Tag Archives: Avalanche Control

The Beautiful World of Avalanche Control

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Avalanche mitigation seems to be having a moment. In the very small world of snow sports, avalanche mitigation is an even tinier niche. It’s the realm of professional ski patrollers and DOT highway workers and a few avalanche consultants. We call it “avalanche control” or “AC” or “Avi”. Some call it “avalanche reduction” or “control work.” Others call it simply “hazard mitigation.”

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

Tram-assisted explosive control at Snow Basin, UT

I’ve been doing it up at Crystal for years. Up until recently I had a hard time explaining what it was like. Before POV cameras that strap to a helmet or a chest harness, few patrollers could hold a video camera in one hand and also plug their ears at the same time.

Besides, ski patrollers don’t want to slow down the process. Time is of the essence on avalanche control mornings. Crowds of powder hunters often wait in long, snaking lines at the chairlift, listening to the bombs explode in the starting zones and waiting for the all clear. Quality video takes time and it also takes good visibility–two things in low quantity on a powder day.

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Avalanche Control, Snow Basin, UT

Good avalanche footage is hard to come by. That’s why I like this video by Chris Morgan at twosherpas.com. It’s called PROfile: Ski Patroller G.R. Fletcher. It takes place at Snow Basin in Utah. The avalanche footage is clean and beautiful. It’s nothing historic or scary, just good sharp surface slabs that allow the patrol to open up some nice-looking terrain.

I can appreciate G.R.’s discussion on group dynamics. Ski patrollers must trust one another. Whether ski cutting a starting zone or working side by side on a medical call, the job requires a certain closeness. G.R. has been patrolling for 25 years, and you can detect a little wariness in his voice. The job is not easy. There are some hard days. Some days are boring, when the crowds are low and the snow is icy–not even worth taking a lap.

Other days are so scary that you can’t sleep that night. We work on serious accidents, some that even end in tragedy. But then there are days like the one pictured in this video. These days are crisp and beautiful and covered in a skein of soft snow. Near-perfect days require enough challenge and uncertainty to keep the flow going. That’s what keeps me coming back to the job every year. It’s days like this.

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

G.R. Fletcher tossing a shot. Snow Basin, UT

On another note: Crystal isn’t open at the moment. But things are looking better for a limited opening this weekend. Stay tuned on the website. Oh, and by the way. It’s currently snowing at Crystal. Keep doing those snow dances.

What’s So Cool About Gazex?

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Exciting, new avalanche control technology is coming to Crystal this season. Three Gazex exploders are currently being installed in Powder Bowl, and if you’re not familiar with the technology, you’ll have to trust me on this one. Gazex is cool.

Why?

Because nothing says all-caps AWESOME like a fiery ball of gas setting off an avalanche. That’s two Hollywood-style special effects for the price of one. Let’s call it the Powder Bowl Two-fer.

Gazex Explosion

So what is Gazex?

Here’s the official marketing speak from the maker’s of Gazex (T.A.S). website:

Gazex is a powerful, permanent remote avalanche control systems. Gazex operates without explosives: the blast is caused by the detonation of a propane and oxygen mixture. The exploders are connected to a central gas shelter capable of storing sufficient gas reserves for the entire season.

Essentially it breaks down like this: a few squirts (and by “squirts” I mean a highly scientific mixture) of propane and O2 are blended in the exploder tube and lit on fire. This is the kind of thing ten-year-old boys’ dreams are made of. A blast of fire explodes from the tip of the tube and points straight down at the snow. This, in turn, will start an avalanche if conditions are right. If not, just like with explosives AC (Avalanche Control), the slope is deemed safe enough to ride.

These exploders are permanent installations. For this reason, Gazex isn’t going to be replacing the ski patrol avalanche teams anytime soon (phew!). Instead, our goal is to use Gazex in places like PB and possibly Rock Face–avalanche paths that overhang heavily trafficked pistes. The Gazex exploders are triggered remotely, which means that the patrol can fire them off quickly and if the hazard ramps up during a storm.

Our Powder Bowl Gazex exploders won’t necessarily mean that Southback is going to open anytime sooner. But they will help us expedite our “in-area” Avalanche Control, keep our snowcat drivers safer and help to mitigate avalanche hazard in Powder Bowl.

Most importantly, Gazex is simply going to be cool to watch.

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Blaine preparing concrete in Powder Bowl

Chinook Pass Opens Tomorrow

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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

 

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

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

 

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.

Avalanche Control in Yellowstone Park?

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The National Park Service uses artillery shells to mitigate avalanches on Sylvan Pass, which allows access to the park from the east. In the winter, the pass is open only to snowmobiles and

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photo courtesy of newwest.net

other “over-the-snow” vehicles. A decade ago, a few thousand snowmobiles might make the trek from Cody to Yellowstone Park over Sylvan Pass. Now the number is closer to a few hundred. Ever since the use of two-stroke snowmobiles was banned in the Park, many of those users are going elsewhere. And yet still the Park clears the slidepaths with explosives.

The annual cost to mitigate the avalanche hazard in the 20 slidepaths on Sylvan Pass, which often gets 350 inches of snow annually, can be as high as $325,000, according to Billings Gazette. Avalanche control teams use a 105 Howitzer, creating  avalanches when the road is closed. Teams have also

Avalanche Paths on Sylvan Pass, photo courtesy of National Park Service

Avalanche Paths on Sylvan Pass, photo courtesy of National Park Service

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105 Howitzer used at Alta

dropped explosives from helicopters when the conditions are too dangerous to access the Howitzer.

Sylvan Pass is the only avalanche area within a National Park that utilizes explosives to stay open for tourists. With a high cost and low use, it seems an impractical use of funds.

In 2007, when the Park considered closing the pass in winter, local snowmobilers and politicians were outraged. Conservation groups tried to push back, claiming, among other things, that the risk of unexploded shells tipped the risk/reward calculus into the red. In 1997, a tourist brought an unexploded shell into the visitor center, no doubt starting a massive panic.

According to some estimates, as many as 300 unexploded bombs could be hanging around in the Sylvan Pass area. That number seems both high and astonishing. If there are only half that many unexploded shells, the risk is still high. Some war zones probably aren’t that crowded with duds.

Explosives can fail to detonate for any number of reasons. Once an explosive is lit, it is considered live until it detonates. In military parlance, duds are known as “unexploded ordnance”, and they can pose a risk of detonation even decades after they are lit. A dud, then, is not something to mess around with.

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Plows clearing roads in Yellowstone

Recently these duds have been in the news, since the numbers have recently been released. In my opinion, the real issue isn’t the duds, but the need for explosive control at all. Does this road really need to stay open for what seems like an average of one snowmobile a day or less?

Defenders of snowmobiling in Yellowstone continue to fight their battle, hanging onto what Clinton nearly succeeded in ending. But at what cost? Should we continue to keep Sylvan Pass open with federal dollars? Should Yellowstone allow snowmobiling, even the kinder gentler four-stroke engines?

Snowmobiling allows widespread winter access to Yellowstone. And perhaps, that’s a good thing. But with unexploded artillery shells and an explosives budget as high as any Class A ski area, I’m not so sure the cost is worth the effort.

I’d love to hear what you think. Leave your comments below.