Category Archives: Ski Patrolling

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.

Snow Guardians: A Documentary about Ski Patrolling

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Ever wonder what it’s like to be a professional ski patroller? Perhaps you have wondered about the lives of avalanche forecasters, or you have considered joining a Search and Rescue group.

The film Snow Guardians documents the lives and work of patrollers and rescuers. Based in Montana and focusing on Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol, with footage from Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort, Snow Guardians depicts an accurate portrait of patrol life.

This is no small feat.

A documentary on ski patrolling seems like a no brainer. Of course viewers would find explosive control and snow-related emergencies interesting. Saving lives and throwing bombs? Why wouldn’t today’s viewers lap that up? Well, of course there’s more to it than that.

Camera crews often clamber for access to our lives. At Crystal a few years ago, reality television crews followed some of us around, hoping to capture the daily ups and downs of the job. Their task proved difficult. Few members of that camera crew were strong enough skiers and riders to truly “shadow” us. Plus, they were carrying an extra hundred pounds in camera gear.

Most ski patrols aren’t too keen on having a camera crew join them on their avalanche control missions. The use of explosives in the mountains is tightly regulated, and adding in anything extraneous would seem unnecessary and maybe dangerous. By the looks of it, the makers of Snow Guardians do an excellent job of showcasing avalanche control without getting in the way. No doubt the videographers were highly skilled themselves and able to get great footage without endangering anyone. As a ski patroller, I have a keen appreciation for how hard it must have been to film this documentary.

Add to that the nature of the job, when emergencies happen at the most inopportune moments, and you can begin to see how challenging a task this is. Furthermore, ski patrollers tend not to be attention-seekers. We aren’t the sharing type, by nature. It helps that the producers of this film had friends on the Bridger Patrol, which no doubt opened some doors.

What makes Snow Guardians so good is the level of access they had to the inner workings of the Bridger Bowl Patrol. Billed as a documentary that teaches the importance of backcountry knowledge and skills, I see it as a clear glimpse into our world. Snow Guardians is for sale. It’s about the price of a hard cover book, and it’s worth the money. Check out the trailer below.

Why Crystal Mountain Needs Gazex

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First a Little History

One of the perks of managing a ski area is that it gives my husband and I an excuse to go on ski vacations. Why? To check out the competition, of course! (Because what’s better than seeing someone else’s sagging rope lines and knowing that it’s not your job to stop and fix it?) If you’ve ever worked as a ski patroller than you know what I’m talking about.

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

A few years ago, John and I visited the Les 3 Vallées in France. One of the largest skiing complexes in the world consisting of eight interconnecting resorts, Les 3 Vallées has no less than 258 Gazex Exploders. Skiing and riding in Europe is a little different than in the States. The Piste Services, which includes the ski patrol (Sécurite dé Pistes) and the cat crew, only manage the actual “pistes.” In Europe a piste is equivalent to a named (and often groomed) run. So imagine if at Crystal we only did avalanche control on named runs or the slopes that overhung named runs. Also picture if we only put out hazard markings and tower pads and caution signs on the groomed runs. Furthermore, imagine that the ski patrol only provided free first aid to those injured on the groomers. Elsewhere, you have to call for your own helicopter and/or pay extra for assistance.

In Les 3 Vallées, Piste Services focus their efforts on the pistes. However, since so much of these slopes are threatened from above by avalanche terrain, skiers also benefit from their extensive use of Gazex exploders. The off-piste in Les 3 Vallées is steep and challenging and very often blasted for avalanche mitigation.

When John and I visited Les 3 Vallées a former Crystal exchange patroller Klébert Silvestre ran the Piste Services in Val Thorens, one of the interconnected resorts there. Klébert was kind enough to show us around. John was most impressed by the Gazex exploders. Gazex is certainly expensive and a little obtrusive, and I wasn’t convinced these would work at Crystal.

The Problem of Powder Bowl

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Powder Bowl is a steep bowl that overhangs a groomed run at Crystal. Snowcats use that run to access the upper mountain at night. Skiers and riders use the cat track below to access some of Crystal’s best terrain, including Lucky Shot and Bear Pits. After our trip to Les 3 Vallées John wanted to implement Gazex in Powder Bowl. Triggered remotely, exploders can mitigate avalanches even when the winds are too high to run the chairlift. Once I looked at Powder Bowl through his eyes, I understood his concern.

On a powder day at Crystal, we pride ourselves on opening the upper mountain (what we call our “in-area” terrain) by 9 am. While that’s not always possible, most mornings skiers and riders are enjoying fresh turns as soon as the lifts begin to spin. Many ski resorts with similar avalanche terrain suffer from chronic late openings of the best terrain. In the PNW, when a slight warmup can worsen the avalanche hazard, we want to get folks skiing and riding (and putting tracks in) that terrain ASAP. Even a slight delay can cause problems. The longer a slope sits unridden after we’ve thrown our explosives, the frownier we patrollers become.

Enter Gazex

This summer crews are installing three Gazex exploders (no, they are not called “boomers” or “pipes” or even really big “jibs”), in Powder Bowl. They will be called Gazex 1, 2, and 3. How’s that for originality? The first one is located in the Summit Chute and the other two are located to the skier’s left. In placing these exploders, we considered many factors. Most importantly, we placed them in the most effective avalanche starting zones. Since these exploders cannot be moved, we want to get the most “bang for the buck.” Also, we considered the traverse path to the left most chutes. These exploder locations are below that traverse, so they shouldn’t get in the way.

But Can I Jump off of it?

Funny thing how you build a big curving metal structure on a ski slope and the first question you get is, “can I jump it?” I suppose that’s possible. Just like jibbing off a chairlift tower is theoretically possible. The top of the structure isn’t exactly smooth. It contains ribs and tubes and various attachment points. So a clean rail slide probably isn’t going to happen. And then there’s the problem of the landing. These exploders are pretty far off the ground. With a little snow on the slope, they might feel a bit lower, but off course these exploders are there to blast the snow off the slope, so not sure how much snow will accumulate right below them. In short, I wouldn’t set my sites on jumping off these bad boys. It might be exciting to think about, but the logistics are pretty daunting.

That's a pretty big landing

That’s a pretty big landing

What Next?

If Gazex in Powder Bowl works as well as we anticipate, our next exploder location will be Rock Face. Since Rock Face is permanently closed, it never gets any skier compaction. In the spring, the entire slope has ripped to the ground. Rock Face also hangs over a cat track. Skiers and riders might have noticed in the past few years seeing the “No stopping beyond this point” signs. That’s pretty sage advice.

Gazex will never replace explosive hand routes at Crystal (phew!). We have too many small pockets. Our mandate in the States is to manage all the terrain, not just the pistes. Therefore we will always need ski patrollers to help mitigate the slopes. But Gazex has it’s place, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well it works this season.

Now let’s all pray to Ullr that we get enough snow to really put our Gazex to the test.

What’s So Cool About Gazex?

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Exciting, new avalanche control technology is coming to Crystal this season. Three Gazex exploders are currently being installed in Powder Bowl, and if you’re not familiar with the technology, you’ll have to trust me on this one. Gazex is cool.

Why?

Because nothing says all-caps AWESOME like a fiery ball of gas setting off an avalanche. That’s two Hollywood-style special effects for the price of one. Let’s call it the Powder Bowl Two-fer.

Gazex Explosion

So what is Gazex?

Here’s the official marketing speak from the maker’s of Gazex (T.A.S). website:

Gazex is a powerful, permanent remote avalanche control systems. Gazex operates without explosives: the blast is caused by the detonation of a propane and oxygen mixture. The exploders are connected to a central gas shelter capable of storing sufficient gas reserves for the entire season.

Essentially it breaks down like this: a few squirts (and by “squirts” I mean a highly scientific mixture) of propane and O2 are blended in the exploder tube and lit on fire. This is the kind of thing ten-year-old boys’ dreams are made of. A blast of fire explodes from the tip of the tube and points straight down at the snow. This, in turn, will start an avalanche if conditions are right. If not, just like with explosives AC (Avalanche Control), the slope is deemed safe enough to ride.

These exploders are permanent installations. For this reason, Gazex isn’t going to be replacing the ski patrol avalanche teams anytime soon (phew!). Instead, our goal is to use Gazex in places like PB and possibly Rock Face–avalanche paths that overhang heavily trafficked pistes. The Gazex exploders are triggered remotely, which means that the patrol can fire them off quickly and if the hazard ramps up during a storm.

Our Powder Bowl Gazex exploders won’t necessarily mean that Southback is going to open anytime sooner. But they will help us expedite our “in-area” Avalanche Control, keep our snowcat drivers safer and help to mitigate avalanche hazard in Powder Bowl.

Most importantly, Gazex is simply going to be cool to watch.

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

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

 

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.

Crystal Reopens Tomorrow: Conditions Report

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John and Scott give two enthusiastic "thumbs up"

John and Scott give two enthusiastic “thumbs up”

Thanks to the new snow we received in the past 24 hours, Crystal will reopen tomorrow. This morning, when John, Scott and a few other patrollers and I headed up the Gondola for a look, I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic as I was last Saturday. That time I had a feeling about the snow. My instinct was telling me it would be good, and it was.

This time I wasn’t so sure.

Green Valley covered in snow was a pleasant surprise

Green Valley covered in snow was a pleasant surprise

It rained hard last night at the base, and the telemetry wasn’t showing any new. I was a bit skeptical. But we headed up into the fog nonetheless, ready to ski down or ride back down on the lift or do whatever was necessary.

I was pleasantly surprised. The fog lifted and we found up to 6″ at the top.

The rain line made it up to about the elevation of the bottom of Green Valley. Above that is all new snow. It is thick and “buttery” as ski patroller Michelle Longstreth put it. Classic PNW base-building snow. The top portion is really good skiing.

Once John made the call to reopen, off-duty patrollers Michelle, Christina, Peter and I felt we had to do our part too. So we skied a few laps in the valley, then headed over to the cache run just to make sure it was fit for public consumption.

Christina and Peter survey the goods

Christina and Peter survey the goods

And it is.

Green Valley Bowl itself offered up 6″ of chalky powder, while the lower valley was a bit thicker. However, we didn’t run into a rain crust until we skied Lucky Shot to the base. I wouldn’t recommend breaking any closures and skiing to the base. As Michelle described it, the conditions below midway were “character building,” and from our most enthusiastic patroller (hell, our most enthusiastic employee) at Crystal, that’s saying something.

So come up tomorrow and make some happy laps in the valley. The forecast is calling for sun the next few days, and the conditions are pretty darn good for pre-Thanksgiving turns. I, for one, will be up here enjoying the sun and the lift-served skiing.

Green Valley looking good

Green Valley looking smooth and buttery