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

 

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

 

Stranded at the Airport: Putting the Gnar in Narita

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The switch from comfort to desperation can happen fast. Sometimes all it takes is a big snowstorm, a missed connection and a city incapable of removing snow from it’s roads and railways. And you kind of know it’s bad when the Red Cross comes around delivering bottles of water.

The Endless Check-in Queue

The Endless Check-in Queue at Japan Airlines

Last weekend I spent 43 hours on the floor of the Tokyo airport. When our plane landed in the midst of a huge snowstorm–what turned out to be the biggest in a few decades–I had a bad feeling.

We were headed to Niseko, a ski resort on the island of Hokkaido, the land of hot onsens and nightly dumps and some of the best snow in the world. But Tokyo is much like Seattle–a big city, a gateway to mountains and ocean, where precipitation usually falls as rain.

Not this storm. In some places, 70cm fell in 24 hours. It shut the city down. All roads were closed. The train stopped. The airport was completely shut off from the outside world. No flights, no trains, no buses. The line at the taxi stand was so long it wound into the next day.

My husband is a solver of problems. He took this setback as an opportunity to find a solution. And he went at it like a dog on a bone. There was a flight from Haneda leaving for Sapporo in a few hours. All we needed was to get there. He located the train station and tried to find a ride to the city.   But the flights were all full.

JK finally admitting defeat

JK finally admitting defeat

Next, he tried to find a train all the way to Hokkaido. But the seats were all full. Again, he booked us a flight out of another city up north. But we couldn’t get there. The buses had stopped running. They’d closed all the roads from the airport. We were definitely trapped.

Some lucky couple found this love nest to call home

Some lucky couple found this love nest to call home

And yet, thousands of travelers poured in on international flights. Someone at the control tower forgot to tell them they were landing at the Hotel California. You could check in but you couldn’t leave. For a while there, things got a bit desperate. Lines snaked back and forth across the floor of the airport. Travelers fell asleep while standing up, or simply curled around their luggage while keeping their place in line. That’s when volunteers came around with water bottles and cute little sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

I’ve said it before. Adversity is good for you. Besides, this wasn’t that bad. We had water. We had beer. And we had these cute little sandwiches. That’s what I kept telling myself as I headed into the second night in our little bunker we created out of our luggage in a side room at the top of Level 3.

Being the survivors that our group of six truly was, we planned ahead. We bought enough beer that first night to see us through. Even though the restaurants ran out of food, and the famous vending machines hemorrhaged hot coffee and cold tea until sucked dry, we knew we’d be okay. We had two decks of cards and plenty of beer.

A few lucky dogs found this deluxe overwater bungalow

A few lucky dogs found this deluxe overwater bungalow

So we played hearts, we watched the large board that flashed CANCELED next to every domestic flight heading north, and bided our time.

Then something miraculous happened. We realized we were having fun. We were laughing so hard that other sleep-deprived travelers gave us sideways glances. The card game was becoming cut-throat, the beer was holding firm, even the fermented plum treats out of the vending machine offered a hilarity beyond what would seem possible. How could something that tasted so rotten be so funny? Because when you’re scavenging cardboard boxes to sleep on, anything is possible.

Of all the airports in the world I’d rather be stranded at Narita. At least they sell beer in vending machines. At least Japanese people are nice and don’t steal your stuff. All throughout the airport, cell phones and other electronics were plugged into remote outlets and left for hours. Somber-looking police officers cruised the hallways without much to do.

Making ourselves comfortable at Chateau Crystal

Making ourselves comfortable at Chateau Crystal

When we woke the second morning, I wasn’t sure our flight would hold. Still no flights had left the airport. But we stood in the long checkout line anyway. And then it happened. We were each handed a boarding pass–a Willy Wonka golden ticket–and just like that we were ushered through security and onto a bus and out to the plane.

A few hours later we were soaking in the hot water at a Niseko onsen, drinking sake and eating sushi. And just like that we were back in the land of comfort, where snowfall is a good thing and problem solving actually works and anything is possible.

Someday I will probably look back at those 43 hours with gratitude. Actually, on the eve of our last day in Niseko, I’m already doing that. Because if you can still laugh when you’re sleeping on a cardboard box, when the thought of ever taking a shower or sleeping on a bed are only remote possibilities, then you’re doing pretty good.

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.

windchill

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.

Riding a Chairlift

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Niseko Japan

Single Chairlifts offer lots of time to think

The number one objective of a ski area is to provide uphill transportation. All the other stuff–the schincter-tightening bowls, the alpine-style restaurants, the crowded bathrooms, the fresh corduroy, the terrain parks with the their diligent crews raking and raking, the ski instructors with impossibly perfect hair–all of that is just a bonus. A ski area wouldn’t be a ski area without a way to get you uphill.

I’ve ridden a lot of chairlifts in my life. And yes, they are very efficient at getting me back to the top. But they have another purpose too. Chairlifts are a place to stop, to regroup, to remember why it is I live in the mountains, why I love to slide on snow, and why I could never live in the city.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve lived entire lifetimes seated on a lift. I’ve laughed with friends and cried alone. I’ve been mesmerized by the brilliant sparkle of sun on snow; I’ve witnessed marriage proposals and spectacular crashes. I’ve also noticed work to be done–tower pads that needed raising, sticks of bamboo that needed straightening, pieces of trash that needed to be picked up.

Last week I spoke at my father’s funeral. The very act of getting up in front of family and friends and declaring the importance of such a great man in my life has altered something in me. It has made me reevaluate what is truly important.

Big Sky, MT

Big Sky, MT

For years on my father’s desk he kept a motto written on a yellow sticky note. It read, “If it’s green, golf it. If it’s white, ski it. We’re not here for a long time. We’re here for a good time.”

Life provides us with all too many opportunities to waste our days. Jealousy, anger, having far too thin of skin, taking things personally, these all help us squander our short time here. Distraction from real life is another wasteful act.

We're riding a lift!

We’re riding a lift!

 

But riding a chairlift is an opportunity to engage. Sometimes draw-droppingly picturesque and other times cloaked in clouds, the views always change. No matter what the scenery offers, I always remember to stop. To breathe. To look around. To remember what it important.

Because like a brilliant man once said, we’re not here for a long time. We’re here for a good time.

The Four W’s: When Winter Packs a Punch

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Winter finally arrived last week and so did the four w’s: wild, windy, wet and wacky. Really, it’s the three w’s but we like to throw the wacky in there because you just never know. This is Crystal and things can get pretty crazy sometimes. On Saturday the Crystal telemetry recorded a spike to 111 mph at the top of Rainier Express. That’s a Category 3 hurricane.

By Sunday morning we’d picked up 24 inches of snow in 24 hours according to the human observation at the Green Valley weather station. From 5am to 8am Sunday morning it snowed 10″. That’s more than 3″ an hour. This fluffy “bonus snow” caused quite a bit of chaos in the parking lot as the plowing crews had to re-plow at the exact time that everyone was arriving. It made for a long drive and an even longer time parking.

It also made for some excellent skiing.

Speaking of wind, check out this video taken recently at Bridger Bowl. The winds were in the 70s this day. Just imagine what Rex looked like on Saturday with those spikes in the Category 3 range. Makes me shiver.

Hopefully most of you were able to partake in the Sunday morning goods. It doesn’t get like that very often in the PNW and when it happens on a weekend, the untracked snow goes fast. We opened Northway for the first time this season at 1:30 on Sunday, and those that stuck around got some good skiing there too.

We are implementing a new program at the Northway gates on big days. Skiers and riders with beacons and partners get to come to the front of the line and go through the gates first. Even though we use explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard, Northway and Southback are still avalanche prone areas. They simply do not see the same skier compaction as our “in area” terrain. Thus, we recommend skiing with a partner and carrying a beacon and shovel. We are also tweeting our openings, and giving our followers an early heads up. So follow us at @crystalmtpatrol and help us spread the message by retweeting.

The forecast is now calling for a return to high pressure. This should give the snowpack a chance to settle out. While doing avalanche control in Southback this morning, we saw evidence of some big natural avalanches in the backcountry. So giving the layers a chance to bond and the snowpack an opportunity to find some equilibrium is a good thing. Let’s just hope this return to spring doesn’t last too long. I’m kind of partial to winter.