Tag Archives: avalanche

Chair 6 is Gone, Dude: What I learned about big avalanches

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This weekend at the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop, fellow ski patrollers Megan McCarthy, Michelle Longstreth and I presented our story about the big slide that destroyed Chair 6 last season. In our presentation, which we titled, “Chair 6 is Gone, Dude!” we discussed the season’s snowpack, the crazy weather that preceded the big slide and the decision process that lead up to that fateful afternoon we called “ladies night on the Throne.”

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

Afterward the presentation, in both the Q and A that followed as well as in the hallways, many people asked, “how did it feel to start such a big slide.”

It’s a good question.

Wisdom comes through the stories we tell about our experience. Without a narrative, a near-miss becomes nothing more than an incident. If I told myself that the Chair 6 avalanche was an unlikely event I’d never see again, I could more easily dismiss it. However, I don’t want to forget how it felt to witness such force. We tell stories to invoke feelings. It’s that emotional response that reinforces learning, that leads back to wisdom. As a writer, I believe wholly in the power of story. The important part is that our stories invoke the proper feelings in order to instill wisdom.

So, how did it feel to witness such power and destruction?

Avalanche control is a funny thing. Like storm watchers and tornado chasers, ski patrollers are often present to the awesome power of Mother Nature. But unlike Anderson Cooper during Hurricane Sandy, we aren’t reporting from the front lines of a natural disaster, we are actually coaxing mother nature to do her worst.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the avalanche moments after we started it.

On that early evening of March 10th just moments after we’d lit our 25 lb. charge and watched that 10 foot deep avalanche peel away from the ridge, it felt scary. But first, it felt exhilarating. There was even a brief moment there when Megan and I high-fived each other. It was like, “Wow. Look what we did!” Then, as the avalanche disappeared into the clouds and we could hear trees snapping and the low rumble of heavy debris scraping over dirt and rocks, our hearts sank. My exhilaration changed to foreboding. While it was closer to thirty seconds, the avalanche seemed to charge into the midst for several minutes. It seemed to go on forever. (It seems even now to still be rolling down the slope below me.)

Then we heard the sound of metal crunching. That’s when my foreboding turned to gut-wrenching angst. My world was falling, it was letting loose from it’s foundation and sliding with great power and force and it was destroying everything in its path. Word came over the radio from a group of patrollers watching from a safe distance. One patroller recorded the slide on his phone and said, “Chair 6 is gone, dude.”

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Indeed it was.

But our work was not complete. Michelle, Megan and I had yet to release our full payload. We still carried 50 more lbs. of explosives up and over the ridge. We worked in a sort of focussed trance. We were in the zone now–communicating in precise staccato, making clear-cut decisions, moving in a safe rhythm. It would take us another hour before our route was complete and we finally reached the bottom of the debris pile.

It was only then that I realized it was Mother Nature who was holding all the cards. We could try to set off these slides with our explosives, so they’d happen when we wanted them to, but we couldn’t stop them. We could only hope to make them happen when the slopes were closed.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. Even though most of our starting zones had slid in the past few days, I still felt vulnerable in my bed at the bottom of that valley. It felt as thought the world could let loose on me at any moment.

To say that I was scared was an understatement. It’s a feeling and a moment that I will never forget. While we’d always called it avalanche “control” I realized with clarity that we weren’t controlling anything. Even a slope I’d skied a million times could go bigger and longer than anyone could have imagined. Now as we turn the corner into ski season in the weeks ahead, I’ll be thinking of it still. It’s a story that I will keep with me always.

I hope I’m not the only one. Anyone who witnessed the aftermath of that storm cycle, whether at Crystal or elsewhere in the Cascades, most likely has a mark on his or her psyche. Don’t let that mark get covered up by bravado and the steady march of time. Instead, bring it out once again as we start to accumulate snow in the mountains. Keep it close to your heart as you head out into the backcountry this season. Hold the image of those deep debris piles in your brain as you drop into your first big powder run of the year. Remind yourself of just how small you felt when you realized the breadth of those slide paths.

Let’s all remember how big it really can go. That’s the story we should carry with us this season.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

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I haven’t been here in a while. Instead, I’ve been working on a novel like a madwoman and neglecting my blog. While this isn’t a typical author’s blog, where I tell you all about my WIP and get you excited so maybe you’ll pre-order my book (although that’s okay too *wink wink*), I thought I’d share a secret with you.

Well not a secret really. More like a preview.

In the first chapter of my novel the main character witnesses an avalanche that destroys a chairlift. But here’s the kicker: I wrote that chapter way back in November. Before we set off the avalanche that destroyed Chair 6. And why am I telling you this now?

Because it’s kind of freaking me out.

The real avalanche that took out Chair 6

How to destroy a chairlift in ninety seconds

As some of you might know, the big kahuna that destroyed the lift in March was the biggest slide that area has most likely ever seen. In the snow science world, we have some pretty brainy professor types that talk about things like alpha and beta angles. An alpha angle is also known as the angle of reach and beta angles are a little more complicated than that. I’m not going to go into it all here, because it would take a while and I’m not a brainy professor type myself. But in essence these angles are used in zoning and land use planning and at ski areas to determine just how far a potential avalanche can go.

And guess what? The Chair 6 slide exceeded the alpha angle by a large margin.

But what is even weirder, and the thing that’s freaking me out a tiny bit, is that I wrote a chapter in a work of fiction that very much resembled the Chair 6 slide. Before it even happened. Except in my book, of course, there was even more at stake. In fiction we don’t have to adhere to rules of physics like alpha angles. That’s why we author types write fiction–so we can put our main characters in dire straits and then turn the heat up on them. It’s fun stuff, and one reason that I hope if there really is a Master Galactic Puppeteer in the sky keeping an eye on the human race, I really hope He or She is into writing fiction. Because if so, we’re all doomed.

But I digress.

Now that I got that off my chest I feel better. I didn’t want anyone reading my future novel and saying, “Well duh Kim. Where’d you get that idea?” Because I actually wrote it first. I just hope that the other plot points in the novel don’t some how come true. Because if so, well, we’re all in for a wild ride.

 

Project Zero: An initiative to reduce avalanche fatalities

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projzerologoProject Zero, a collaborative effort by premiere avalanche forecasters and professionals in North America, is on a mission to reduce avalanche fatalities. Through crafting an effective safety message and a straightforward method for decision-making, they hope to educate all backcountry users to understand the risks in the backcountry and make better decisions to mitigate those risks.

This season, Project Zero launched Know the Snowa social media campaign that included a video contest aimed at engaging the lift-served backcountry skier and rider. You can find out more about the contest winners here

Crystal Mountain SouthbackLocal videographer Jacob Hase won fifth place for his video based at Crystal Mountain. On his vimeo page, Jacob describes the video as, “a day trip into the Crystal Mountain Washington back country with additional avalanche beacon training. Video is narrated by Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher.”

As many of you know, Crystal Mountain is a great launching pad for backcountry terrain. Not only do we have the hike-to controlled Southback, but numerous true backcountry lines nearby as well.

Many of those lines can be accessed from the lifts. With the current phase of Project Zero focussing on lift-served backcountry, Crystal terrain is a perfect fit for Project Zero’s first initiative, and I’m honored to have been a part of it.

Congratulations Jacob!

 

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.