Category Archives: Crystal Mountain

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

World Freeride Qualifier at Crystal: A Recap From the Athletes

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Crystal_Mountain_Poster_2014

Crystal held its first World Freeride Qualifier last week, and in spite of the bitter cold conditions the event was a success. This is the road to the WFT we’re talking about here, and these athletes weren’t kidding around.

Day 1 Northway Bowl, photo by Paul Moseley

Day 1 Northway Bowl, photo by Paul Moseley

The first venue of this two-day Four Star Qualifier was Northway Bowl. Right away athletes were hucking big off cliffs, laying down serious lines and raising the bar high. The next day the venue moved to the north side of the King, home of some of Crystal’s gnarliest lines. While not all of these lines were filled in, these men and women proved they could still go big and hit hard.

Home boy Colby Vavolotis of Crystal came in second place. Here’s what he had to say about the event:

My favorite venue was the King.  It was my first time skiing that face, and being a coach at crystal I have been looking at it all season waiting for conditions to permit it to open.  There are a lot of line options on the King which allows riders to be creative. In choosing my line I took a lot of time trying to decide if I was going to go left or right off the top.  After I went down Brain Damage on a whim, I took took a bit of time finding my first feature, but after I found it the rest of my line fell into place.  I took a line that I wanted to ski, thought I could ski well and have fun so I didn’t have any second thoughts.

Day 2 the King, photo by Paul Moseley

Day 2 on the King, photo by Paul Moseley

Meredith Eades of Vancouver BC, who took second in the women’s division, also preferred the King.

I preferred the King to Northway. The King is a zone that I wanted to hit when I had first come to Crystal last year.  It’s a little less accessible than Northway and as such the snow in there was better. It’s also quite a bit bigger which allowed for more line options and creativity which always makes for a great show at the end of the day! I hit the lines I had planned. There was one hairy cliff in qualifier that I was a bit nervous to hit given the hard pack fast run out. That said I was committed to doing it and I’m glad that I did. It worked out well and was definitely gave me the rush that I love about skiing! I did opt out out of one little tree zone at the end of my second day run just because I felt it would affect my fluidity points more than anything. The cold weather definitely made things a little more challenging. Ie. Managing cold feet and hands, I had a couple friends get frost bite on their toes, which I had never actually seen before.

All the athletes preformed well. The organizers did an amazing job with all the behind-the-scenes logistics, and the weather gods provided just enough snow to make it happen. Way to go everyone! Let’s hope we get to host another WFQ next year. For more information about the event click here.

Men's Final Scores

Men’s Final Scores

 

Women's Final Scores

Women’s Final Scores

 

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.

The Return of Winter

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Winter might just be returning to the PNW. Things are starting to look up. The graph below shows the predicted snowfall (in inches) between now and Thursday evening. The white oval to the southeast of Tacoma is Mt. Rainier. Crystal Mountain lies to the east and slight north, somewhere in the 11″ to 32″ line. That seems a bit too-good-to-be-true, but a foot of new would make a huge difference. My fingers are officially crossed.

Cascades Snow

84 Hour Snowfall Forecast

 

Promises, Promises

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“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”  –Warren Miller (via Mark Twain)

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Praying for Snow

It’s no secret that the PNW is suffering in the snow department. We never received that November dump that lays down a thick base layer and covers the rocks and stumps and lets us sit back and gloat. We’re now into the holidays and the snowpack is still scratchy. We haven’t yet been able to groom much snow at Crystal because when the pack is this thin, the machines would break through and pick up rocks, ultimately making it worse. But there’s some hope. Last week the forecast ramped up our enthusiasm. For a few hours the collective PNW ski world held its breath in anticipation of a winter storm watch. Some areas did better than others. Stevens picked up 6″, which must have made for a great day of skiing yesterday and greatly improved their pack. Baker has picked up close to a foot of new snow, of course. Baker’s reputation for the snowiest place around is holding true even this year.

Above the clouds on Saturday overlooking Powder Bowl

Above the clouds on Saturday overlooking Powder Bowl

At Crystal, we got a mixed bag. Some snow on top (a total of 4″ that felt more like 3), some freezing rain, some regular rain on the lower half of the mountain and some valley fog that just made us feel soggy. The new snow yesterday did make a difference. Accompanied by wind, those 4″ smoothed out the base, making for a fun day. The best turns were on the right side of Powder Bowl and Green Valley. I also heard a report that Southback was good skiing. Looking ahead, tonight we will most likely get a little rain. But the forecast is calling for a change to snow by tomorrow along with an increase in precipitation. Even though usually when the temp falls so does the precip, this time I’m very hopeful. When the snowpack is this thin, even a few inches makes all the difference. Give us 8″ and it would be a powder frenzy. The weather pattern is going to change and we will start to get our typical winter storms piling up out in the Pacific. How do I know this? I just have a feeling. And remember, any skiing is better than none.

This Post Will Make You Jealous

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This is not a real post.

Admittedly, I haven’t put up as much content lately. I’ve been far too busy. Skiing. So instead of letting another day/week go by without a word from me, I thought I’d put up some photos from yesterday. Spoiler alert. You’re going to be jealous. Even if you were here yesterday.

If you’d rather read something real, check out Jen Hudak’s post Sex and the Female Athlete, which eloquently scathes Freeskier’s 10 Hottest Women in Freeskiing article. If I wasn’t trying to dash out the door to go skiing, I’d probably write a post about how women in the ski industry need to be appreciated for their skills on the slopes, not their looks. But Jen does a much better job at it anyway. So just go read her.

Below are some photos from yesterday. It was one of those redemptive days, when you start off not  sure if you even like the PNW anymore, what with unreliable forecasts and heavy rains and high snow levels and all the things that make people move to Utah, and then suddenly you fall in love all over again. Yesterday was like that. Turns out the rain down low was snow up high, and when you drop over the edge in the wee hours of the morning because your General Manager husband wants to check it out before opening and the light is so flat you aren’t even sure what the conditions are and then you land on a pillow of snow that goes on forever. And you’re just happy to be alive. It was two feet of fresh snow, layered perfectly with heavier snow covering the rocks down low and lighter snow tickling your boot tops.

Then the sun came out.

A few early turns in Green Valley

A few early turns in Green Valley

 

Hiking up Powder Bowl for Avalanche Control yesterday, the sun came out just as we topped out.

Hiking up Powder Bowl for Avalanche Control yesterday, the sun came out just as we topped out.

After throwing shots in Powder Bowl, I got these untracked turns on Lucky Shot

After throwing shots in Powder Bowl, I got these untracked turns on Lucky Shot

We plan to continue opening terrain all week. With the cold temperatures and dry air, the skiing should just get better. That also means that we want to get this snow skied before it starts to facet. Cold temps and a shallow snowpack will bring avalanche problems later. So the pressure is on to get Southback and Northway open soon. Our current plan is to open High Campbell tomorrow, South on Thursday and Northway by the weekend.

Come and get it.