It started snowing a few weeks ago at Crystal Mountain, and it hasn’t stopped. In just a matter of days, we went from diligently making snow in the base area to cover over thee remaining brown spots to searching for more places to plow the snow. Currently our snow pack is at 150% of normal. We just hit 100″ on the ground in Green Valley–an earmark we usually don’t see until February.
With all the new snow, and the recent avalanche hazard, we brought in a helicopter on Friday to assist with explosive control. Helicopters, like the Ranger we used on Friday, allow us to drop big explosives onto the slopes, creating avalanches without putting ski patrollers on the dangerous slopes.
Yet helicopters are not part of our normal routine. Wind, weather, radio communication and airspace control add new dimensions to an already complicated plan. Thanks to Snow Safety Director, Chet Mowbray, and Patrol Director, Paul Baugher, who orchestrated the heli missions, we were able to test our slopes and find the weaknesses in the snow pack, especially in Southback.
We dropped 50 lb. bags of explosive onto the chutes on the SE left side of the King in Silver Basin, and got impressive results. Throughout both basins as well as Northway, the slopes were bombed into submission, either releasing big slides or proving their strength. Overall, the helicopter mission was a great success. We were able to open both terrain pods this weekend. Unfortunately, High Campbell chair went on wind hold not long after Southback opened. However, it should be open today, offering up some very good skiing to those willing to hike for it.
Unfortunately we had a very close call during the heli mission in the Niagras and Employee Housing areas. Employee Housing is the new slide path created a few years ago, and it is roped off with the rest of Niagras. You must enter Employee Housing first through Gate 7 then through Gate 8 and drop in from the top. However, poachers have been consistently ducking the rope from the Left Angle Trees area. We have caught many of these violators, who have lost their skiing privileges. These poachers could also pay a hefty fine.
But one hapless poacher almost lost more than his season pass on Friday. He almost lost his life. A ski patroller had positioned himself along the rope line to make sure no one ducked the rope while the helicopter dropped it’s payload on the slope. (As an aside, let me just state that this use of personnel is not only a waste due to the actions of non-law abiding patrons, but also a contributing factor to why Northway doesn’t get open earlier. If we have to expend a patroller to prevent and chase after poachers, that’s one less team working on an avalanche route.)
The helicopter had just dropped a 50lb. shot onto the middle of Employee Housing when a poacher ducked the rope. The ski patroller positioned along the rope line yelled at him, “Fire in the hole! Avalanche control in progress! Fire in the hole!” The skier, dressed in all black, looked up at the patroller and stopped. Then he did a very stupid thing. He dug his poles into the snow and pushed off into the open slope. The ski patroller kept yelling until his voice was hoarse. He made a radio transmission informing the blasting team of the poacher. There was nothing anyone could do but watch. The 90-second fuse had been lit and now, in less than a minute, the slope would explode.
The poacher continued out, oblivious to the danger. From the parking lot, Chet and Paul watched with their hearts in their throats. The entire patrol, listening on the radio, held their breath. The poacher skied on, making wide, slow, agonizing turns. The patrol teams watched him get closer to the bomb. The fuse was running down. It would blow in twenty seconds.
Then the poacher skied right over it.
From the parking lot, onlookers screamed in vain. “Keep moving! Don’t stop! Get out of there!”
The poacher couldn’t hear them. He continued on blindly.
If the slope broke out in an avalanche, he would surely be caught. He was still close enough to be blown to pieces. A few more seconds passed.
From above, the ski patroller on the rope line watched. It took a moment for the smoke from the blast to clear before he had a good view of the slope.
Employee Housing did not avalanche. The poacher did not get caught. He was very, very lucky. I, for one, can only hope that this close brush with oblivion scared him straight.
In spite of the actions of this one violator, the helicopter mission was a success. I was able to fly over the slopes and utter the fabulously thrilling words “bombs away” into the mic. Only through a coordinated effort (and considerable luck for our one violator) was this possible.
We still have more snow in the forecast in the next few days before a possible break in the weather comes later in the week. For those once-a-year skiers trying out their new Christmas presents, Thursday and Friday could be clear and cold, offering great skiing and good visibility. See you on the slopes.