Category Archives: Weather

A Very Lucky Ski Season Comes to an End

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

Weather or Not: Hoping for another “Miracle Saturday”

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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).

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The mountain came out Wednesday afternoon

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!

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My most trusted source for weather!

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:

Snow Prediction

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.

 

Real-time Weather Data for Crystal

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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.

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Forrest found his bluebird day on Exterminator Ridge

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.

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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.

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mountain tabular data

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.

Just saying.

Much More Snow in the Forecast

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My what a difference a couple of weeks makes. In late November we had begun to joke that perhaps our ski area had permanently shrunk to Green Valley. The snow had gotten thin near the bottom of the chair and our laughs were taking on a more grimaced nuance. Dry, chalky snow could still be found under the gondy line, and the warm inversion above the cold foggy city felt great.

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Green Valley November 20, 2015

But let’s be real. What we really want is snow. Not only do we want a solid base on the ground, we also need frequent top-offs. But if anyone had told me on November 30th what the next two weeks had in store, I would have laughed them off as crazy.

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Flakes the size of 10-year-olds fell on December 1st

December slammed into the Pacific Northwest like a drunken Santa on the world’s stormiest sleigh. A week into the month the four horseman of the apocalypse were standing by to wash us all down the mountain in a biblical storm. The gale of December 8th was so violent the fiber optic line, along with the power lines that feed Greenwater and Crystal, washed into the river. We had no outside communication for two days (which, if you ask me, was actually kind of nice).

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Miles breaking trail up the Throne in early December

The net result of that storm created great coverage up high, and quickly the snow started falling at the base too. Now, two weeks into the month we are open wall to wall. There’s over 53″ on the stake in Green Valley, which is above normal, and the forecast is calling for more snow.

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Southback filling in December 13, 2015

Much more snow.

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By next Tuesday we could have 30-40 more inches of snow

Cliff Mass is calling it “mountains of snow.” With three big snow-producing storms lined up in the Pacific, the forecast is calling for several feet of fresh snow over the next five days.

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This is what I’m talking about

It’s been years since the words feet and forecast have shared a sentence. Let that one sink in for a moment.

November and December are often our stormiest months, so this shouldn’t come as a complete shock. Perhaps its the weak winters of late that produce what I can only describe as a feeling of disbelief and awe. Part of me hesitates to even talk about the forecast lest I jinx it somehow.

When the forecasters are talking about mountains of snow, I think we can trust that, at the very least, we are going to have a very white Christmas.

Snow in the Forecast

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After over a week of high pressure and inversion at Crystal Mountain, we finally have some snow in the forecast. While it has certainly been nice at the top of Crystal this week with calm winds, sunny skies and warm weather, I, for one, am ready for some frozen precipitation.

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Noaa Forecast for the summit of Crystal

Looks like our first shot of real snow could come Tuesday night, with up to 10 inches at the top. We should also get snow at the base too, although not as much as up high. Wednesday is looking like a 12 hour warm up, with rain in the afternoon turning back to snow by Thursday morning.

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72 Hour Snowfall Forecast ending 4am Saturday

By next weekend, all ski areas should have a net increase of at least a foot of new snow. Here at Crystal that translates into more open terrain. I’d love to see Rex and Forest Queen start spinning soon. And of course, Chair 6 and Northway will be next. Let’s all start our snow dances now!

What Kind of Winter Are We Going to Have?

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Someone asked me last weekend if I knew what kind of weather we were going to have this winter at Crystal. It’s timely because I was just thinking about how nifty it would be if I could predict the weather. Well, let’s be real here. I want to do more than predict weather. Any weather forecaster could do that. I want to control the weather.

While I haven’t yet mastered weather control, I have found some historical data that might be interesting to you skiers and riders obsessing/fretting/anxious about the season to come.

NOAA is predicting a very strong El Niño for the 2015-16 winter season. It’s easy to worry over this, especially since El Niño’s tend to mean dryer and warmer conditions in the PNW. But we’ve only been through two very strong El Niños in the past hundred years or so and those years weren’t so bad at Crystal.

In 1982-83 was a very strong El Niño event. Crystal reported about average snowfall that season. This was back when the weather plot was behind the Alpine Inn, where the tree canopy may have interfered. We had an active avalanche cycle in 82-83, with a slide that started in Kempers breaking timber all the way down to Highway 410.

1997-98 might be a little easier for locals to remember at Crystal. It was the daddy of all El Niños (which, by the way is spanish for “the niño”). It was the year of Chris Farley’s infamous skit on SNL.

During that season, Crystal ended up with about average snowfall. According to Tony Crocker at bestsnow.net, we were actually ahead. He has a pretty cool month-by-month analysis that you might want to check out. In a nutshell, we started strong at Crystal, had some spring-like conditions in mid-March, then ended in April with enough snow to get to about average depths.

El Niños tend to be pretty unpredictable. There are other factors besides ENSO at play as well. The folks at Atmospheric and Environmental Research consider the snowpack in Siberia in October as a good indication of the severity of winter in North America.

And then there’s the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which you may have heard is predicting a severe winter in many parts of N. America. The OFA uses a secret formula for long-term weather prediction that they keep hidden in a black box. So you know it’s got to be accurate.

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts a good winter for PNW skiers and riders. Which is nice.

One last consideration is the winter in Chile. There’s a “totally scientific” belief at Crystal that the Chilean winters are a prediction of the upcoming winter in the Cascades. The Andes are buried in snow right now. So we’ve got that going for us, too.

So what kind of winter are we going to have at Crystal? One thing I know for sure is that we will have weather, and plenty of it.