Jonathan Thompson penned a recent article about the death of Wolf Creek ski patroller Colin Sutton. It’s a fascinating read. Last year Colin was digging a snow profile pit in a backcountry area near Wolf Creek when he was swept away by an avalanche. He was on the clock and working without a permit outside of the ski area boundaries. Wolf Creek CEO Davey Pitcher has been charged with unauthorized use within a Forest Service area. OSHA charged the ski area $14,000 in connection with Sutton’s death. Colin’s father wants justice. Click on the link below to read the article in Pique Magazine.
It has been quite a while since Crystal Mountain was open “wall to wall.” Last season our entire ski area terrain only opened for about a month from early February to March 10th. (In case you’re new here, March 10th was that fateful day when an avalanche–that my team mates and I set off during avalanche control–destroyed Chair 6.)
Yesterday, only a week after the snow started to accumulate on our slopes, we opened pretty much wall to wall. From Southback to Northway, great snow now covers our slopes. Saturday was a pow storm day and Sunday was a legitimate face-shot type of day. The hard coral reef-like chunder from the quick little rain we got on Christmas Eve is completely buried now. At least I didn’t feel it anyway. I’m sure there are still a few hard bits under all this snow, but you’d have to look hard to find them.
Cars are buried in the parking lot. The RV lot is full, and the crowds have returned. Yesterday was our busiest day of the season so far, but the lines weren’t even that bad. When the snow is this good, people tend to spread out. As one guy on the lift yesterday said, “everyone is doing their thing.”
The new Chair 6 opened to excited skiers and riders on Christmas Eve. The first chair honors went to Dan Howell and Kyle Miller. Way to go guys!
There’s still a few pockets of terrain closed. Kelly’s Gap will open today. Niagra’s will remain closed due to low snow. Brand X and Penny Dawgs will most likely open soon pending more assessment. The chutes at the bottom are still pretty bare of snow, so we’ll see.
Southback is especially good and deep. The new ride on Chair 6 is fast and comfortable. The top is still a bit tight–we hope to widen the off-load area next summer. A few rocks are poking out at the top, so be careful getting off the ridge.
Otherwise, its been a great holiday season so far and we are all feeling blessed by this great snow.
Avalanche mitigation seems to be having a moment. In the very small world of snow sports, avalanche mitigation is an even tinier niche. It’s the realm of professional ski patrollers and DOT highway workers and a few avalanche consultants. We call it “avalanche control” or “AC” or “Avi”. Some call it “avalanche reduction” or “control work.” Others call it simply “hazard mitigation.”
I’ve been doing it up at Crystal for years. Up until recently I had a hard time explaining what it was like. Before POV cameras that strap to a helmet or a chest harness, few patrollers could hold a video camera in one hand and also plug their ears at the same time.
Besides, ski patrollers don’t want to slow down the process. Time is of the essence on avalanche control mornings. Crowds of powder hunters often wait in long, snaking lines at the chairlift, listening to the bombs explode in the starting zones and waiting for the all clear. Quality video takes time and it also takes good visibility–two things in low quantity on a powder day.
Good avalanche footage is hard to come by. That’s why I like this video by Chris Morgan at twosherpas.com. It’s called PROfile: Ski Patroller G.R. Fletcher. It takes place at Snow Basin in Utah. The avalanche footage is clean and beautiful. It’s nothing historic or scary, just good sharp surface slabs that allow the patrol to open up some nice-looking terrain.
I can appreciate G.R.’s discussion on group dynamics. Ski patrollers must trust one another. Whether ski cutting a starting zone or working side by side on a medical call, the job requires a certain closeness. G.R. has been patrolling for 25 years, and you can detect a little wariness in his voice. The job is not easy. There are some hard days. Some days are boring, when the crowds are low and the snow is icy–not even worth taking a lap.
Other days are so scary that you can’t sleep that night. We work on serious accidents, some that even end in tragedy. But then there are days like the one pictured in this video. These days are crisp and beautiful and covered in a skein of soft snow. Near-perfect days require enough challenge and uncertainty to keep the flow going. That’s what keeps me coming back to the job every year. It’s days like this.
On another note: Crystal isn’t open at the moment. But things are looking better for a limited opening this weekend. Stay tuned on the website. Oh, and by the way. It’s currently snowing at Crystal. Keep doing those snow dances.
I’m hoping my mother never sees this movie. It looks brilliant and fascinating and on-the-edge-of-your-seat exhilarating. As a heli-blaster myself, the trailer for this film captures that mixture of awe and horror that roils inside while watching a big avalanche pull away and wreak havoc on a mountain side.
Kevin Fologin is an avalanche forecaster and consultant in B.C.’s rugged Coast Range, where he regularly drops explosives from helicopters to start avalanches. One day, one of these missions goes horribly wrong. Check out the trailer below.
In the first segment of this film to drop on Salomon FreeskiTV Kevin describes the ironic fascination of purposely creating avalanches. Most of us try to avoid avalanches. Snow safety consultants like Kevin (and ski patrollers across the world) hunt them.
Our job isn’t necessarily to prevent avalanches, but rather to create them. Once a slope has avalanched, the cartridge in the barrel has been spent. My favorite part of the first segment of the film below is during the big avalanche footage. Just listen to Kevin’s voice on the radio. “Go, go, go. Look at that thing go,” he says just as the toe of the avalanche launches over a beautiful slope toward the valley bottom. He lets out a laugh while the camera follows the cascading mass pushing harder and harder over the terrain. It’s a great piece of camera work and it resonated deeply for me.
How can avalanches be so awesome and so horrible all at once? There’s something truly humbling about watching one of these large slides devastate the landscape. And yet there’s also something addictive about causing one. Usually we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. With explosives, we can push the avalanches to happen when we want them to.
It’s a recipe for hubris. Perhaps that’s what makes this movie so intriguing–it explores that fine line through the aftermath of a devastating accident.
The film debuted last weekend at the 2014 Whistler Film Festival, winning “Best Mountain Culture Film.” According to the film’s website the film was very well received, and the audience responded with a standing ovation.
I’m looking forward to seeing more. Just don’t tell my mom.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
On that note, let’s all have a good time out there tomorrow. Be safe.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a professional ski patroller? Perhaps you have wondered about the lives of avalanche forecasters, or you have considered joining a Search and Rescue group.
The film Snow Guardians documents the lives and work of patrollers and rescuers. Based in Montana and focusing on Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol, with footage from Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort, Snow Guardians depicts an accurate portrait of patrol life.
This is no small feat.
A documentary on ski patrolling seems like a no brainer. Of course viewers would find explosive control and snow-related emergencies interesting. Saving lives and throwing bombs? Why wouldn’t today’s viewers lap that up? Well, of course there’s more to it than that.
Camera crews often clamber for access to our lives. At Crystal a few years ago, reality television crews followed some of us around, hoping to capture the daily ups and downs of the job. Their task proved difficult. Few members of that camera crew were strong enough skiers and riders to truly “shadow” us. Plus, they were carrying an extra hundred pounds in camera gear.
Most ski patrols aren’t too keen on having a camera crew join them on their avalanche control missions. The use of explosives in the mountains is tightly regulated, and adding in anything extraneous would seem unnecessary and maybe dangerous. By the looks of it, the makers of Snow Guardians do an excellent job of showcasing avalanche control without getting in the way. No doubt the videographers were highly skilled themselves and able to get great footage without endangering anyone. As a ski patroller, I have a keen appreciation for how hard it must have been to film this documentary.
Add to that the nature of the job, when emergencies happen at the most inopportune moments, and you can begin to see how challenging a task this is. Furthermore, ski patrollers tend not to be attention-seekers. We aren’t the sharing type, by nature. It helps that the producers of this film had friends on the Bridger Patrol, which no doubt opened some doors.
What makes Snow Guardians so good is the level of access they had to the inner workings of the Bridger Bowl Patrol. Billed as a documentary that teaches the importance of backcountry knowledge and skills, I see it as a clear glimpse into our world. Snow Guardians is for sale. It’s about the price of a hard cover book, and it’s worth the money. Check out the trailer below.