This is What Ski Patrollers Live For

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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.

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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.

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.

Southback Dec 13

Southback filling in December 13, 2015

Much more snow.

72Hour Snow total

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.

3D Trail Map Coming to Crystal

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Ever wanted to ski the hill like a local? Ever wished the tiny trail map in your pocket showed all the best runs at Crystal? Fatmap 3D trail mapping app lets you do just that. For every skier or rider who has tried to follow the new buddy they just met on the gondy into Left Angle Trees and lost their guide before Elk Pass, this app is for you. This trail map is also for those that know the mountain pretty well, but want to find all the nooks and crannies that locals allude to in the bar, but never quite explain how to find. For locals who already know everything there is to know about Crystal Mountain, this app will help you put your knowledge to the test.

FATMAP-Mobile-3D-Ski-Maps-SocialDo I sound like a marketer? Maybe. But I know what I’m talking about because I wrote all the trail descriptions and (painstakingly) digitized the amazing satellite imagery used for these maps. (For those wondering why I’ve been absent from posting, this project has been a big part of that.)

Here’s how it works in a nutshell. You load the app on your phone. The free version shows all the marked runs plus the “points of interest” like restaurants and ski patrol locations (obviously the most interesting point of all *grin*). Just click on one of the marked runs and you will get a description of the trail. Click the “fly over” button and the view zooms to the top of the run then begins to fly over the run as if you were paragliding above it. It also follows you via GPS, so you can always figure out where you are.

FM_PR_July15_Grey_1-Device_ZMT-Wide-LRGFor a few bucks more you get the pro version, which includes all the unmarked (and often hard to find) runs at the ski area. This is the real beauty of this trail map. Ever wondered how to find Damn Fine Forest? Just click on the list of freeride names and voila! You will find this this honey of a stash as well as how to access it. Never knew where S-Bend Chute is? Well now you can.

Fatmap started offering this amazing app last season in Europe. It’s just now coming on line in North America. This is the wave of the future in negotiating your favorite ski area. It’s also the very best tool in your kit for impressing the bar flies in the Snorting Elk, or that good looking guy or gal who’ve been hoping to chat up. Just pull out your phone and show him or her the app. You’ll have him/her at “loading”.

In addition to Crystal, they’re also launching a version of Whistler, Alta/Snowbird, Aspen, Big Sky, Jackson Hole, Squaw, and a bunch of others great resorts.

So check it out.

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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!

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.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Ski Season

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Crystal Mountain received a nice blanket of snow this weekend.

10" of new snow at Crystal

10″ of new snow at Crystal

Powder Bowl isn't looking too bad either

Powder Bowl isn’t looking to bad either

There’s about 8-12″ of snow in Green Valley, and its a nice dense base. One more storm like this and we can open the Gondola and Green Valley. The forecast for this weekend is calling for a few more systems starting on Friday. (The first system should be warm, which could actually help consolidate the base.) Here’s how the forecast discussion reads:

  A WEAK UPPER SHORTWAVE IN THE NORTHWEST FLOW WILL MOVE ACROSS THE 
  FORECAST AREA WEDNESDAY NIGHT...FOLLOWED BY ANOTHER WEAKER FEATURE 
  THURSDAY OR THURSDAY NIGHT. THE SHORTWAVES WILL PROBABLY SCATTER 
  SOME LIGHT SHOWERS ACROSS WESTERN WASHINGTON AT TIMES. THE SNOW 
  LEVEL WILL BE AROUND 3500 FT WEDNESDAY NIGHT AND RISE TO AROUND 
  4500 FT THURSDAY NIGHT...AND SHOWERS COULD BRING 2 TO 5 INCHES OF 
  NEW SNOW TO THE CASCADES FROM AROUND STEVENS PASS NORTHWARD. MCDONNAL 
   
  .LONG TERM...ANOTHER WEAK UPPER RIDGE WILL MOVE QUICKLY ACROSS 
  WESTERN WASHINGTON FRIDAY MORNING...THEN A COLD FRONT WILL DIG 
  SOUTHEAST ACROSS THE AREA FRIDAY NIGHT AND SATURDAY. A SECOND 
  FRONT WILL FOLLOW QUICKLY ON SUNDAY...WITH A FAIRLY DEEP UPPER 
  TROUGH DIGGING OVER THE REGION ON MONDAY. THE SNOW LEVEL WILL RISE 
  TO AROUND 6000 TO 7000 FT AHEAD OF THE FIRST FRONT...THEN FALL TO 
  AROUND 3500 FT ON SUNDAY AND MAYBE ALL THE WAY TO 2000 FT ON 
  MONDAY. MODELS AGREE WELL ON THIS SCENARIO OVERALL. MCDONNAL
Bottom of GV still needs a bit more snow.

8″ at bottom of GV

The bottom of Green Valley still needs a bit more snow. But currently it’s snowing lightly, and every little bit helps. What we need now is one of those big November snowfalls where it dumps 2 feet in 24 hours. (A girl can hope!)

Even if that doesn’t happen, since the crews this summer mowed down all the trees and brush in Green Valley and pretty much everywhere else on the main runs, it won’t take much to get open.

Let’s all start doing our snow dances (and ice-cube-flushing and frozen-spoon-under-the-pillow-sleeping) and get this season started!

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog

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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