Category Archives: Skiing/Snowboarding

Project Zero: An initiative to reduce avalanche fatalities

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projzerologoProject Zero, a collaborative effort by premiere avalanche forecasters and professionals in North America, is on a mission to reduce avalanche fatalities. Through crafting an effective safety message and a straightforward method for decision-making, they hope to educate all backcountry users to understand the risks in the backcountry and make better decisions to mitigate those risks.

This season, Project Zero launched Know the Snowa social media campaign that included a video contest aimed at engaging the lift-served backcountry skier and rider. You can find out more about the contest winners here

Crystal Mountain SouthbackLocal videographer Jacob Hase won fifth place for his video based at Crystal Mountain. On his vimeo page, Jacob describes the video as, “a day trip into the Crystal Mountain Washington back country with additional avalanche beacon training. Video is narrated by Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher.”

As many of you know, Crystal Mountain is a great launching pad for backcountry terrain. Not only do we have the hike-to controlled Southback, but numerous true backcountry lines nearby as well.

Many of those lines can be accessed from the lifts. With the current phase of Project Zero focussing on lift-served backcountry, Crystal terrain is a perfect fit for Project Zero’s first initiative, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Congratulations Jacob!

 

Are Extreme Sports Too Risky?

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Each one of us has our own risk/reward calculus. Or perhaps we just weigh risk differently. Some people feel the sharp tang of risk just taking a stroll in the woods. Others can surf 30 foot waves or free-solo El Cap without breaking much of a sweat.

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Chuck Patterson catches some air

Regardless of where a person is on the risk continuum, others are always standing by to put that person in a box. Thrill-seekers take too many risks for their sport, say some. The risk-averse aren’t truly living, say others.

Since when did we care so much about the risks (or the lack thereof) that other people take?

The New York Times recently published an article about the risks in extreme sports. The author cites the soaring popularity of extreme sports and claims that, “many young people eager for an adrenaline rush are trying to copy their extreme sports idols, putting themselves at terrible risk.”

Injuries related to extreme sports are on the rise, and the participants are younger than ever. Overall, the author of the article urges participants to use safety equipment—especially helmets. The article quotes Dr. Sabesan, an orthopedic surgeon from Western Michigan School of Medicine, who recently presented her findings on a study about head and neck injuries in extreme sports. Her advice to parents of young rippers is to require “children who skateboard to wear a helmet and elbow and wrist guards.” She also recommends that snowboarders wear wrist guards and that the participants for other activities wear a helmet.

This debate has been going on for some time. Most people seem to agree that children should wear helmets, either because they are too young to decide for themselves or because they are too impulsive and tend to take bigger risks.

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

Motorcycle fatalities on the rise

But what about adults? Should adults be required to wear a helmet while skiing or riding a motorcycle? Another recent article in New York Times cites a study that as motorcycle helmet laws are weakening, deaths are increasing.

Should we require helmets like we do seat belts? What about at ski areas? Legislated helmet use at ski areas is on the rise. Should we require our customers to strap on a helmet when they strap on their skis or board?

It would certainly help reduce head injuries.

But should we require it? Or should adults have the choice? I wear a helmet. But does that mean I make my friends wear one?

We’re all adults here. We should decide for ourselves. Even if helmet use could guarantee a safe landing, should we force people to wear one? I don’t know. I always get a little squeamish when I hear about requiring helmets.

Readers, what do you think? Should helmets be required? What are the pros and cons of legislating safety equipment? Is there a difference between making kids wear one versus adults?

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

Tracking the “Why” of Avalanches

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Researchers at Montana State University hope to better understand how heuristics (human factors) contribute to avalanche mitigation. They are looking for participants for this global study.

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What you hope you never see

Here’s the overview of their project:

MSUThis project aims to collect GPS location information and survey responses from backcountry skiers and riders to better understand what types of terrain decision we make. Our focus is on backcountry skiers and riders of all abilities and experience. You need not be an expert backcountry skier to participate in this research. Every track submitted will go into the draw for some great prizes kindly donated by Black Diamond Equipment. The more tracks you submit the more chances you have at winning a prize!

Find out more about the study here.

All This Snow: Be careful out there

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The weather at Crystal is either on or off. There’s no in between up here in the Cascades. And for the past seven days a cold, snowy hose has been pointed straight at us.

Skiing the Deep under Shaker's Left

Skiing the Deep under Shaker’s Left

Since last Wednesday, we’ve received OVER 7 FEET OF SNOW. Just think about that for a second. If you’re a skier or rider, than you’re probably like me. We get excited about snow. Our pupils start to circle. But we have to be careful. There are hazards that accompany all this snow.

I, personally, have a love affair with snow. I marvel at tiny snow crystals; I’m giddy when I feel snowflakes on my chin; I live to slice through powder. But I must also remember to check myself.

During big storm cycles like this we ski patrollers work hard. We take pride in getting the mountain open on time (or at least as early as we possibly can), and we don’t mind slogging through snow to do avalanche control or carrying a heavy pack laden with explosives or digging out signs buried several feet under the snow. That’s our job. And we’re happy to do it.

Natural Avalanche in Kemper's Slidepath

Natural Avalanche in Kemper’s Slidepath

But sometimes even our best efforts can’t change the outcome. On Monday the ski area had a power outage when PSE’s backup generator didn’t work. While our main line goes down quite often, it isn’t usually a problem. The generator is large enough to handle all our needs. But here we were on a busy holiday with loads of new snow and a huge crowd of people headed our way, and no way to power the resort. It was a bummer.

Explosive Triggered Avalanche in Eagle's Chute

Explosive Triggered Avalanche in Eagle’s Chute

Bu with all this new snow we’ve had more serious hazards than a lack of power. The avalanche cycle has been dabgerous. On Monday Kemper’s (an avalanche path outside our boundary) slid naturally. When avalanches occur naturally (without a human trigger) then you know the danger is high or extreme.

Yesterday we brought in a helicopter to drop large explosives in Northway. With conditions like this, it’s too dangerous for patrollers to set out on skis. Instead we use a helicopter to drop 25 pound shots in those hard-to-get pockets. We saw widespread results. Northway Bowl produced a large avalanche with a 4-5 foot crown. Niagra’s (sic) slid wall-to-wall. We saw evidence of natural avalanches throughout Northway.

Treewells are deep and dangerous

Treewells are deep and dangerous

Most tragically, the treewell danger is also extremely high. All this snow creates airy voids at the base of alpine firs, creating dangerous traps. Yesterday one skier at Crystal (near Dick’s Face below Neanderthal Rocks) slid head first into a treewell and died. Even though he was skiing with a partner, and the two had skied together for years, just a few minutes in a treewell was enough to cause suffocation. For these two men, their day started with enthusiasm and thrills. It ended in tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

If you plan to come up to the Cascades and enjoy this storm cycle, remember these hazards. These are part of the inherent risk in the sport.

This isn’t Disneyland. While the thrills and excitement of new snow can blind us all to the dangers, they still exist and deserve our respect.

The forecast is just calling for more snow. Saturday there will be a short lull in the action, with more storms rolling in next week.

Let’s all be safe out there and return to ski/ride another day.

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

 

Windchill, Frostbite, and Winter Storms Coming

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She’s back. Winter that is. The past few days at Crystal have been quite cold. While we haven’t yet been pounded by mounds of fresh snow, the snow from last weekend is still cold, dry and fluffy. And, it’s about to get a whole lot more wintery.

First, let’s look at the current weather. Temperatures are minus Fahrenheit and the wind is coming from the east. Since Crystal mainly runs along a ridge oriented north and south, east winds rake up the slopes and blow hard across the top ridges. East winds are generally cold and miserable. If you’ve ever traversed across the top of Green Valley with a brutal wind on your right cheek, that’s east wind. Usually we get these winds during periods of high pressure, when cold air trapped on the east side of the Cascades leaks over the passes into the west, finding its way over places like Crystal.

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Windchill Calculator courtesy of NWS

Take yesterday for example. The above chart, courtesy of NWS, shows that winds in the 35 mph range can significantly impact temperature. At the top of the High Campbell chairlift yesterday, we measured the air temperature at -11 F. Add in the windchill and it feels like -41.

According to the chart, bare skin will suffer frostbite in ten minutes. I can attest to that. While trying to stay warm up there, a fellow patroller and I hiked the ridge to try to raise our body temperature. During the hike, my neck gator slipped down and a sliver of skin was exposed to the full brunt of the east wind. After less than five minutes I felt a sting on my cheek, which turned out to be frost nip.

Crystal Mountain

Hiking the Queen with the Hiking Queen (aka Michelle Longstreth)

Today the winds are even stronger and the temperatures are starting out even lower. While the Crystal telemetry is advertising spikes into the 100s mph, human observations aren’t validating that. But even a steady 30 mph is going to feel like -35 F. So bundle up. Keep moving and make sure that neck gator doesn’t slip down.

As for the weather forecast, the temperatures should moderate over the weekend. We might pick up a little bit of snow, but not much. A more normal winter weather pattern should set up next week, with Tuesday and Thursday bringing cold precipitation our way.

7 Day Forecast for Crystal Mountain

7 Day Forecast for Crystal Mountain

It also looks like Tahoe should finally get some snow. And as stingy as our snowfall has been this season in the PNW, those guys down there need it even more than we do.