Category Archives: Weather

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

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“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.

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

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.

The Return of Winter

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Winter might just be returning to the PNW. Things are starting to look up. The graph below shows the predicted snowfall (in inches) between now and Thursday evening. The white oval to the southeast of Tacoma is Mt. Rainier. Crystal Mountain lies to the east and slight north, somewhere in the 11″ to 32″ line. That seems a bit too-good-to-be-true, but a foot of new would make a huge difference. My fingers are officially crossed.

Cascades Snow

84 Hour Snowfall Forecast

 

Promises, Promises

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“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”  –Warren Miller (via Mark Twain)

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Praying for Snow

It’s no secret that the PNW is suffering in the snow department. We never received that November dump that lays down a thick base layer and covers the rocks and stumps and lets us sit back and gloat. We’re now into the holidays and the snowpack is still scratchy. We haven’t yet been able to groom much snow at Crystal because when the pack is this thin, the machines would break through and pick up rocks, ultimately making it worse. But there’s some hope. Last week the forecast ramped up our enthusiasm. For a few hours the collective PNW ski world held its breath in anticipation of a winter storm watch. Some areas did better than others. Stevens picked up 6″, which must have made for a great day of skiing yesterday and greatly improved their pack. Baker has picked up close to a foot of new snow, of course. Baker’s reputation for the snowiest place around is holding true even this year.

Above the clouds on Saturday overlooking Powder Bowl

Above the clouds on Saturday overlooking Powder Bowl

At Crystal, we got a mixed bag. Some snow on top (a total of 4″ that felt more like 3), some freezing rain, some regular rain on the lower half of the mountain and some valley fog that just made us feel soggy. The new snow yesterday did make a difference. Accompanied by wind, those 4″ smoothed out the base, making for a fun day. The best turns were on the right side of Powder Bowl and Green Valley. I also heard a report that Southback was good skiing. Looking ahead, tonight we will most likely get a little rain. But the forecast is calling for a change to snow by tomorrow along with an increase in precipitation. Even though usually when the temp falls so does the precip, this time I’m very hopeful. When the snowpack is this thin, even a few inches makes all the difference. Give us 8″ and it would be a powder frenzy. The weather pattern is going to change and we will start to get our typical winter storms piling up out in the Pacific. How do I know this? I just have a feeling. And remember, any skiing is better than none.

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.