Category Archives: Weather

Snowman Film: When heli-blasting goes wrong

Standard

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.

It’s Hard to Be Patient When You’re Waiting for the Ski Season to Start

Standard

A Prelude to Winter

Waiting for snow is hard. It’s especially difficult at the beginning of the season. November can be a bit like Christmas–either full of good tidings and warm family moments or wrought with awkward gyrations brought on by that one crazy family member that chooses to literally rain on your snowy parade.

Better make up the hide-a-bed, because it looks like that rainy relative is swooping into town tonight. But I digress. Let’s first take a look at the bright side.

Smiles from Reid Pitman

Smiles from Reid Pitman on Sunday

 

Conditions Update

Yesterday morning A Lot at Crystal was nearly half full with eager skiers and riders who skinned to the top to take part in the snow. It was a little heavy–those with fat skis and snowboards had the biggest smiles on their faces–and a little wind-effected. The ridge at the top of Green Valley was scoured down to the rocks. The valley itself was filled with two to three feet of cream cheese topped by a few inches of confectioner’s sugar. In other words, the conditions were classic PNW snow and perfect base-building material.

It’s times like these when I wish we didn’t have such a thing as a weather forecast. Because if you’ve taken a close look at it lately, you’ll understand why Crystal isn’t open yet. It’s because of the forecast.

Because Rain

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

Here’s a snippet from the text forecast:

LOTS OF PRECIPITATION LATER TODAY THROUGH TUESDAY NIGHT OR WEDNESDAY WITH THE SNOW LEVEL MAINLY 6500 TO 7500 FT….WE CAN SAY WITH CONFIDENCE THAT 3 TO 6 INCHES OF PRECIPITATION WILL FALL ALONG THE WEST SLOPES OF THE CASCADES DURING THE 48 HOUR PERIOD FROM MIDDAY TODAY THROUGH MIDDAY WEDNESDAY.

You know what, NOAA forecasters? No one wants your bad news. Why do you have to go and rain on our parade? Here we were having visions of snowy sugar plums dancing in our heads and you go and give us this?? Why couldn’t you have just kept this one to yourselves for a change?

Crystal’s Modus Operandi

Crystal Mountain is usually pretty aggressive getting the slopes open. We understand the pent-up demand and bursting enthusiasm this time of year, and we are willing to roll the dice on a forecast. Most ski areas wait until their snowpack is a sure thing before opening. We are one of the few areas willing to skate on thin ice, so to speak.

So why isn’t Crystal opening today? We have to wait and see about this rain. While it’s difficult to wait on snow this time of year, I’m hear to tell you. It’s even harder waiting on the rain.

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley Sunday

John wrote up an update on the website about his thought process. It’s a little window into his mindset, and a good dose of his mountain voice. It’s worth a read. In short, we are bashing down the snow with our cats, hoping to retain as much as we can through this big melt. If we don’t lose it all, and if Mt. Rainier blocks some of that rain (which it very often does), we could still open by the weekend. To quote John, “it’s day to day.”

While we wait to see what this next round of storms will bring, here’s a really cool video of snowflakes forming.

Super Scientific Recipe for an Early Ski Season

Standard

“Early” is a relative word. In our household, we divide ski seasons along a very defined line. If we open before Thanksgiving weekend, it’s an early start. After–even by a single day–and it’s a late start. Either you ski/ride on this long weekend, or you don’t. I’m still holding out for an early season. But the clock is ticking.

Early turns on Lucky Shot last season opening

Early turns on Lucky Shot last season opening

It’s getting to be that time of year when “talking about the weather” is about the most real conversation in our house. As my husband likes to say, “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Maybe it’s high time we did something about it. That’s where I need your help. If you all follow this little recipe, we might just have hope.

My weather forecasting is a little like a cocktail recipe:

  • One part GFS model (preferably the extended model, because who wants to rely on the more accurate short-term forecast when you can dream about the cold storms lining up more than a week out?)
  • Two parts superstition
  • Three parts wishful thinking

Superstition

First, let’s talk about the superstition. Just Google up, “how to make it snow,” and you’ll find heaps of information. This is something you can all do right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

The most common tips you’ll find include wearing your pajamas inside out/backward as well as flushing ice cubes down the toilet.

My husband says he’s not going to shave until we open. I’m not sure where he got that one, but I don’t want to monkey with his superstition. I’d hate to convince him this half-beard has to go only to see a blocking high set up off the coast. I just hope he gets to shave soon. His mother in law might also prefer him to shave before Thanksgiving so our family photos aren’t marred by “the guy with half a beard.”

My favorite snow superstition, however, is the legend of Heikki Lunta. Heikki is the Finnish god of snow, but really came into his own in the 1970’s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A local radio host, David Riutta created the “Heikki Lunta Song”, which asked the god for snow in time for an upcoming snowmobile race. The snow fell so hard and for so long, Riutta created a separate track titled, “Heikki Lunta Go Away.” Below is the original.

Wishful Thinking

There’s a lot of wishful thinking that goes into snow rituals. Sleeping with a frozen spoon under your pillow is supposed to make you dream of snow, which in turn awakens the snow gods. Others recommend stacking pennies on your windowsill. Each penny translates to an inch of snow that will fall overnight.

I’ve been watching plenty of ski movies the past few weeks, and those are a very potent form of wishful thinking. Speaking of which, Warren Miller’s No Turning Back plays this weekend in Seattle. There’s nothing like watching a little ski porn on a big screen in a packed stadium to max out on wishful thinking. I’m pretty sure several hundred friends hoping for snow simultaneously will bring a few cold storms our way. It’s practically guaranteed actually, when you really think about it. So, if you do nothing else, go to this ski movie, sit in the stadium and wish really hard that you will soon be schussing through the deep stuff.

The Forecast

Then there’s this little thing called “the weather forecast.” Some people believe in it, others are skeptics. Disciples claim that meteorologists use “scientific models” to forecast the weather. They can even look far into the future to predict the weather. I prefer these extended forecasts. I figure that if you don’t like the weather, you can just look far enough ahead until you see something you like.

Then you fixate on that.

Fixating on a cold storm ten days off is my specialty.

The UW Atmospheric Sciences models are optimized for our terrain. If you’re a forecast disciple, you should really bookmark this page. Here’s a screenshot of their 24 Hour snow forecast for 4pm Sunday night. Looks like we are in the 10″ range at Crystal, while Baker is sitting pretty in the 16-20″ range (lucky bastards).

24 Hour totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whatever the case may be, we will all be skiing and riding soon. That’s especially true if we all ban together and start doing something about this weather. So, if you don’t have something else going on tonight, could you please wear those pajamas inside out and backward?

Thanks.

I’m a Sucker for a Snowstorm

Standard
Not a bad lunch spot.

Not a bad lunch spot.

I’m like a moth to the flame. When it snows, I can’t help myself. I have to go towards those flakes like my life depends on it.

I woke this morning to a fresh snowfall. This time I debated on whether or not to bring my skis. From my apartment at the base of Crystal, the peaks looked pretty salt and peppery this morning, pretty chocolate-chippy (to quote Tom Winter). So I decided not to bring my skis.

Maybe I made the wrong decision, because I could have made about ten legitimate turns today. They’d have been hop turns, trying-to-stay-light-on-my-feet turns, praying that I didn’t hook a tip under something awful and immovable. But I brought my camera instead. Which was nice since the sun was out. With all that fresh snow (a compacted 7-9″ inches at the top of Green Valley) it was legit bluebird.

Chinook Pass Opens Tomorrow

Standard

Chinook Pass officially opens tomorrow, Friday May 23rd, 2014 at noon just in time for Memorial Weekend. Cayuse Pass opened last Friday. According to the WSDOT Chinook Pass page crews needed to inspect a damaged wall. Check out more photos on Flickr.

Crews conduct Avalanche Control on Chinook Pass

Crews conduct Avalanche Control on Chinook Pass

 

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?

Standard

“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

Standard

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