Crystal Mountain Opens Today

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The 2015-2016 ski season starts today at Crystal. After a damaging wind and rain storm earlier this week, we are now blessed with an upper mountain draped (and caked!) in a wind-packed base. A few inches of fluff fell in the past two days, so conditions are fast and fun. It sort of feels like the entire upper mountain has been groomed by the wind. This time of season a solid base is key, as it covers over the rocks and bushes.

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Green Valley Nov 20th, 2016

At this point, Green Valley and Snorting Elk are open. We hope to expand terrain as soon as we get a little more snow. Lucky Shot is very close, but the snow peters out to nil a few hundred feet below the bottom of Rainier Express. This make me want to shake my fist at the weather gods.

Looking ahead at the forecast, there’s a chance for a few inches of snow Monday night. I’m hoping for more than a few inches, because after that the forecast turns dry.

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Upper Mountain looking sweet

It’s still early in the season and we have plenty of winter storms ahead of us. For now, just getting back on my skis and carving turns in the snow is enough. Many of you readers are probably like me. In the midst of this crazy world, sliding on snow is the only thing that makes sense.

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Ski patrol caught on webcam after setting up the hill

Yesterday, I got to join my friends and co-workers setting up the hill–putting out rope lines and marking the creeks that are still running and generally getting the slopes ready for the crowds today. Carrying around heavy loads of bamboo and rope, I was reminded of how lucky I am to get to do this for my job.

Hope to see you all on the slopes.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Ski Season

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Crystal Mountain received a nice blanket of snow this weekend.

10" of new snow at Crystal

10″ of new snow at Crystal

Powder Bowl isn't looking too bad either

Powder Bowl isn’t looking to bad either

There’s about 8-12″ of snow in Green Valley, and its a nice dense base. One more storm like this and we can open the Gondola and Green Valley. The forecast for this weekend is calling for a few more systems starting on Friday. (The first system should be warm, which could actually help consolidate the base.) Here’s how the forecast discussion reads:

  A WEAK UPPER SHORTWAVE IN THE NORTHWEST FLOW WILL MOVE ACROSS THE 
  FORECAST AREA WEDNESDAY NIGHT...FOLLOWED BY ANOTHER WEAKER FEATURE 
  THURSDAY OR THURSDAY NIGHT. THE SHORTWAVES WILL PROBABLY SCATTER 
  SOME LIGHT SHOWERS ACROSS WESTERN WASHINGTON AT TIMES. THE SNOW 
  LEVEL WILL BE AROUND 3500 FT WEDNESDAY NIGHT AND RISE TO AROUND 
  4500 FT THURSDAY NIGHT...AND SHOWERS COULD BRING 2 TO 5 INCHES OF 
  NEW SNOW TO THE CASCADES FROM AROUND STEVENS PASS NORTHWARD. MCDONNAL 
   
  .LONG TERM...ANOTHER WEAK UPPER RIDGE WILL MOVE QUICKLY ACROSS 
  WESTERN WASHINGTON FRIDAY MORNING...THEN A COLD FRONT WILL DIG 
  SOUTHEAST ACROSS THE AREA FRIDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY. A SECOND 
  FRONT WILL FOLLOW QUICKLY ON SUNDAY...WITH A FAIRLY DEEP UPPER 
  TROUGH DIGGING OVER THE REGION ON MONDAY. THE SNOW LEVEL WILL RISE 
  TO AROUND 6000 TO 7000 FT AHEAD OF THE FIRST FRONT...THEN FALL TO 
  AROUND 3500 FT ON SUNDAY AND MAYBE ALL THE WAY TO 2000 FT ON 
  MONDAY. MODELS AGREE WELL ON THIS SCENARIO OVERALL. MCDONNAL
Bottom of GV still needs a bit more snow.

8″ at bottom of GV

The bottom of Green Valley still needs a bit more snow. But currently it’s snowing lightly, and every little bit helps. What we need now is one of those big November snowfalls where it dumps 2 feet in 24 hours. (A girl can hope!)

Even if that doesn’t happen, since the crews this summer mowed down all the trees and brush in Green Valley and pretty much everywhere else on the main runs, it won’t take much to get open.

Let’s all start doing our snow dances (and ice-cube-flushing and frozen-spoon-under-the-pillow-sleeping) and get this season started!

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog

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Crested Butte recently released this awesome video about the life of Moose, an avalanche dog. His handler, Dustin, talks about Moose’s job, his love of the mountains and how he lives to find people buried in the snow.

Avalanche dogs use their noses to find buried avalanche victims. Dogs also make the best ski patrollers–they’re enthusiastic about hard work, love to dig in the snow, and know how to party after a job well done.

Moose the avalanche dog

Are Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?

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What is Inherent Risk?

The Colorado Ski Safety Act is currently being disputed in the state’s Supreme Court. Salynda Fleury is suing Winter Park Resort after her husband, Christopher Norris, was killed there in an avalanche in 2012. Lower courts sided with the resort, saying that avalanches are covered under the Ski Safety Act, which states, “no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” The job now for the state Supreme Court is to interpret the meaning of the term “inherent dangers and risks in skiing.”

Some of the inherent risks of skiing are covered under the act, such as “Changing weather conditions; existing and changing snow conditions; bare spots; rocks; stumps; trees; collisions with natural objects, man-made objects, or other skiers; variations in terrain; and the failure of skiers to ski within their own abilities.”

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

A ten foot crown on Powder Bowl at Crystal Mountain, 2014

Are In-Bound Avalanches an Inherent Risk in Skiing?

When the Colorado Ski Safety Act was enacted in 1979, few skiers were venturing into avalanche prone terrain. Much of the Act focuses on merging on crowded trails, riding lifts, use of proper signage and the like. Very little of the Act mentions responsibilities of either skier or resort occurring in off-piste and expert terrain.

Today more skiers and riders are venturing into avalanche prone terrain than ever. In some places, such as Crystal Mountain, this terrain is marked by “Avalanche Prone” signs. Washington State Ski Law does not explicitly require these signs, however.

The question remains: Are avalanches considered an inherent risk of the sport?

It’s no secret that avalanches are tough to forecast. Even when a slope should slide (due to changing weather conditions and slope angle, for example), often it does not. When avalanches do happen, however, it is most commonly due to changing weather conditions. In Washington state those changes are more obvious. We have more direct-action avalanches here. It storms, it avalanches. In the Rockies, where deep slab instabilities can persist, the weather changes that affect avalanches can be more long term. A prolonged cold snap, for example, can weaken layers that lead to avalanches. This can happen even on a sunny day.

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain's Chair 6

The avalanche that destroyed Crystal Mountain’s Chair 6

Why this matters to the ski industry

The ski industry is watching this Supreme Court case closely. If Fleury wins her case, ski areas will be much more reticent to open avalanche terrain. At Crystal, we try to open our avalanche terrain–namely Southback, Bear Pits, and Northway–as soon as possible. Skier compaction is the name of the game in avalanche mitigation. In essence we tame avalanches one snowflake at a time. Left to sit untracked, slopes often lose strength over time, if those weak layers get buried by deep slabs and become problems later on.

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Rider Kyle Miller PC: Jason Hummel

Why this matters to the skiing public

People want to ski and ride in avalanche terrain. In-bound avalanches are still rare. It may seem oxymoronic, but the more we can keep that terrain open, the safer it will be. The safest slope is one that’s groomed or mogul-filled. Of course, someone has to lay down the first tracks, and by my estimation there’s plenty of willing takers for that task.

What do you think? Should avalanches be considered an inherent risk or should ski areas be liable for in-bound avalanche fatalities and injuries?

What Kind of Winter Are We Going to Have?

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Someone asked me last weekend if I knew what kind of weather we were going to have this winter at Crystal. It’s timely because I was just thinking about how nifty it would be if I could predict the weather. Well, let’s be real here. I want to do more than predict weather. Any weather forecaster could do that. I want to control the weather.

While I haven’t yet mastered weather control, I have found some historical data that might be interesting to you skiers and riders obsessing/fretting/anxious about the season to come.

NOAA is predicting a very strong El Niño for the 2015-16 winter season. It’s easy to worry over this, especially since El Niño’s tend to mean dryer and warmer conditions in the PNW. But we’ve only been through two very strong El Niños in the past hundred years or so and those years weren’t so bad at Crystal.

In 1982-83 was a very strong El Niño event. Crystal reported about average snowfall that season. This was back when the weather plot was behind the Alpine Inn, where the tree canopy may have interfered. We had an active avalanche cycle in 82-83, with a slide that started in Kempers breaking timber all the way down to Highway 410.

1997-98 might be a little easier for locals to remember at Crystal. It was the daddy of all El Niños (which, by the way is spanish for “the niño”). It was the year of Chris Farley’s infamous skit on SNL.

During that season, Crystal ended up with about average snowfall. According to Tony Crocker at bestsnow.net, we were actually ahead. He has a pretty cool month-by-month analysis that you might want to check out. In a nutshell, we started strong at Crystal, had some spring-like conditions in mid-March, then ended in April with enough snow to get to about average depths.

El Niños tend to be pretty unpredictable. There are other factors besides ENSO at play as well. The folks at Atmospheric and Environmental Research consider the snowpack in Siberia in October as a good indication of the severity of winter in North America.

And then there’s the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which you may have heard is predicting a severe winter in many parts of N. America. The OFA uses a secret formula for long-term weather prediction that they keep hidden in a black box. So you know it’s got to be accurate.

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders. Which is nice.

One last consideration is the winter in Chile. There’s a “totally scientific” belief at Crystal that the Chilean winters are a prediction of the upcoming winter in the Cascades. The Andes are buried in snow right now. So we’ve got that going for us, too.

So what kind of winter are we going to have at Crystal? One thing I know for sure is that we will have weather, and plenty of it.

If I Could Go Back My Wedding Day, I’d Whisper This Into My Own Ear

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Today is our ten-year anniversary. Taken as a whole, a decade seems to have blinked by. But taken in pieces, it has been a long, strange, wild ride. I almost lost John after just our first year of marriage. We fought back from his cancer and liver transplant together. We have climbed mountains together, rafted rivers, trekked through the Himalayas, sailed and surfed and skied and loved each other through worldly adventures and daily rituals.

July 16, 2005

July 16, 2005

When I look back at the woman I was ten years ago today, when I vowed to love and cherish my husband, I was a different person. I was younger, of course, full of optimism and the kind of blind faith that makes us want to cleave ourselves to another person for all of eternity, but I was also pretty naïve. While I thought on my wedding day that I was wise and mature and knew exactly what I wanted out of life, I also wasn’t fully formed yet. Back then I hadn’t been tested like I have now. I hadn’t yet watched my husband lying emaciated in a hospital bed wondering if he would ever wake up. I hadn’t yet held his hand while his mother took her last breath. I hadn’t yet cried in his arms in grief after losing my dad.

Call it an accumulation of experiences—the kind of self-awareness that comes from witnessing ourselves manage crises and joys, trials and triumphs. But when I look back at that bride, I want to treat her kindly, to pat her hand and tell her that while it might not be easy, it will be worth it.

If I could go back and whisper into the ear of that former self, I know what I would say. I would tell that blissful bride to accept each moment, to stop trying to orchestrate her life and simply be present for it. I would remind her to enjoy every moment with this man she was committing herself to. I would tell her that while life can’t be lived easily, it can be lived fully. I would tell her not to take everything so personally.

It is easy to look back at our former selves and access our growth. It is much harder to look ahead and imagine how we will be ten years from now. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that the next ten years probably won’t be as rosy as I’d like to think. Life always has a way of messing with your best intentions. But there’s one thing I do know. Whatever lies ahead for us we will face it together.

After ten years of marriage, I know that I’m lucky to have John as my husband. He challenges me to be the best version of myself (admittedly, this isn’t something I’m keen to appreciate all that often, but still). He’s strong when I’m weak. He’s even-keeled when I drop my basket. He pushes on towards camp when I want to set down my pack and lie, exhausted, on the hard ground.

Today I celebrate what we’ve accomplished and shared so far. Here’s to the next ten years.

Who Needs Wifi When There’s Lions?

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Ten years ago, when John and I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time, we decided that someday we’d bring his kids. Last week, we returned from that family trip to Tanzania. It was a trip of a lifetime.

Evelyn, Kim, Andrew and John at Stella Point on the crater rim

Evelyn, Kim, Andrew and John at Stella Point on the crater rim

Climbing Kilimanjaro is no easy feat. At 19,341 feet, Kili is the tallest mountain on the African continent. We took the Machame Route, also known as the Whiskey Route because it’s hard, and spent six nights and seven days on the mountain. The climb is really more of a trek at altitude. The entire route is on a trail. Most days the trail is steep, but the views are stunning.

Sunrise just steps below the crater rim

Sunrise just steps below the crater rim

When we first envisioned it a decade ago, John’s daughter, Evelyn, was three years old. Instagram wasn’t even invented yet. But today in the summer of 2015 both Evelyn, and to a lesser degree her older brother Andrew, suck in wifi bandwidth like we used to draw breath.

Andrew sucking up every last breath at sunrise near the summit.

Andrew sucking it up at sunrise.

Before we left, my concern for the kids focused more on fitness level and blister-proofing their new hiking boots than on how often they’d need to update their social media sites. Between dance classes and end-of-school-year sleepovers Evelyn couldn’t find the time to break in her new hiking boots. Even while I imagined blisters and bloody toes, I had to admit that her new boots didn’t even seem that difficult to break in. Andrew, on the other hand, is a college ski racer. Toughness runs in his blood, and I knew that his biggest challenge would be waiting for the rest of us to catch up with him.

The toilet at 16,000 foot high camp

The toilet at 16,000 foot high camp

What I didn’t think much of before we left was what happens to kids without a constant Internet connection. Do they shrivel and die, like a raisin in the sun? Or would they revel in the beauty of mountains, humming the Sound of Music soundtrack to themselves while sipping tea in their tents?

Another long day on the trail

Another long day on the trail

The climb was a challenge. It was also beautiful and amazing and inspiring. Evelyn told me the day before the summit that if she didn’t make it to the top, she’d be disappointed at herself. When we were just steps from the top, and she wanted to turn back, I reminded her of her promise to herself. She continued on. Andrew made it to the crater rim while his lung were filling with fluid. The guides turned him around at Stella Point, but he’d done the hard part. He didn’t let on to any of us the depth of his struggle, and it turned out to be the most herculean physical effort I’ve ever witnessed. I will forever be in awe of him, even while I wish he would have turned around earlier for his own sake.

Feeling revelatory at the summit

Feeling revelatory at the summit (who put those Crystal and Big Sky stickers up?)

Climbing a mountain is simple. You just put one foot in front of the other until there’s no where further to go. When John, Evelyn and I stepped onto Uhuru Peak, the highest peak on Kilimanjaro together, I felt something new. The air is so thin, it feels like floating a inside a helium balloon. But attached to your feet are lead weights. There’s a strange disconnect between your head and your heavy boots, and it cracked open something inside me.

All of the challenges of the past few years came streaming out of that crack. The worries, the anxiety, the loss and pain just leaked out.

Where there be lions

Where there be lions

A few days later we camped in Serengeti National Park. We stayed in luxurious wall tents complete with running water (real toilets!) and big beds. At night we could hear lions. They exhale in a low rumble, then call out to the other cats in a long hooooooo sound. It’s strange and eery and totally amazing to listen to amidst the myriad of other African sounds.

"If you can't climb it, drink it!"

“If you can’t climb it, drink it!”

Evelyn isn’t the kind of kid that’s going to raise her hands and proclaim the “hills are alive.” She’s subtler and a whole lot wiser than that. The first morning after sleeping with the lions, she said something even better. She claimed this as the best trip she’d ever been on. “And you know what?” She went on. “Lions are better than wifi.”

Coming from a 13-year-old that’s about as high of praise as you can get. Trip of a lifetime indeed.