has snowed over 5 feet of snow in this one storm alone.

Crews have been using explosives to control avalanches, and one ripped out their race building and damaged the snowmaking building. Fortunately for them, they won’t be needed that snowmaking equipment anytime soon.

For now, the main goal is simply clearing the road. It looks like they have their work cut out for them. They are hoping to open Sunday. Snow depth is 240 cm at the summit. Good luck guys, and stay safe.