Category Archives: Crystal Mountain

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Ski Woodies

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Don’t worry dear readers. I know it’s a low snow season. I’m perfectly and painfully aware of the meager snow depths in the mountains. I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. Instead, I wanted to share with you how some of us at Crystal are managing. According to John, when the going gets to tough, the tough get woodies. (I mean wooden skis of course, get your mind out of the gutter.)

Nothing a good boot fitter can't handle

Nothing a good boot fitter can’t handle

Last week a customer offered a pair of beautiful wooden skis in exchange for a lift ticket. John took one look at those skis and said, “you got a deal.” Fortunately for John, he just happened to also have some leather boots that fit into said wooden skis. After a quick hot wax in the shop, John went straight up the gondola. Just because those skis had been sitting above someone’s mantle for the past fifty years didn’t mean he needed to start out slow. What could go wrong?

Old meets new on the Mount Rainier Gondola

Old meets new on the Mount Rainier Gondola

John dropped right into Green Valley and made it look easy. While those woodies track well, they sure don’t like to turn. Although, it may have been the leather boots. John says he wants to take the woodies for another spin today. So you might see him out there once it softens up.

On another note, the forecast is holding some promise in the coming week. Our best day for snow looks like Monday, With low snow levels, we should pick up a few inches of snow. It stays cold through Tuesday, so we can make snow near the base area. If you’re just not feeling the low snow this season, and you’re a Crystal pass holder, you can go ski at any of the other resorts for free. Check it out here.

When Winter Storms are Like an Abusive Relationship

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This winter, the weather in the Cascades is like an abusive relationship. You keep thinking that the next storm will be better, that it will bring more snow, that the rain is a thing of the past, that things will change.

There have been moments of greatness this season. In between wet storms, we’ve enjoyed some beautiful days. While the valleys have been blanketed with cold clouds, Crystal Mountain has enjoyed warm sun. On these days, all the rain is forgiven. You remind yourself that today is a new day. You tell yourself that every winter season has its ups and downs. You convince yourself that even Japan has bad years (and you try to swallow that large seed of doubt deep into the sugary snow lining your own psyche.) Because even abusive seasons have their good days.

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Yesterday was a legitimate powder day. The snow was a bit dense, but it was plentiful up high, and it finally covered over rocks on the summit ridge above Green Valley. Skiers and riders forgot for a few hours about the season’s stinginess. They ignored the curses that started in late November and have echoed through the Cascades. Down with Pineapples!! Damn El Niño!! Things were turning around, and yesterday was perfect. All was forgiven.

But, when you’re involved with an abusive winter season, things change fast. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in the gutter. This morning its a mix of rain and snow at the base of Crystal. You call it “chunky rain,” or perhaps “liquid snow” might be a better description. While it falls from the sky looking very much like snow, it falls hard and wet. And it hurts. The upper mountain is currently on wind hold.

Its supposed to warm up today and the snow level will continue to creep toward the summit and beyond. You’ve seen this pattern before–a glorious foot of snow followed by a mean inch of rain and then ending in an apologetic few inches of snow. Like a bouquet of roses after a particularly mean argument, those few inches smell all the sweeter for their scarcity.

We've learned to rely on grooming this season

We’ve learned to rely on grooming this season

Tomorrow it’s looking like we might get a foot of snow after tonight’s deluge–a particularly welcome apology after such a rude gesture.

My fingers are crossed. Yours should be too. This season we all might be getting abused by a mean winter suitor, but we should must what we can get. If the snow levels drop to predicted levels by Sunday morning, we could be in for a pow storm day tomorrow.

We can always hope.

Crystal Opens Wall to Wall (Almost)

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It has been quite a while since Crystal Mountain was open “wall to wall.” Last season our entire ski area terrain only opened for about a month from early February to March 10th. (In case you’re new here, March 10th was that fateful day when an avalanche–that my team mates and I set off during avalanche control–destroyed Chair 6.)

Sunny groomer day on Friday

Sunny groomer day on Friday with the new Chair 6 in the background 

Yesterday, only a week after the snow started to accumulate on our slopes, we opened pretty much wall to wall. From Southback to Northway, great snow now covers our slopes. Saturday was a pow storm day and Sunday was a legitimate face-shot type of day. The hard coral reef-like chunder from the quick little rain we got on Christmas Eve is completely buried now. At least I didn’t feel it anyway. I’m sure there are still a few hard bits under all this snow, but you’d have to look hard to find them.

Evelyn getting after it on Saturday

Evelyn getting after it on Saturday

Cars are buried in the parking lot. The RV lot is full, and the crowds have returned. Yesterday was our busiest day of the season so far, but the lines weren’t even that bad. When the snow is this good, people tend to spread out. As one guy on the lift yesterday said, “everyone is doing their thing.”

The new Chair 6 opened to excited skiers and riders on Christmas Eve. The first chair honors went to Dan Howell and Kyle Miller. Way to go guys!

Dan Howell and Kyle Miller get ready for the first ride on the new Chair 6

Dan Howell and Kyle Miller get ready for the first ride on the new Chair 6

There’s still a few pockets of terrain closed. Kelly’s Gap will open today. Niagra’s will remain closed due to low snow. Brand X and Penny Dawgs will most likely open soon pending more assessment. The chutes at the bottom are still pretty bare of snow, so we’ll see.

Kevin doing avalanche control on Boxcar

Kevin doing avalanche control on Boxcar

Southback is especially good and deep. The new ride on Chair 6 is fast and comfortable. The top is still a bit tight–we hope to widen the off-load area next summer. A few rocks are poking out at the top, so be careful getting off the ridge.

Hiking the Throne on Friday

Hiking the Throne on Friday

Otherwise, its been a great holiday season so far and we are all feeling blessed by this great snow.

Let’s Get This Ski Season Started, Shall We?

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It’s a Christmas miracle. Or maybe our anti-pineapple campaign did the trick. Or perhaps all of the snow dances and frozen spoons and ice cubes flushed down the toilet helped too. Thanks to all who did their part,  Crystal will open tomorrow for skiing and riding. We will start out with the Gondola and Green Valley Chair, then hope to add more terrain, including Forest Queen, Rainier Express and the new Chair 6 this week. Check the website for more details.

Crystal base area Saturday morning.

Crystal base area Saturday morning

The conditions are actually pretty good. According to the telemetry, as well as eye-witness accounts, the upper mountain did fairly well out of this latest storm. We picked up about 16″ of snow Friday night and Saturday morning (according to people who skied Saturday). It briefly went above freezing at the top Saturday night, and only rained .18″ during those three hours. The rest of the time it was snowing up in Green Valley.

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

At the base, it snowed about 12″ before it warmed , and we got another 1″ or so of rain. But the good news, is that we still came out ahead of where we were before it all started. At 10 am Sunday morning, it is still raining at the base and snowing at the bottom of Forest Queen.

My guess is that anything above 5,000 feet will ski well. It should be smooth and supportive and a lot of fun.

So what do you say? Let’s get this ski season started, shall we?

It’s Hard to Be Patient When You’re Waiting for the Ski Season to Start

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A Prelude to Winter

Waiting for snow is hard. It’s especially difficult at the beginning of the season. November can be a bit like Christmas–either full of good tidings and warm family moments or wrought with awkward gyrations brought on by that one crazy family member that chooses to literally rain on your snowy parade.

Better make up the hide-a-bed, because it looks like that rainy relative is swooping into town tonight. But I digress. Let’s first take a look at the bright side.

Smiles from Reid Pitman

Smiles from Reid Pitman on Sunday

 

Conditions Update

Yesterday morning A Lot at Crystal was nearly half full with eager skiers and riders who skinned to the top to take part in the snow. It was a little heavy–those with fat skis and snowboards had the biggest smiles on their faces–and a little wind-effected. The ridge at the top of Green Valley was scoured down to the rocks. The valley itself was filled with two to three feet of cream cheese topped by a few inches of confectioner’s sugar. In other words, the conditions were classic PNW snow and perfect base-building material.

It’s times like these when I wish we didn’t have such a thing as a weather forecast. Because if you’ve taken a close look at it lately, you’ll understand why Crystal isn’t open yet. It’s because of the forecast.

Because Rain

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

Here’s a snippet from the text forecast:

LOTS OF PRECIPITATION LATER TODAY THROUGH TUESDAY NIGHT OR WEDNESDAY WITH THE SNOW LEVEL MAINLY 6500 TO 7500 FT….WE CAN SAY WITH CONFIDENCE THAT 3 TO 6 INCHES OF PRECIPITATION WILL FALL ALONG THE WEST SLOPES OF THE CASCADES DURING THE 48 HOUR PERIOD FROM MIDDAY TODAY THROUGH MIDDAY WEDNESDAY.

You know what, NOAA forecasters? No one wants your bad news. Why do you have to go and rain on our parade? Here we were having visions of snowy sugar plums dancing in our heads and you go and give us this?? Why couldn’t you have just kept this one to yourselves for a change?

Crystal’s Modus Operandi

Crystal Mountain is usually pretty aggressive getting the slopes open. We understand the pent-up demand and bursting enthusiasm this time of year, and we are willing to roll the dice on a forecast. Most ski areas wait until their snowpack is a sure thing before opening. We are one of the few areas willing to skate on thin ice, so to speak.

So why isn’t Crystal opening today? We have to wait and see about this rain. While it’s difficult to wait on snow this time of year, I’m hear to tell you. It’s even harder waiting on the rain.

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley Sunday

John wrote up an update on the website about his thought process. It’s a little window into his mindset, and a good dose of his mountain voice. It’s worth a read. In short, we are bashing down the snow with our cats, hoping to retain as much as we can through this big melt. If we don’t lose it all, and if Mt. Rainier blocks some of that rain (which it very often does), we could still open by the weekend. To quote John, “it’s day to day.”

While we wait to see what this next round of storms will bring, here’s a really cool video of snowflakes forming.

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.

I’m a Sucker for a Snowstorm

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Not a bad lunch spot.

Not a bad lunch spot.

I’m like a moth to the flame. When it snows, I can’t help myself. I have to go towards those flakes like my life depends on it.

I woke this morning to a fresh snowfall. This time I debated on whether or not to bring my skis. From my apartment at the base of Crystal, the peaks looked pretty salt and peppery this morning, pretty chocolate-chippy (to quote Tom Winter). So I decided not to bring my skis.

Maybe I made the wrong decision, because I could have made about ten legitimate turns today. They’d have been hop turns, trying-to-stay-light-on-my-feet turns, praying that I didn’t hook a tip under something awful and immovable. But I brought my camera instead. Which was nice since the sun was out. With all that fresh snow (a compacted 7-9″ inches at the top of Green Valley) it was legit bluebird.