Category Archives: Ski Patrolling

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.

The Beautiful World of Avalanche Control

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Avalanche mitigation seems to be having a moment. In the very small world of snow sports, avalanche mitigation is an even tinier niche. It’s the realm of professional ski patrollers and DOT highway workers and a few avalanche consultants. We call it “avalanche control” or “AC” or “Avi”. Some call it “avalanche reduction” or “control work.” Others call it simply “hazard mitigation.”

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

I’ve been doing it up at Crystal for years. Up until recently I had a hard time explaining what it was like. Before POV cameras that strap to a helmet or a chest harness, few patrollers could hold a video camera in one hand and also plug their ears at the same time.

Besides, ski patrollers don’t want to slow down the process. Time is of the essence on avalanche control mornings. Crowds of powder hunters often wait in long, snaking lines at the chairlift, listening to the bombs explode in the starting zones and waiting for the all clear. Quality video takes time and it also takes good visibility–two things in low quantity on a powder day.

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Good avalanche footage is hard to come by. That’s why I like this video by Chris Morgan at twosherpas.com. It’s called PROfile: Ski Patroller G.R. Fletcher. It takes place at Snow Basin in Utah. The avalanche footage is clean and beautiful. It’s nothing historic or scary, just good sharp surface slabs that allow the patrol to open up some nice-looking terrain.

I can appreciate G.R.’s discussion on group dynamics. Ski patrollers must trust one another. Whether ski cutting a starting zone or working side by side on a medical call, the job requires a certain closeness. G.R. has been patrolling for 25 years, and you can detect a little wariness in his voice. The job is not easy. There are some hard days. Some days are boring, when the crowds are low and the snow is icy–not even worth taking a lap.

Other days are so scary that you can’t sleep that night. We work on serious accidents, some that even end in tragedy. But then there are days like the one pictured in this video. These days are crisp and beautiful and covered in a skein of soft snow. Near-perfect days require enough challenge and uncertainty to keep the flow going. That’s what keeps me coming back to the job every year. It’s days like this.

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

On another note: Crystal isn’t open at the moment. But things are looking better for a limited opening this weekend. Stay tuned on the website. Oh, and by the way. It’s currently snowing at Crystal. Keep doing those snow dances.

Snowman Film: When heli-blasting goes wrong

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I’m hoping my mother never sees this movie. It looks brilliant and fascinating and on-the-edge-of-your-seat exhilarating. As a heli-blaster myself, the trailer for this film captures that mixture of awe and horror that roils inside while watching a big avalanche pull away and wreak havoc on a mountain side.

Kevin Fologin is an avalanche forecaster and consultant in B.C.’s rugged Coast Range, where he regularly drops explosives from helicopters to start avalanches.  One day, one of these missions goes horribly wrong. Check out the trailer below.

In the first segment of this film to drop on Salomon FreeskiTV Kevin describes the ironic fascination of purposely creating avalanches. Most of us try to avoid avalanches. Snow safety consultants like Kevin (and ski patrollers across the world) hunt them.

Our job isn’t necessarily to prevent avalanches, but rather to create them. Once a slope has avalanched, the cartridge in the barrel has been spent. My favorite part of the first segment of the film below is during the big avalanche footage. Just listen to Kevin’s voice on the radio. “Go, go, go. Look at that thing go,” he says just as the toe of the avalanche launches over a beautiful slope toward the valley bottom. He lets out a laugh while the camera follows the cascading mass pushing harder and harder over the terrain. It’s a great piece of camera work and it resonated deeply for me.

How can avalanches be so awesome and so horrible all at once? There’s something truly humbling about watching one of these large slides devastate the landscape. And yet there’s also something addictive about causing one. Usually we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. With explosives, we can push the avalanches to happen when we want them to.

It’s a recipe for hubris. Perhaps that’s what makes this movie so intriguing–it explores that fine line through the aftermath of a devastating accident.

Kevin Fogolin hunting avalanches by helicopter

Kevin Fogolin hunting avalanches by helicopter

The film debuted last weekend at the 2014 Whistler Film Festival, winning “Best Mountain Culture Film.” According to the film’s website the film was very well received, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.

I’m looking forward to seeing more. Just don’t tell my mom.

Crystal Opens Tomorrow

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It’s time to do my happy dance. Crystal Mountain opens tomorrow. I’m pretty sure this is directly related to the frozen spoon I slept with under my pillow on Friday night. I went to sleep with no precip at Crystal and woke to a foot of new snow. Obviously this is due to my super scientific snow forecasting abilities. *grin*

With this new foot of snow, plus the leftovers from last week’s storm (that was rained upon on Tuesday), we have just enough. It’s been a thin start weather-wise so far, and for now we will be opening Green Valley only.

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

The skiing in Green Valley is good. It’s a light and fluffy foot of new over about 4-6″ of frozen slush. The past few days, many skiers and boarders have been hiking up and taking laps. But there’s still some untracked lines to be had. There’s also a few rocks mixed in there too.

Green Valley

Green Valley

Looking ahead, the weather forecast doesn’t look that promising in the short term. So hopefully the snow we have now lasts until we get a little bit more snow–perhaps later in the week or next weekend. (By the way, if you’re playing along, now is the time to put your spoon in the freezer, so it’s ready for the next stormlette. Just sleep with it under your pillow when you need a snow day. Which is going to be very soon. So if you could all help out, we’d really appreciate it. Thanks.)

It's another blown edge for Paul H.

It’s another blown edge for Paul H.

Until then, I recommend taking it a little easy. The season is long and you don’t want to get hurt on the first day. Fellow patroller, Paul Harrington, tore out his edge today. To be fair, his edge was a little shaky to start with. But there are still some rocks out there, so bring your rock skis.

Here's a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

Here’s a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

On that note, let’s all have a good time out there tomorrow. Be safe.

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.