Let’s get this 2016-17 season started, shall we? Crystal will open Friday with the gondola running for upload and download. Green Valley will be open for skiing and riding. More terrain will open as we get more snow. Who’s planning on taking part?
One of the luckiest ski seasons in history ended at Crystal this past weekend. Lucky because of the fortunate timing of our weather events. Usually when it rains here we shrug our collective shoulders in disgust. We wonder why our ski areas can’t be 1000′ higher. We envy the cold temps of the Rockies and marvel at the light snow of the Wasatch. We know that with just a bit of luck, we could have the best skiing in the world. But alas, this is the Pacific Northwest–home of Cascade concrete and plastic-bag wearing locals and the birthplace of Gore-tex. We don’t expect perfect snow.
But then we have a season like this one. We anticipated an El Niño; our imaginations were primed for groomers. Narrow-under-foot ski sales were up. Goggles sales were down. Everyone was picking out a good pair of sunglasses. And dusting off their foul weather gear.
We never knew that this season the stars would align for us. The ocean currents would fall into sync and we would get very, very lucky.
That’s not to say it didn’t rain this season. It rained like crazy. And that’s where we got lucky. It rained on Wednesdays. (I know this because Wednesdays are my day off.) In fact it rained eight Wednesdays in a row (I was counting). But each subsequent Friday, right before the weekend crowds arrived, it snowed deep and light and repaired the rain-soaked slopes with a glorious quilt of powder. Every Saturday for two months was a powder day.
As most of you know, when conditions at Crystal are good there’s no ski area like it. By March, the north-facing slopes were filled in like I haven’t seen in over a decade. Pinball resembled a fairway, just a slight undulation where normally a deep, narrow gash splits the north face of the King. At its prime this season, the upper mountain held over 10 feet of snow in places.
As winter turned the spring, the weather continued to cooperate. The last three weekends were legitimate spring conditions. The corn developed into large isothermal grains, creating slush bombs along the frontside and into Middle Ferk’s. The cat crew groomed these bumps every night back into corduroy, and the snow bar at the Summit House was a huge hit. We all came away with awesome goggle tans and bruised livers. The past few weeks were one long party, and the final closing was a little sad.
Now it looks like next season might be a La Niña, which means colder and wetter than usual. What do you all say? Isn’t it time for two lucky seasons in a row?
As the Most Interesting Skier in the World would say, stay powder-hungry my friends.
You may have noticed our three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl. They are hard to miss. After a full season under our belt (2014/15 doesn’t count), it’s time to ask ourselves how effective these bad boys truly are.
Just the other day someone on the chairlift asked me if they were winch cat anchors. While we do some serious high-angle grooming here at Crystal Mountain, that would be a bit extreme even for us. Nope. These are Gazex Exploders and they spit out a fiery boom to create avalanches.
These exploders work by mixing oxygen and propane and then lighting it on fire. The igniter is essentially a glorified BBQ lighter. You know that tick, tick, ticking sound that happens when you press the red button on the side of your Weber and then it ignites? Imagine that but about a gazillion times bigger. Let’s just say that the whoomph sound in Powder Bowl can be heard all the way down in A Lot.
Chet Mowbray, the Snow Safety Director at Crystal, calls Gazex “a very effective tool.” It allows us to fire the exploders remotely. This means we don’t have to be at the top of Powder Bowl to start avalanches. We can be in patrol dispatch. We have also fired Gazex at night, when the snowcat operators need to drive under Powder Bowl to get to the top of the mountain. During a heavy snowstorm or when the avalanche hazard is high, this allows our cat operators a safe way to move around the mountain.
Gazex is also fast. The current speed record at Crystal from start to finish is ten minutes. Any opportunity to shave off a few minutes on a powder morning so we can get the lifts spinning asap is a good thing.
One Gazex explosion is the equivalent of 25 pounds of explosive in the air. Most of the explosives we use for avalanche control are 2 pounds. When an explosive is “in the air” that means it is hanging above rather than thrown onto the slope. By hanging a shot in the air, it creates a much larger attenuation and is much more effective.
We hope to add to our quiver of exploders in the future. A few more in Powder Bowl would eliminate an entire Avalanche Control route, allowing us to open that much faster. Another location we are currently looking at is Rock Face–a permanently closed route with several trams and a cat track below it.
Gazex won’t eliminate hand routes, however. We will still need ski patrollers for AC here at Crystal. I, for one, am happy about that fact.
Gazex saves time, creates a bigger boom, makes it safer for our cat crew and shoots balls of fiery awesomeness onto the slope. What’s not to love?
For the past three weekends, Crystal Mountain has been blessed with miracles. Three Fridays in a row we’ve had rainy, soggy, extremely windy storms turn cold and calm just in time to lay down enough snow for a powder Saturday. The weather gods might be trying to tell us something here: they are still in charge, but they are ultimately benevolent. The way I see it, the weather gods love weekend skiers and riders. Or maybe it has more to do with Pacific storms circling around low pressure systems, but hey, a girl can dream.
Last week, the rain and wind came Friday and threatened to ruin the cold snow from earlier in the week. But again, the weather gods blessed us with a reprieve, and Saturday we woke to fresh snow and cold temps. Here’s a little video clip from last Friday when the wind was nuking at the top of Rainier Express. When the patrollers got on the chair, it was still fairly calm at the top. It quickly ramped up while we were on the lift. Needless to say, the lift quickly went on wind hold.
Today is Thursday and once again the rain has returned. Yesterday ended in a beautiful afternoon, but now it’s raining at the base and snowing (just barely) at the top. These are the days when we are glad to have the gondola. A dry ride up goes a long way to lengthen the ski day. Today is a day for the hearty souls born and bred in the PNW, who don’t mind a little rain (either that or we just don’t know any better).
The real question, however, is whether or not we will have another miracle Saturday. Will the weather gods, once again, bless us with a miracle?
This morning, I conferred with my most trusted source for weather: the magic 8 ball. I don’t know about you all, but whenever I have a high-stakes question of serious consequence, I head straight to this little black orb of wisdom. And guess what you guys? The signs point to yes!
While maybe not as accurate as the magic 8 ball, from time to time I still check in with the “professionals” in the weather forecasting biz. The weather gurus at UW Atmospheric Sciences department back up the magic 8 ball prediction, calling for a few inches of snow by Saturday morning and continuing throughout the day. The Sunday morning prediction is looking even better:
Monday looks to be a warm and wet day, with the long term models calling for more snow on Tuesday. We aren’t quite yet back into the earlier pattern where even when no snow was predicted, we’d still picked up a few inches every night as if those weather gods just couldn’t help themselves. But there are still good days ahead.
Only the magic 8 ball really knows.
I, for one, am hoping for a miracle.
If you haven’t downloaded the new Fatmap trail map for Crystal Mountain, you should go ahead and do it right now. Go on, I’ll wait. You can download the app on your phone in either the iTunes store or Google Play. Got it? Good. For those of you wondering if the upgrade to the pro version is worth the money, here’s a few “fly overs” and descriptions of some of the best unmarked lines at Crystal. Remember, the free version of the Fatmap trail map offers everything on the old school paper trail map, plus descriptions of each run. You can also track your runs and see where you are on the map. There’s an emergency number for ski patrol too.
1. BRAIN DAMAGE
This iconic and challenging couloir is for experts only
This iconic and challenging couloir is for experts only. Starting at the summit of the King, Brain Damage is the obvious steep couloir to the right of a north-facing rocky buttress. At 800 vertical feet from the summit to the bottom of the upper basin, Brain Damage is relentless. The couloir starts steep. Watch for cornices at the top, especially just to the right of the center. The easiest entry is on the left, but is a no-fall zone at it hangs above the rocky buttress mentioned above.
A few turns in, this chute narrows down to about a ski-length wide. Control your speed through here as it steepens up below over a rocky band. Work the sides of the chute (which are not as prominent below the upper choke point) to avoid a sloping rocky outcropping that often plagues this otherwise spectacular couloir early season. Below the chute widens a little for some steep, consistent north-facing snow. The snow here can often be creamy and soft when the rest of the ski area is baked or slushy. Watch for avalanche debris at the base of this chute.
FATMAP RATING: ★★★★★
Difficulty: Very Difficult Seriousness: Quite Serious Max Gradient: 44° Total Vert: 227m Distance: 0.4km Aspect: N
2. LITTLE AK (a.k.a A. BASIN BUTTRESS)
A prominent rocky buttress offering numerous lines, mostly requiring mandatory air
A prominent rocky buttress offering numerous lines, A-Basin Buttress, which locals call Little AK for its similarity to large Alaskan spines, is for experts only. The top of A-Basin Buttress is guarded by a few trees, which protect the entrance from cornice build up. The steep run falls away over the edge, with only the tops of small alpine firs visible from the entrance. In good snow conditions, it’s possible to ski vertical spines over this rollover.
A narrow couloir runs diagonally along the bottom of the buttress, and can be accessed from the upper left. Access from either Southback gate along the Throne ridge boot pack. Traverse around the back of the Throne to Avalanche Basin (A-Basin). Continue along the traverse behind this prominent feature and sidestep or boot pack through the thin trees to the top.
FATMAP RATING: ★★★★★
Difficulty: Very Dificult Seriousness: Quite serious Max Gradient: 47° Total Vert: 142m Distance: 0.3km Aspect: E
3. THE NOSE
This popular, short face offers great turns at the terminus of Lizard’s Back Ridge
This popular, short face offers great turns at the terminus of Lizard’s Back Ridge, which starts at the summit of The King and separates Silver Basin and Avalanche Basin. Access from the summit of The King, following the ridge until it fans out to a steep open face. Watch for cornices along the ridge. The Nose starts shallow and quickly steepens near tall trees that mark its entrance. This slope avalanches regularly; watch out for wind-loading. At the bottom, work your way left to Elizabeth Lake and back to Queens Run.
FATMAP RATING: ★★★★
Difficulty: Difficult Seriousness: Quite Serious Max Gradient: 38° Total Vert: 449m Distance: 1.6km Aspect: E
4. The Doors (aka Tree Run)
A series of steep, open glades
A series of open glades, The Doors is thus named for its various “openings” in the trees. Officially this area is called Tree Run, but that name is losing popularity. Each “door” reveals another long open slope through this otherwise heavily treed slope. This is a great place to find good snow on a powder day. Once Green Valley and the Frontside are tracked up, head to The Doors and work the edges of the trees. You can often find a few fresh lines, but this popular run gets skied out by mid-morning.
The first two doors offer the longest vertical, but end up in the tight trees above the Sunnyside Road. Watch for the transition onto this cat track, especially early season. The two right-hand doors offer more options, as you can head right into more open terrain above Lucky Shot when the trees tighten up. Either way, end up on Lucky Shot and continue to the bottom of Rainier Express for another lap.
. FATMAP RATING: ★★★★★
Difficulty: Difficult Seriousness: Serious Avg. Gradient: 43° Total Vert: 1701m Distance: 4.4km Aspect: SW
This north-facing basin holds powder for days after a storm. It’s straight forward pitch and easy uptrack make for a fun day
This north-facing basin holds powder for days after a storm. It’s a straightforward pitch and easy uptrack make for a fun day. Avoid traversing below avalanche slopes. This is true backcountry. Carry proper equipment and ski or ride with a partner. Once you arrive at the bottom of the basin, set your skin track on the climber’s left side of the bowl in the small trees, attaining the ridge before it gets too steep.
Watch for cornices along the ridge as you make your way to the top of the bowl. Multiple lines abound, getting more challenging on the skier’s right. Early season, individual chutes are apparent, but with more snow the entire basin fills in. Watch out for avalanches, cornices, cliffs and tree wells.
FATMAP RATING: ★★★★★
Difficulty: Very Difficult Seriousness: Serious Max Gradient: 44° Total Vert: 398m Distance: 1.6km Aspect: N
SKI MAPPING IS CHANGING… DISCOVER HOW
Of all the jobs at a ski area, grooming the slopes at night might be the best one. You get to sculpt the slopes into perfect strips of corduroy at night, then rip them up the next morning. Snow-cat operators know when the slopes are at their prime. When Bruce Engdahl, Crystal’s lead winch cat operator, is in line at the Gondola in the morning, you know it’s going to be a good day on the slopes.
Henry Schink, Crystal’s Grooming Supervisor, says that “every night is a chance to make (the slopes) better.” Some nights are more challenging than others, however. On stormy nights, when the snowflakes hit his spotlight like that scene from Star Wars, just getting around the mountain becomes tricky. Those nights, Henry says, “you have to use the force.” You develop a close relationship to the trees, following them like handrails until you find a familiar landmark. In essence, you groom by feel. After a particularly busy day on the slopes, the cat crew knows they will have one or two curve balls that night. Around every corner might be a heavily skied area requiring an hour of cat maintenance to get it back in shape for the next day. Regardless of the snow conditions, these guys know their job is to rebuild the slopes so skiers and riders can enjoy them again the next day.
We ski patrollers rely on guys like Henry and Bruce to clean up the mountain, making our jobs exponentially easier. Every day the ski patrol puts in a list of grooming requests, from mucking out the bottom of lift terminals to filling in creeks to widening runs, and every night Henry, Bruce and the rest of their seven person crew try their best to knock down the moguls and rebuild the slopes.
Making perfect corduroy takes more than experienced operators. It also takes good machines. Crystal’s cats are all Pisten Bullys, and nearly all of them are 600s, the most powerful model. We use exclusively PB machines because with all the steep terrain and heavy snow at Crystal, we need the highest quality cats that are both robust and efficient. According to Mountain Manager Scott Bowen, PBs are the most durable cats on the market. We currently have 4 600 winch cats, 4 600 free cats, and a 200 maintenance cat. Each cat is equipped with the new alpenflex tiller with dumbo ears which allows for wider paths and immaculate grooming.
Two of our free cats are the new PB 600E+, a diesel electric hybrid that uses 35% less fuel, which is a huge reduction in cost and emissions. Crystal was the first ski area in North America to order the 600E+ last year, and we got two. Now, Vail and Alta each bought the 600E+ and Whistler Backcomb is currently demoing one.
Snow-cats are miracle workers on the slopes. Each blade full of snow can push 6 cubic yards of snow. At 1200lb each yard, that’s 7200lb of snow with every push. That’s over 3 metric tons.
Grooming the slopes is like snow farming. When it snows, cat operator fill in creeks and re-contour the slopes. During dry periods, cat operators farm snow by trimming thin strips off the grade or else pulling it from the edges of runs to rebuild the slopes. On Lucky Shot, where a winch cat is required, the main job is to push the snow at the bottom of each face back up on the slope. During the day, all the thousands of skiers and riders on this popular run move tons of snow downhill. Only with a big 600 winch cat and an experienced operator does Lucky Shot get rebuilt each night.
According to Scott Bowen, “we are blessed with amazing drivers.” It’s only with the skills of this talented crew and the big machines they chariot across the slopes do we end up with great skiing day after day.
Check out this video of grooming high angle slopes at Sugarloaf with a winch cat. And if you see Bruce in the line at the gondola this week, go ahead and give him a hug. We all owe these guys our gratitude.
Now that many of you have downloaded the new 3D trail map for your favorite mountain (Crystal, of course!), it’s time to take your insider-info up a notch.
Gone are the days when you have to go to the NWAC site to decipher the telemetry data for Crystal. Now you can see exactly what’s going on here in real-time. Thanks to former patroller, budding forecaster and all-together genius Chris Morin, we now have an easy to use, read and obsess over weather data site.
Below is a screenshot from crystalweather.com taken 12/23/2015. The upper left green square shows the new snow since 9am that morning. The square on the right shows the new snow from the previous 24 hours. The blue squares are temps at three locations on the mountain. The color of these squares turns red when we are above freezing. The black squares are our snow totals on the ground. Notice here that we hit 100″ in Green Valley. The snowpack has since settled to 79″, but the temps have remained cold.
But there’s more!
Below is a screenshot from the Combined Tables found in the main menu of the site during the same time period. This is in 5 minute intervals, but you can view in 1 minute intervals up to yearly intervals. To see more, just continue to scroll down and the data appears for as long as we have digitized records.
Notice the wind in the gray column. The first number is average winds, the next is gusts (denoted with a G) and the last is the wind direction. The numbers on the right are the SWE (snow water equivalent) aka precipitation during that interval, denoted P, and also the accumulated, denoted PA.
Now when you want (need) to check the current weather at Crystal, it’s literally at your fingertips. The simple design works well in both mobile and desktop. As an added bonus the home screen also shows the four webcams at Crystal. I especially like to obsessively check the snow stake cam at the bottom of Chair 6. Even though that stake is out in the open, and can be aggressively effected by wind, it’s nice to watch the snow pile up.
Hard work is what ski patrolling is all about. Some might think that we’re in it for the skiing. And let’s be honest, skiing is a huge part of it. But if you want to really ski, I suggest simply getting a seasons pass.
But if you want to work hard, if you want earn some resilience, if you want to know how you react when the things go awry, then become a ski patroller.
This past month of December is a case in point.
The first week of December was kind of like a natural disaster up here. We had rain, wind, power outages, a closed access road and the complete loss of all communications. Oh, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse stopped by for a brief visit.
But then, mother nature flipped a switch and all that precipitation turned to snow. What had been merely a partial opening in Green Valley turned into an all-hands-on-deck-let’s-get-this-mountain-open-wall-to-wall frenzy. Suddenly we were opening from Northway to Southback and all points in between.
Ski patrollers strung miles of rope lines, threw hundreds of caution boo along the slopes and drank copious amounts of coffee to keep up. Then it started to snow in earnest. In the month of December we received 9 feet of snow. Tower pads were quickly buried under this kind of dumpage.
Our biggest efforts have gone towards Avalanche Control. Ski patrollers start avalanches with explosives before the slopes open in order to mitigate the hazard. This means we wake up early–sometimes at 4 am to be up before first light, carry heavy loads in our packs up the ridges and make avalanches. Some might say this is the best part of the job. It’s also the most exhausting.
Breaking trail up the ridges can be the hardest part. Here’s a video of Miles Morris breaking trail up the King. If you ever wonder why it takes so long to get Southback open on a powder day, here’s a little glimpse. And to all those folks that ask if they can help us out South to get it open, 1) no and 2) you wouldn’t want to waste a powder day breaking trail up the ridge. While the one ski run at the end might feel worth it, I’d say you’re better off staying in area for the leftovers and let us do the heavy lifting.
Not to say that that one run at the end of a control route isn’t awesome. It’s actually the raison d’etre for many of us.
But there’s more to it than that. To be honest, our real reason for being is the hard work. We’re the happiest when things are hard.
The statue of liberty might say it a little differently, but I think Emma Lazarus wouldn’t mind my slight changing of her words:
Give us your challenging weather, your injured skiers yearning to breathe free. Give us your wretched storms, your fiery tempests. Send these, the RV dwellers, the families tempest-tossed to us. We lift our headlamps beside the powdery door.
We are still in the midst of a busy holiday season, thanks to all this snow. The forecast prediction now is for a few weeks of more settled weather, but I have a feeling the days of powder and avalanche control have just begun.