Category Archives: Ski Resorts

Best Unmarked Lines at Crystal on Fatmap

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Snow Grooming: Making Perfect Corduroy

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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.

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Corduroy to Heaven

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.

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The Piston Bully Diesel Electric Hybrid 600 E+

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.

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Bruce Engdahl hooked up in Green Valley on Christmas Day

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.

 

Crystal Mountain Opens Today

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When Winter Storms are Like an Abusive Relationship

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This winter, the weather in the Cascades is like an abusive relationship. You keep thinking that the next storm will be better, that it will bring more snow, that the rain is a thing of the past, that things will change.

There have been moments of greatness this season. In between wet storms, we’ve enjoyed some beautiful days. While the valleys have been blanketed with cold clouds, Crystal Mountain has enjoyed warm sun. On these days, all the rain is forgiven. You remind yourself that today is a new day. You tell yourself that every winter season has its ups and downs. You convince yourself that even Japan has bad years (and you try to swallow that large seed of doubt deep into the sugary snow lining your own psyche.) Because even abusive seasons have their good days.

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Mt. Rainier view from Crystal Mountain January 16th

Yesterday was a legitimate powder day. The snow was a bit dense, but it was plentiful up high, and it finally covered over rocks on the summit ridge above Green Valley. Skiers and riders forgot for a few hours about the season’s stinginess. They ignored the curses that started in late November and have echoed through the Cascades. Down with Pineapples!! Damn El Niño!! Things were turning around, and yesterday was perfect. All was forgiven.

But, when you’re involved with an abusive winter season, things change fast. One minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re in the gutter. This morning its a mix of rain and snow at the base of Crystal. You call it “chunky rain,” or perhaps “liquid snow” might be a better description. While it falls from the sky looking very much like snow, it falls hard and wet. And it hurts. The upper mountain is currently on wind hold.

Its supposed to warm up today and the snow level will continue to creep toward the summit and beyond. You’ve seen this pattern before–a glorious foot of snow followed by a mean inch of rain and then ending in an apologetic few inches of snow. Like a bouquet of roses after a particularly mean argument, those few inches smell all the sweeter for their scarcity.

We've learned to rely on grooming this season

We’ve learned to rely on grooming this season

Tomorrow it’s looking like we might get a foot of snow after tonight’s deluge–a particularly welcome apology after such a rude gesture.

My fingers are crossed. Yours should be too. This season we all might be getting abused by a mean winter suitor, but we should must what we can get. If the snow levels drop to predicted levels by Sunday morning, we could be in for a pow storm day tomorrow.

We can always hope.

Let’s Get This Ski Season Started, Shall We?

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It’s a Christmas miracle. Or maybe our anti-pineapple campaign did the trick. Or perhaps all of the snow dances and frozen spoons and ice cubes flushed down the toilet helped too. Thanks to all who did their part,  Crystal will open tomorrow for skiing and riding. We will start out with the Gondola and Green Valley Chair, then hope to add more terrain, including Forest Queen, Rainier Express and the new Chair 6 this week. Check the website for more details.

Crystal base area Saturday morning.

Crystal base area Saturday morning

The conditions are actually pretty good. According to the telemetry, as well as eye-witness accounts, the upper mountain did fairly well out of this latest storm. We picked up about 16″ of snow Friday night and Saturday morning (according to people who skied Saturday). It briefly went above freezing at the top Saturday night, and only rained .18″ during those three hours. The rest of the time it was snowing up in Green Valley.

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

Snow stake at the bottom of Chair 6 as of Sunday morning

At the base, it snowed about 12″ before it warmed , and we got another 1″ or so of rain. But the good news, is that we still came out ahead of where we were before it all started. At 10 am Sunday morning, it is still raining at the base and snowing at the bottom of Forest Queen.

My guess is that anything above 5,000 feet will ski well. It should be smooth and supportive and a lot of fun.

So what do you say? Let’s get this ski season started, shall we?

I’m a Sucker for a Snowstorm

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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.

Snow Guardians: A Documentary about Ski Patrolling

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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.