Tag Archives: avalanche

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.

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.

New Zealand Buried in Snow

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Avalanche aftermath

Avalanche aftermath

I’ve often heard that we in the PNW can forecast our winters based on the previous season in New Zealand. I hope that’s true. Because if next winter in the northern hemisphere is anything like the winter currently raging in New Zealand, we snow lovers in the Cascades will be golden.

Clearing the access road

Clearing the access road

New Zealand’s Mt. Hutt ski area is currently closed. They have too much snow. In the past two days, they’ve been inundated. And it isn’t letting up. Their latest update on Facebook claims they gave up counting the new snow last night when they’d received 120cm from the latest storm. Wind drifts are 5+ meters deep. That’s over 15 feet of snow in drifts. It has snowed over 5 feet of snow in this one storm alone.

Crews have been using explosives to control avalanches, and one ripped out their race building and damaged the snowmaking building. Fortunately for them, they won’t be needed that snowmaking equipment anytime soon.

For now, the main goal is simply clearing the road. It looks like they have their work cut out for them. They are hoping to open Sunday. Snow depth is 240 cm at the summit. Good luck guys, and stay safe.

 

Avalanche Footage in the Alps

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Check out this avalanche footage I found on Unofficial Networks. It makes me happy that I don’t blast above a village. Oh wait. Except my house actually sits at the bottom of an avalanche path. Maybe it’s time to move.

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Val d’Isere Pisteurs (french for ski patrollers) blasted the slopes above, creating the avalanche that hit this town. Luckily no one was hurt and there was very limited damage. Most of what reached the buildings was the fine, powder cloud. But this was a close call. And of course, as in any disaster, there’s always the maniacal laughing from the the guy taking the video. Classic.

 

 

Be Safe, Live Wild

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Roger Strong nearly lost his life in an avalanche at Snoqualmie Pass. A year later he returns to the tree that tore his tibias from his femurs and reflects on his decisions, his assumption of risk and his return to the mountains. As Roger puts it, “We are all going to make mistakes…it’s truly learning from them that makes life sweet.”

Each one of us must weigh the risks of our sport against the rewards. For Roger, the mountains are a place of happiness and meaning. My encounters with him in the mountains have always been punctuated with his infectious enthusiasm and his willingness to go a little further. This video, produced by Fitz Cahall at Duct Tape Then Beer, offers an elegant view of risk assessment, courage and Roger’s enthusiasm. Have a look.

The Risk/Reward Calculus

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As a ski patroller, I mitigate risk for a living. Whether on the edge of a groomer or the top of an avalanche path, my job is to reduce the risk for the skiing public. Perhaps that explains my fascination with the  risk/reward calculus in action sports. What started a few months ago as a suggestion from a good friend, (“Hey Kim, maybe you should write your next book on risks, and why people take them!”) has transformed into an all-out obsession. My research has taken me from psychology to neurology to the stories of amazing athletes pushing themselves to the very edge. Now, everywhere I look, people are talking about risk. It is like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also known as the red-car phenomenon, when you encounter a previously obscure piece of information and start seeing it everywhere.

Avalanche Basin

The light fading in Avalanche Basin

Friday, as I headed to the top of the King at the end of the day to sweep, I ran into a group of snowboarders preparing to drop into Avalanche Basin. Since it was the end of the day, and I was sweeping Southback, I explained to them that I would watch them all drop in and make sure they made it out the bottom before continuing on. None of them had ever skied Southback, and I observed their decision-making skills.

A few of them were tired from the hike and traverse. These ones were ready to drop-in and get to the bottom before it got dark. The best snowboarder of the group noticed the alpenglow surrounding Mt. Rainier. He seemed calm and prepared as he checked his line and smoothly dropped in. I asked the rest if they’d ever ridden this line. None of them had. I offered some beta on the various drop-in points, and waited for them to strap in. One of them laughed nervously. Another one seemed to obsessively check the screen of his POV camera, making sure it was on.

The visibility worsened as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. It would be totally dark in less than forty-five minutes. One by one the group dropped in. They waited carefully for each one to appear at the bottom of the chute and move to a safe location at the bottom.

Even though they appeared like newbies, they knew enough to go one at a time, to wear shovel packs and to check each area before dropping. As they prepared to to drop in, I watched them calculate the risk versus the reward. The rewards were big: three untracked chutes above an open fan with about 8″ of new snow. The risks, as always in the mountains, were many and varied. That 8″ of snow was sitting on a firm bed surface. Somewhere between the bed surface and the new snow was a layer of surface hoar. The visibility and the temperature were dropping. And now we had less than thirty minutes of daylight.

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

Three boarders remained. One, who I’d been following since the Throne saddle, waiting as he stumbled along the trail, expending twice as much energy as necessary, looked at me. His jacket was unzipped to his collar bone, and steam rose from his skin. “What’s below here?” He asked again. I explained the terrain carefully, then added, “this chute is the biggest. It’s the easiest way down.”

“The easiest way?”

I nodded, not that there is an easy way down Avalanche Basin, I pointed out. But of all the options, this one right here was the least risky.

He nodded and zipped up his jacket. I could see him doing the risk/reward calculus in his mind. He must have also considered his options. At this point, there weren’t many. It was too late to hike back out. To go any further would only mean he’d surely be riding out in the dark. It was now or never.

He was the last to drop in, and he carved a broad but respectable turn across the top of the chute. The snow rippled around his knees and sprayed onto his torso. It was a good thing he zipped up that jacket. I heard several whoops and hollers and continued my hike to the top of the King, glad I’d put fresh batteries in my headlamp.

Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks. These are the good days, the lucky days, the days when six friends can end their day with one last run in Southback. But other times the risks are too high, and we hope we’ve built the judgment to know the difference. On those days, we back off. We stand further away from the cornice, we choose a safe line down. We exercise our judgment, which is the single-most important tool in the mountains.

A few minutes later, I stood on top of the King and attached my headlamp to my helmet. The gray light was fading fast. I hollered one last time into Silver Basin, “closing!” and listened to the wind. I was the only one out here. Everyone else had gone home. After a minute, I dropped in and glided home too.

I Love the Sound of Avi Bombs in the Morning

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Avalanche Control

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Photo by Andrew Longstreth

Powder hounds love the sound of avalanche bombs in the morning. To wake to the boom and rattle of windows, to feel the deep compression reverberate across the valley, to open your eyes to the alarm clock of explosives means only one thing. Powder day.

But how do we ski patrollers decide when to go out for avalanche control? Some days the rumble of explosives promises fresh powder, and other days the hillsides are quiet only to reveal deeper and lighter snow than before. So what gives? Why do we go out some days with 3″ of new and not others with 8″?

There are no hard and fast rules. This is weather we are talking about, after all. Our avalanche forecasters decide how the current weather will affect the snowpack, and make the decision to wake us all up at 4AM to come in for avalanche control. Also known as “Avi” or “AC”, we mitigate the avalanche hazard by using explosives or ski cutting to create avalanches while the slopes are closed, so that they don’t happen later, when skiers or boarders take their first turn.

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Surface hoar, once buried, creates a weak layer in the snowpack

The decision to “go out early” is always made before anyone actually sets out on the snow. It would be easy to decide when to go out if we had a clear rubric, if anything 5″ or more meant an automatic callout. But it doesn’t work that way. 5″ of light fluff that falls without wind doesn’t add much stress to the snowpack. However, 5″ of wet, heavy snow that comes in on a southwest wind and deposits snow in our north-facing starting zones could trigger big slides. Avalanche hazard is determined by the strength of the snowpack versus the stress of new snow. The snowpack can weaken or strengthen over time. In a maritime climate, such as ours, the snowpack tends to strengthen over time. The stress of new snow is our biggest determinant in avalanche hazard. We base our avalanche control almost entirely on new snow.

Here’s how we make that decision.

Automatic Callout

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Hiking the Throne for AC in Southback

If the weather is nuking all day long, and we have not had much skier compaction, Chet, the Snow Safety Director, may decide to make the callout “automatic.”

Regardless of what happens overnight, the determination has already been made before the previous ski day ends. If the upper mountain is on “wind hold” during a big snow event, and no one has been up to ski the new snow, we will almost always have an “automatic callout”.

We set our alarms to arrive early to work at about 6AM. Then we all head up the Gondola and disperse from there to our various routes, each consisting of at least one avalanche blaster and one blaster apprentice.

Crystal Mountain has numerous avalanche paths. We are right up there with bigger areas like Squaw and Snowbird for number of detonations.

At other ski patrols, it may take years for a new patroller to gain enough hours to sit for their blasters exam. At Crystal, new patroller usually get enough apprentice hours in a single season.

Jack’s Call

Every night a ski patroller stays at the Summit House. Back in the day, the late Jack Lewis lived there, and we still refer to the night patroller as “Jack”. It can be a sweet gig with views of alpenglow and starlight or it can be windy and stormy and full of calls to cat drivers and midnight walks along the ridge to the top of Grubstake to determine the snowfall. If Jack determines we’ve had enough snow for AC, he or she will call our Snow Safety Director. If Chet agrees, Jack gets on the phone to wake us all up to come in early.

The Decision

But how does Jack decide? That’s the 5 Million Dollar question. The snowpack is likea layer cake. Sometimes that cake is hard and dense and well compacted. Other times a light layer sits pretty on top of denser layers. We do not usually go out then.

72 Hour Snowfall Total

72 Hour Snowfall Total

When we have dense snow on top of weaker snow, that’s a recipe for avalanches.

Dense snow can come from the sheer weight of the snow–a foot of new snow in any form will almost always bring us out for AC. Dense snow can also be transported by wind onto lee slopes.

A few inches of new snow with just the right wind direction can increase avalanche hazard dramatically. Wind, water amounts and temperature all play a role in avalanche control.

Avalanches happen when the stress on the snowpack outweighs the strength. Those days we wake to the sound of booms in anticipation of great skiing.

Looking Ahead

Ski patrollers are looking at the forecast, anticipating some early mornings in the coming days. It is already snowing as of 8AM Saturday and should continue for the next several days. The 72 Hour snowfall total, above, shows over 20 inches of snow in the next few days. Monday morning could be our biggest day yet. The hills will be alive with the sound of avi bombs.

B.A.S.I.C.S. Avalanche Awareness Video

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Last year 44 people died last year in the U.S. from avalanches. Since most of these fatalities happened to those that were familiar with the risks and how to mitigate them, many avalanche education programs are shifting their focus to the human factors involved in accidents. If we have all the equipment and the knowledge and are still making the wrong choices, there must be more to the equation. The problem must be our judgment. The High Fives Foundation B.A.S.I.C.S. program (Be Aware Safe in Crazy Situations) recently released this video on avalanche awareness. Check it out. It’s worth a look.