Category Archives: Ski Patrolling

This is What Ski Patrollers Live For

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Hard work is what ski patrolling is all about. Some might think that we’re in it for the skiing. And let’s be honest, skiing is a huge part of it. But if you want to really ski, I suggest simply getting a seasons pass.

Chappy in Southback

Rookie patroller Pat Chapelle finding his line in Silver Basin

But if you want to work hard, if you want earn some resilience, if you want to know how you react when the things go awry, then become a ski patroller.

This past month of December is a case in point.

early morning AC at Crystal Mountain

Patrollers humping powder on an early morning

The first week of December was kind of like a natural disaster up here. We had rain, wind, power outages, a closed access road and the complete loss of all communications. Oh, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse stopped by for a brief visit.

But then, mother nature flipped a switch and all that precipitation turned to snow. What had been merely a partial opening in Green Valley turned into an all-hands-on-deck-let’s-get-this-mountain-open-wall-to-wall frenzy. Suddenly we were opening from Northway to Southback and all points in between.

Avalanche control Crystal Mountain

Patroller tossing a shot on the Throne

Ski patrollers strung miles of rope lines, threw hundreds of caution boo along the slopes and drank copious amounts of coffee to keep up. Then it started to snow in earnest. In the month of December we received 9 feet of snow. Tower pads were quickly buried under this kind of dumpage.

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Lacing shots “in the field” as the sun rises

Our biggest efforts have gone towards Avalanche Control. Ski patrollers start avalanches with explosives before the slopes open in order to mitigate the hazard. This means we wake up early–sometimes at 4 am to be up before first light, carry heavy loads in our packs up the ridges and make avalanches. Some might say this is the best part of the job. It’s also the most exhausting.

Breaking trail up the ridges can be the hardest part. Here’s a video of Miles Morris breaking trail up the King. If you ever wonder why it takes so long to get Southback open on a powder day, here’s a little glimpse. And to all those folks that ask if they can help us out South to get it open, 1) no and 2) you wouldn’t want to waste a powder day breaking trail up the ridge. While the one ski run at the end might feel worth it, I’d say you’re better off staying in area for the leftovers and let us do the heavy lifting.

 

Not to say that that one run at the end of a control route isn’t awesome. It’s actually the raison d’etre for many of us.

But there’s more to it than that. To be honest, our real reason for being is the hard work. We’re the happiest when things are hard.

The statue of liberty might say it a little differently, but I think Emma Lazarus wouldn’t mind my slight changing of her words:

Give us your challenging weather, your injured skiers yearning to breathe free. Give us your wretched storms, your fiery tempests. Send these, the RV dwellers, the families tempest-tossed to us. We lift our headlamps beside the powdery door.

We are still in the midst of a busy holiday season, thanks to all this snow. The forecast prediction now is for a few weeks of more settled weather, but I have a feeling the days of powder and avalanche control have just begun.

Crystal Mountain Opens Today

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The 2015-2016 ski season starts today at Crystal. After a damaging wind and rain storm earlier this week, we are now blessed with an upper mountain draped (and caked!) in a wind-packed base. A few inches of fluff fell in the past two days, so conditions are fast and fun. It sort of feels like the entire upper mountain has been groomed by the wind. This time of season a solid base is key, as it covers over the rocks and bushes.

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Green Valley Nov 20th, 2016

At this point, Green Valley and Snorting Elk are open. We hope to expand terrain as soon as we get a little more snow. Lucky Shot is very close, but the snow peters out to nil a few hundred feet below the bottom of Rainier Express. This make me want to shake my fist at the weather gods.

Looking ahead at the forecast, there’s a chance for a few inches of snow Monday night. I’m hoping for more than a few inches, because after that the forecast turns dry.

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Upper Mountain looking sweet

It’s still early in the season and we have plenty of winter storms ahead of us. For now, just getting back on my skis and carving turns in the snow is enough. Many of you readers are probably like me. In the midst of this crazy world, sliding on snow is the only thing that makes sense.

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Ski patrol caught on webcam after setting up the hill

Yesterday, I got to join my friends and co-workers setting up the hill–putting out rope lines and marking the creeks that are still running and generally getting the slopes ready for the crowds today. Carrying around heavy loads of bamboo and rope, I was reminded of how lucky I am to get to do this for my job.

Hope to see you all on the slopes.

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog

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Crested Butte recently released this awesome video about the life of Moose, an avalanche dog. His handler, Dustin, talks about Moose’s job, his love of the mountains and how he lives to find people buried in the snow.

Avalanche dogs use their noses to find buried avalanche victims. Dogs also make the best ski patrollers–they’re enthusiastic about hard work, love to dig in the snow, and know how to party after a job well done.

Moose the avalanche dog

Thanks She Jumps

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sj-logoI’m honored today to be she a SheJumps jumper. Thanks SheJumps for for publishing my profile and including me in such great company.

SheJumps aims to get more women in outdoor activities.They accomplish this by creating high-visibility “Get the Girls Out!” events, Outdoor Education, Youth Initiatives and grassroots recreational gatherings. Kim-Kircher-222x300The SheJumps community consists of females of all backgrounds and ages who help one another reach their highest potential through outdoor adventures and education.

Jumping into adventure and not turning away from risk teaches us to be resilient.

SheJumps embodies this same ethos. When we push ourselves to take risks, we are actually doing more than just that activity. Skiing a hard line is more than just friction and gravity and cold snow. It’s a lesson in the value of pushing ourselves. It’s a little nugget that we can hold onto later when life’s vagaries—large or small—threaten to topple us.

I owe all of my strength to the mountains.

What a Year of “Meh” Taught Me

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Last weekend, Crystal Mountain closed for the season. While its always a little sad to see it all end, this season my heart wasn’t nearly as heavy as usual. This time it was almost a relief.

Bill Steel Cartoon

Dreaming of Snow. Cartoon by Bill Steel

In a word, this season was “weird.”

But it wasn’t just the snow–or lack thereof–that was weird for me. On a personal level, it’s been a difficult year and a half. After my father passed away last year, fate or circumstance or maybe just my own personal luck went rogue. In the past several months, my husband’s mother passed away, our house was broken into (and the few remaining physical memories of my father were taken), and our best friends got a divorce.

Not one to shy away from adversity, I’ve tried taking these challenges head on. But really, it’s been an exercise in letting go. Just let go. That’s such a cliche though, right? Anyone who’s been through a string of hard times knows what I’m talking about. When the chips are down, the last thing you want to do is relinquish the emotional baggage that you’re clinging to for dear life.

That’s the beauty of getting older, I suppose. Experience (and when I say experience, what I’m really saying is loss) teaches us what truly matters. My father’s stolen watch, or the heart-shaped necklace that he gave me on my 30th birthday, will not bring him back. Nor will my husband’s grandfather’s antique fly reels bring him closer to his ancestor. Our memories and our experiences are what cleave us to one another. Objects are just things–just mementos imbued with meaning. Emotions can be glued to any old object.

Same for our hopes. We can pin them on snowfall or weather or that elusive powder run we dream about all summer and chase all winter. They can be dashed against the gravel on a season like this when the lower half of the mountain was so bare that grass starting sprouting in March.

Sometimes you just want to bury your head in your hands

Sometimes you just want to bury your head in your hands

Or we can connect to the chances we are given. A stingy snow season taught me to enjoy even the runs I would have considered merely “meh” a few years ago. Since so much of who we are depends on the stories we tell ourselves, I’m choosing to rewrite history. Instead of the past year and a half being the worst ever, I’ve chosen to see it as an opportunity. Thanks to that home invasion, I have fewer possessions weighing me down. With fewer snow storms, I never took a single turn for granted. Now that I’ve experienced the fragility of life and relationships, I’m living my own life with more purpose and attention.

Many readers have asked why I haven’t been posting as much. In part, it might be that I’ve been preoccupied with these life lessons. Mostly however, I’m working on another book, which is hoarding much of my writing mojo. The novel about a ski area will soon be with my agent, and I’ll keep y’all posted on its progress.

Colin Sutton Avalanche Fatality: A father seeks justice

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Jonathan Thompson penned a recent article about the death of Wolf Creek ski patroller Colin Sutton. It’s a fascinating read. Last year Colin was digging a snow profile pit in a backcountry area near Wolf Creek when he was swept away by an avalanche. He was on the clock and working without a permit outside of the ski area boundaries. Wolf Creek CEO Davey Pitcher has been charged with unauthorized use within a Forest Service area. OSHA charged the ski area $14,000 in connection with Sutton’s death. Colin’s father wants justice. Click on the link below to read the article in Pique Magazine.Johnathon Thompson_Ski Patroller Article

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.