Tag Archives: crystal mountain

What Kind of Winter Are We Going to Have?


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.

Crystal Opens Tomorrow


It’s time to do my happy dance. Crystal Mountain opens tomorrow. I’m pretty sure this is directly related to the frozen spoon I slept with under my pillow on Friday night. I went to sleep with no precip at Crystal and woke to a foot of new snow. Obviously this is due to my super scientific snow forecasting abilities. *grin*

With this new foot of snow, plus the leftovers from last week’s storm (that was rained upon on Tuesday), we have just enough. It’s been a thin start weather-wise so far, and for now we will be opening Green Valley only.

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

Crystal Mountain, Sunday November 30 2014

The skiing in Green Valley is good. It’s a light and fluffy foot of new over about 4-6″ of frozen slush. The past few days, many skiers and boarders have been hiking up and taking laps. But there’s still some untracked lines to be had. There’s also a few rocks mixed in there too.

Green Valley

Green Valley

Looking ahead, the weather forecast doesn’t look that promising in the short term. So hopefully the snow we have now lasts until we get a little bit more snow–perhaps later in the week or next weekend. (By the way, if you’re playing along, now is the time to put your spoon in the freezer, so it’s ready for the next stormlette. Just sleep with it under your pillow when you need a snow day. Which is going to be very soon. So if you could all help out, we’d really appreciate it. Thanks.)

It's another blown edge for Paul H.

It’s another blown edge for Paul H.

Until then, I recommend taking it a little easy. The season is long and you don’t want to get hurt on the first day. Fellow patroller, Paul Harrington, tore out his edge today. To be fair, his edge was a little shaky to start with. But there are still some rocks out there, so bring your rock skis.

Here's a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

Here’s a closeup of that blown edge. Nasty.

On that note, let’s all have a good time out there tomorrow. Be safe.

It’s Hard to Be Patient When You’re Waiting for the Ski Season to Start


A Prelude to Winter

Waiting for snow is hard. It’s especially difficult at the beginning of the season. November can be a bit like Christmas–either full of good tidings and warm family moments or wrought with awkward gyrations brought on by that one crazy family member that chooses to literally rain on your snowy parade.

Better make up the hide-a-bed, because it looks like that rainy relative is swooping into town tonight. But I digress. Let’s first take a look at the bright side.

Smiles from Reid Pitman

Smiles from Reid Pitman on Sunday


Conditions Update

Yesterday morning A Lot at Crystal was nearly half full with eager skiers and riders who skinned to the top to take part in the snow. It was a little heavy–those with fat skis and snowboards had the biggest smiles on their faces–and a little wind-effected. The ridge at the top of Green Valley was scoured down to the rocks. The valley itself was filled with two to three feet of cream cheese topped by a few inches of confectioner’s sugar. In other words, the conditions were classic PNW snow and perfect base-building material.

It’s times like these when I wish we didn’t have such a thing as a weather forecast. Because if you’ve taken a close look at it lately, you’ll understand why Crystal isn’t open yet. It’s because of the forecast.

Because Rain

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

The Forecast looks like a rain sandwich

Here’s a snippet from the text forecast:


You know what, NOAA forecasters? No one wants your bad news. Why do you have to go and rain on our parade? Here we were having visions of snowy sugar plums dancing in our heads and you go and give us this?? Why couldn’t you have just kept this one to yourselves for a change?

Crystal’s Modus Operandi

Crystal Mountain is usually pretty aggressive getting the slopes open. We understand the pent-up demand and bursting enthusiasm this time of year, and we are willing to roll the dice on a forecast. Most ski areas wait until their snowpack is a sure thing before opening. We are one of the few areas willing to skate on thin ice, so to speak.

So why isn’t Crystal opening today? We have to wait and see about this rain. While it’s difficult to wait on snow this time of year, I’m hear to tell you. It’s even harder waiting on the rain.

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley

Tiana, Stacy and Brianna getting deep in Green Valley Sunday

John wrote up an update on the website about his thought process. It’s a little window into his mindset, and a good dose of his mountain voice. It’s worth a read. In short, we are bashing down the snow with our cats, hoping to retain as much as we can through this big melt. If we don’t lose it all, and if Mt. Rainier blocks some of that rain (which it very often does), we could still open by the weekend. To quote John, “it’s day to day.”

While we wait to see what this next round of storms will bring, here’s a really cool video of snowflakes forming.

I’m a Sucker for a Snowstorm

Not a bad lunch spot.

Not a bad lunch spot.

I’m like a moth to the flame. When it snows, I can’t help myself. I have to go towards those flakes like my life depends on it.

I woke this morning to a fresh snowfall. This time I debated on whether or not to bring my skis. From my apartment at the base of Crystal, the peaks looked pretty salt and peppery this morning, pretty chocolate-chippy (to quote Tom Winter). So I decided not to bring my skis.

Maybe I made the wrong decision, because I could have made about ten legitimate turns today. They’d have been hop turns, trying-to-stay-light-on-my-feet turns, praying that I didn’t hook a tip under something awful and immovable. But I brought my camera instead. Which was nice since the sun was out. With all that fresh snow (a compacted 7-9″ inches at the top of Green Valley) it was legit bluebird.

I Might Be Getting a Little Bored Waiting For Snow


While the ski season is right around the corner, it’s still no where in sight. It’s mid-October, the weather forecast is hinting at an Atmospheric River event next week and the mountains are still brown. So what’s a girl to do? Certainly there are some fun ski porn premieres to attend. And the Snow Angels event fired up the season stoke. There’s even another ski patrol fundraiser aimed specifically at Crystal Mountain’s avalanche dogs coming next month if you missed it.

Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 2.24.55 PM

These events are fun, but they aren’t the same as skiing.

So, instead it might be time to bring back one of the best online viral videos of a few years ago. Why? Because you never really can get enough of Jian Sword Dancing. It’s not skiing, but maybe it’s the next best thing. You’re welcome.

Why Crystal Mountain Needs Gazex


First a Little History

One of the perks of managing a ski area is that it gives my husband and I an excuse to go on ski vacations. Why? To check out the competition, of course! (Because what’s better than seeing someone else’s sagging rope lines and knowing that it’s not your job to stop and fix it?) If you’ve ever worked as a ski patroller than you know what I’m talking about.

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

Gazex Exploders 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

A few years ago, John and I visited the Les 3 Vallées in France. One of the largest skiing complexes in the world consisting of eight interconnecting resorts, Les 3 Vallées has no less than 258 Gazex Exploders. Skiing and riding in Europe is a little different than in the States. The Piste Services, which includes the ski patrol (Sécurite dé Pistes) and the cat crew, only manage the actual “pistes.” In Europe a piste is equivalent to a named (and often groomed) run. So imagine if at Crystal we only did avalanche control on named runs or the slopes that overhung named runs. Also picture if we only put out hazard markings and tower pads and caution signs on the groomed runs. Furthermore, imagine that the ski patrol only provided free first aid to those injured on the groomers. Elsewhere, you have to call for your own helicopter and/or pay extra for assistance.

In Les 3 Vallées, Piste Services focus their efforts on the pistes. However, since so much of these slopes are threatened from above by avalanche terrain, skiers also benefit from their extensive use of Gazex exploders. The off-piste in Les 3 Vallées is steep and challenging and very often blasted for avalanche mitigation.

When John and I visited Les 3 Vallées a former Crystal exchange patroller Klébert Silvestre ran the Piste Services in Val Thorens, one of the interconnected resorts there. Klébert was kind enough to show us around. John was most impressed by the Gazex exploders. Gazex is certainly expensive and a little obtrusive, and I wasn’t convinced these would work at Crystal.

The Problem of Powder Bowl

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Crystal Mountain local dog Nala checks out Gazex Exploder 2

Powder Bowl is a steep bowl that overhangs a groomed run at Crystal. Snowcats use that run to access the upper mountain at night. Skiers and riders use the cat track below to access some of Crystal’s best terrain, including Lucky Shot and Bear Pits. After our trip to Les 3 Vallées John wanted to implement Gazex in Powder Bowl. Triggered remotely, exploders can mitigate avalanches even when the winds are too high to run the chairlift. Once I looked at Powder Bowl through his eyes, I understood his concern.

On a powder day at Crystal, we pride ourselves on opening the upper mountain (what we call our “in-area” terrain) by 9 am. While that’s not always possible, most mornings skiers and riders are enjoying fresh turns as soon as the lifts begin to spin. Many ski resorts with similar avalanche terrain suffer from chronic late openings of the best terrain. In the PNW, when a slight warmup can worsen the avalanche hazard, we want to get folks skiing and riding (and putting tracks in) that terrain ASAP. Even a slight delay can cause problems. The longer a slope sits unridden after we’ve thrown our explosives, the frownier we patrollers become.

Enter Gazex

This summer crews are installing three Gazex exploders (no, they are not called “boomers” or “pipes” or even really big “jibs”), in Powder Bowl. They will be called Gazex 1, 2, and 3. How’s that for originality? The first one is located in the Summit Chute and the other two are located to the skier’s left. In placing these exploders, we considered many factors. Most importantly, we placed them in the most effective avalanche starting zones. Since these exploders cannot be moved, we want to get the most “bang for the buck.” Also, we considered the traverse path to the left most chutes. These exploder locations are below that traverse, so they shouldn’t get in the way.

But Can I Jump off of it?

Funny thing how you build a big curving metal structure on a ski slope and the first question you get is, “can I jump it?” I suppose that’s possible. Just like jibbing off a chairlift tower is theoretically possible. The top of the structure isn’t exactly smooth. It contains ribs and tubes and various attachment points. So a clean rail slide probably isn’t going to happen. And then there’s the problem of the landing. These exploders are pretty far off the ground. With a little snow on the slope, they might feel a bit lower, but off course these exploders are there to blast the snow off the slope, so not sure how much snow will accumulate right below them. In short, I wouldn’t set my sites on jumping off these bad boys. It might be exciting to think about, but the logistics are pretty daunting.

That's a pretty big landing

That’s a pretty big landing

What Next?

If Gazex in Powder Bowl works as well as we anticipate, our next exploder location will be Rock Face. Since Rock Face is permanently closed, it never gets any skier compaction. In the spring, the entire slope has ripped to the ground. Rock Face also hangs over a cat track. Skiers and riders might have noticed in the past few years seeing the “No stopping beyond this point” signs. That’s pretty sage advice.

Gazex will never replace explosive hand routes at Crystal (phew!). We have too many small pockets. Our mandate in the States is to manage all the terrain, not just the pistes. Therefore we will always need ski patrollers to help mitigate the slopes. But Gazex has it’s place, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well it works this season.

Now let’s all pray to Ullr that we get enough snow to really put our Gazex to the test.

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Chairlift?


“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?


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.