Category Archives: Ski Patrolling

A Very Lucky Ski Season Comes to an End


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.


The King getting filled in

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.


Not a bad spot for a morning meeting

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.


Middle Ferk’s groomed to perfection

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?


Peter Dale getting some well-deserved powder

As the Most Interesting Skier in the World would say, stay powder-hungry my friends.

The New Arrow in Our Avalanche Control Quiver: Gazex


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.

exploders_powder bowl

Exploder #1 in the foreground, with #2 and #3 to the left

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.

gazex_powder bowl

Powder Bowl with Gazex Exploders

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?

This is What Ski Patrollers Live For


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.

Chappy in Southback

Rookie patroller Pat Chapelle finding his line in Silver Basin

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.

early morning AC at Crystal Mountain

Patrollers humping powder on an early morning

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.

Avalanche control Crystal Mountain

Patroller tossing a shot on the Throne

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.

AC crystal

Lacing shots “in the field” as the sun rises

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.

Crystal Mountain Opens Today


The 2015-2016 ski season starts today at Crystal. After a damaging wind and rain storm earlier this week, we are now blessed with an upper mountain draped (and caked!) in a wind-packed base. A few inches of fluff fell in the past two days, so conditions are fast and fun. It sort of feels like the entire upper mountain has been groomed by the wind. This time of season a solid base is key, as it covers over the rocks and bushes.


Green Valley Nov 20th, 2016

At this point, Green Valley and Snorting Elk are open. We hope to expand terrain as soon as we get a little more snow. Lucky Shot is very close, but the snow peters out to nil a few hundred feet below the bottom of Rainier Express. This make me want to shake my fist at the weather gods.

Looking ahead at the forecast, there’s a chance for a few inches of snow Monday night. I’m hoping for more than a few inches, because after that the forecast turns dry.


Upper Mountain looking sweet

It’s still early in the season and we have plenty of winter storms ahead of us. For now, just getting back on my skis and carving turns in the snow is enough. Many of you readers are probably like me. In the midst of this crazy world, sliding on snow is the only thing that makes sense.


Ski patrol caught on webcam after setting up the hill

Yesterday, I got to join my friends and co-workers setting up the hill–putting out rope lines and marking the creeks that are still running and generally getting the slopes ready for the crowds today. Carrying around heavy loads of bamboo and rope, I was reminded of how lucky I am to get to do this for my job.

Hope to see you all on the slopes.

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog


Crested Butte recently released this awesome video about the life of Moose, an avalanche dog. His handler, Dustin, talks about Moose’s job, his love of the mountains and how he lives to find people buried in the snow.

Avalanche dogs use their noses to find buried avalanche victims. Dogs also make the best ski patrollers–they’re enthusiastic about hard work, love to dig in the snow, and know how to party after a job well done.

Moose the avalanche dog

Thanks She Jumps


sj-logoI’m honored today to be she a SheJumps jumper. Thanks SheJumps for for publishing my profile and including me in such great company.

SheJumps aims to get more women in outdoor activities.They accomplish this by creating high-visibility “Get the Girls Out!” events, Outdoor Education, Youth Initiatives and grassroots recreational gatherings. Kim-Kircher-222x300The SheJumps community consists of females of all backgrounds and ages who help one another reach their highest potential through outdoor adventures and education.

Jumping into adventure and not turning away from risk teaches us to be resilient.

SheJumps embodies this same ethos. When we push ourselves to take risks, we are actually doing more than just that activity. Skiing a hard line is more than just friction and gravity and cold snow. It’s a lesson in the value of pushing ourselves. It’s a little nugget that we can hold onto later when life’s vagaries—large or small—threaten to topple us.

I owe all of my strength to the mountains.

What a Year of “Meh” Taught Me


Last weekend, Crystal Mountain closed for the season. While its always a little sad to see it all end, this season my heart wasn’t nearly as heavy as usual. This time it was almost a relief.

Bill Steel Cartoon

Dreaming of Snow. Cartoon by Bill Steel

In a word, this season was “weird.”

But it wasn’t just the snow–or lack thereof–that was weird for me. On a personal level, it’s been a difficult year and a half. After my father passed away last year, fate or circumstance or maybe just my own personal luck went rogue. In the past several months, my husband’s mother passed away, our house was broken into (and the few remaining physical memories of my father were taken), and our best friends got a divorce.

Not one to shy away from adversity, I’ve tried taking these challenges head on. But really, it’s been an exercise in letting go. Just let go. That’s such a cliche though, right? Anyone who’s been through a string of hard times knows what I’m talking about. When the chips are down, the last thing you want to do is relinquish the emotional baggage that you’re clinging to for dear life.

That’s the beauty of getting older, I suppose. Experience (and when I say experience, what I’m really saying is loss) teaches us what truly matters. My father’s stolen watch, or the heart-shaped necklace that he gave me on my 30th birthday, will not bring him back. Nor will my husband’s grandfather’s antique fly reels bring him closer to his ancestor. Our memories and our experiences are what cleave us to one another. Objects are just things–just mementos imbued with meaning. Emotions can be glued to any old object.

Same for our hopes. We can pin them on snowfall or weather or that elusive powder run we dream about all summer and chase all winter. They can be dashed against the gravel on a season like this when the lower half of the mountain was so bare that grass starting sprouting in March.

Sometimes you just want to bury your head in your hands

Sometimes you just want to bury your head in your hands

Or we can connect to the chances we are given. A stingy snow season taught me to enjoy even the runs I would have considered merely “meh” a few years ago. Since so much of who we are depends on the stories we tell ourselves, I’m choosing to rewrite history. Instead of the past year and a half being the worst ever, I’ve chosen to see it as an opportunity. Thanks to that home invasion, I have fewer possessions weighing me down. With fewer snow storms, I never took a single turn for granted. Now that I’ve experienced the fragility of life and relationships, I’m living my own life with more purpose and attention.

Many readers have asked why I haven’t been posting as much. In part, it might be that I’ve been preoccupied with these life lessons. Mostly however, I’m working on another book, which is hoarding much of my writing mojo. The novel about a ski area will soon be with my agent, and I’ll keep y’all posted on its progress.