Tag Archives: Avalanches

Update: The New Chair 6

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Vertol Helicopter putting the final touches on the bullweel.

Vertol Helicopter putting the final touches on the bullweel. PC Andrew Longstreth

A few months ago, I had to break some very bad news to my husband that. “Honey, we broke your chairlift.” This is much harder than telling your husband that you dented the car. Or that you ran over his bike shoes. Or that you burned those thick New York steaks he bought special at Costco. Because I’ve had to do all those things too. This one is much, much worse. Not that he was openly upset. My husband is a cool cucumber. But still.

The new view at the top of 6. FC Jim Jarnagin

The new view at the top of 6. PC Jim Jarnagin

I also told him that he’d thank me some day, and I’ve even had to remind him of this a few times since the avalanche we set off killed the chair. Maybe not that first day when the snow was piled up thirty feet under the now destroyed lift. And maybe not in the days since then as the replacement costs have begun to create their own little debris pile.

Today, however, things are finally looking up. With beautiful weather and a really big helicopter, anything is possible. The crews flew the old towers and bullwheels out and brought in the new bullwheel. And everything fit. Lunch was open at the Summit House and plenty of patrons got a front row seat.

Out with the old and in with the new. I suppose it’s true that everything does happen for a reason.

Now I’m counting down the days until first ride on the new Chair 6. The view at the top of the new lift is looking pretty darn good.

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Weekly High-Five Report: NWAC

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Sunrise Weather Station, Mt. Rainier National Park

The Northwest Avalanche Center puts out a weather and avalanche forecast every day of the winter, and for mountain people, these guys are invaluable. Thanks to NWAC meteorologists Garth Ferber, Kenny Kramer and Mark Moore, snowsports enthusiasts and backcountry skiers know a whole lot more about the conditions. Not only do these three maintain various telemetry stations throughout the state which allow the casual browser to view snowfall totals, water amounts and wind directions, among other data across the Olympics and Cascades, these guys also put out daily forecasts.

Every morning Garth, Kenny or Mark release a detailed Avalanche Forecast for the region, complete with a Danger Rose, Snowpack Analysis and Avalanche Forecast. Before venturing into the backcountry, just check the NWAC website to find great information about the snowpack and which aspects and elevations to avoid.

In addition to the avalanche forecast, the center also offers a detailed weather forecast as well. If you’re lucky, you might even get that forecast in the form of a poem.

Mark Moore is known for his wild weather forecasts, and he’s also called a “weather poet”. Not only does he study the forecast models, translating the colorful images into water totals and wind estimates, he also might put the outlook into rhymed verse. Here’s an example:

Settlement is coming but not fast enough-
And it’s hard to focus with all of that fluff.
So whatever your sport, whatever your skill,
Be avalanche aware or else you it will kill.

Needless to say, the Avalanche Meteorologists at NWAC are a great resource for anyone venturing into the mountains. Whether a backcountry skier looking for an avalanche forecast or a resort rider wanting to know just how light that 3″ that fell at his favorite ski area really was, look no further than your local avalanche center.

These guys deserve a high-five. Bravo Mark, Kenny and Garth. Now carry on!

What Avalanches Can Tell Me About My Own Weakness

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How I Try to Pretend

Five Foot Crown in Bear Pits, March 2011

Weak layers in the snowpack are like fragile layers in our psyche. We can cover over them with slabs of bravado, carefully sintered together and work-hardened. We can pretend they don’t exist, or that subsequent snow has masked the flaw. As a diabetic and a rescuer, I prefer to bridge over my tendency towards low blood sugar reactions and pretend I’m in control.

Just like in the snowpack, weakness lingers. In fact, given the right conditions, cold temperatures and a shallow snowpack, those frailties grow even weaker. Sometimes ignoring those unsightly parts of myself makes them scarier foes, and yet I can’t resist. Who wants to stare her own ugliness down? When I have a low blood sugar reaction I hate to ask for help. It’s a weakness I try to bury. And yet its a ridiculous strategy.

A Ridiculous Strategy

Anna D. tossing a shot onto the slope, Southback Crystal Mt.

This morning I woke at 4 am. Hot sweat pooled in my clavicle and I threw off the sheets. “I’m having a low blood sugar,” I told John as I careened down the hallway toward the kitchen. I stood there naked and sweating and tried to prick my finger and smear the drop of red blood onto the tiny strip. When my brain is starving, it seems to shut off the less important functions like eyesight. I stared at my glucometer and tried to see the number blinking on the screen. It was either 64 or 34, either way a low blood sugar. I lifted my hair off my shoulders and let the sweat cool my skin.

John handed me a glass of orange juice and told me to drink. It was sweet and delicious. Diabetics can’t normally drink juice; it contains far too much sugar. I miss drinking orange juice. I wondered for a moment if drinking juice made the threat of a seizure worth it. I ran my tongue along the slick above my lip, leaned over the counter and rested my face in my hands. I was very tired and starting to get cold.

John helped me back to bed, where I buried myself in the damp sheets. My blood sugar was returning to normal and I shivered. John kept waking up thinking my shaking was the start of a seizure. I told him not to worry; I’d be fine.

Buried Facets

What used to be a forest now lays on the ground just uphill from my house

Just a few feet from my window, century-old trees lay in a jumbled mess. Last season a huge avalanche slid nearly from the top of the mountain and stopped within feet of our apartment. The aftermath of that slide was humbling. Trees and rocks were uprooted, or snapped in half and sent a mile down the slope, to rest just uphill from where I now lay shivering and clutching the sheets against my weakness.

While pretty on the surface, once buried facetted crystal become a dangerous weak layer

When the slide let loose, having been triggered by explosives thrown from a helicopter, the slab failed on an old weak layer. Months before, a rain event followed by cold temperatures had left faceted crystals that later were buried by late-season snow. When the stress of the new snow overcame the strength of the snowpack, huge slides let loose all over the mountain, running on that layer of beautiful, diamond-like crystals that wouldn’t bond.

I couldn’t control my shivering. The wet sheets provided little warmth, and the clock blinked 4:35 am. Between the tree tops outside the window the sky grew lighter. These very trees acted as the last defense against the tons of snow and debris that had nearly buried the bed I now lay in and the window I looked through. Faceted crystals will not bond to anything, will not ask for help from nearby slabs. Buried surface hoar harbors air pockets that create a growing weakness, nibbling away at its surroundings until a layer of crystalline dominoes is poised and ready to fail. The symmetry was almost too much to bear.

With a Little Help From Our Friends

When I look over the past few years of our lives, so many things had to go right. John lived through an impossible diagnosis. The cancer didn’t spread. He got the transplant. We weren’t in our apartment when the avalanche came down. We didn’t get buried.

During a recent interview a radio personality asked me what I’d learned since writing my book. I answered quickly. I knew this one.

My happy place: skiing powder with my husband

I have learned to be grateful. If we didn’t have buried weakness, gratitude wouldn’t come quite as easily. If John hadn’t nearly died we wouldn’t be living so large right now. If I didn’t have diabetes, I might forget to be humble in the face of risk, both on and off the mountain.

Weakness reminds us of our humanity. If we were perfect we wouldn’t need each other. John’s ordeal sintered our marriage, bonding the very crystals of our being together into a cohesive slab.

I looked at the clock again, it was almost 5 am, time to wake up and check the weather forecast. John and I looked at it together this morning, mapping the timing of the storms lining up in the Pacific, strategizing about how to get the mountain open.

If the forecast pans out, we could be open by early next week. Our lives are about to shift again–this time towards the yearly start to our ski season. I look forward to skiing again, feeling gratitude and joy and weakness.

The Northwest Snow and Avalanche Summit 2011

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Check out this opportunity to learn more about avalanches this Sunday in Seattle. While the NSAS is geared towards avalanche professionals, they also welcome recreational skiers as well. Here’s the official information about the event:

2011 Poster

The Northwest Snow and Avalanche Summit (NSAS) is a professional development seminar for avalanche workers, and a continuing education opportunity for recreationalists. NSAS is intended for ski patrollers, forecasters, ski guides, search and rescue teams, as well as any number of other occupations that occur on and around snow. The content of NSAS is relevant to professionals and recreationalists alike.

Sunday, November 13th, 2010 from 8:30AM to 5PM at the REI Flagship Store in Seattle.
This years speakers to include:

  • Karl Birkland – Director Usfs National Avalanche Center
  • Zach Guy – Researcher, Montana State University
  • Mike Richardson – Avalanche Research Blogger
  • Karl Klassen – Caa Public Bulletin Director, Mtn. Guide
  • Oyvind Henningsen – Director, Everett Search And Rescue
  • Garth Ferber – Nwac Forecaster
  • John Scurlock – Alpine Photographer/photo Historian
Tickets may be purchased at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/199594
*Tickets Limited to the first 220 Participants, Cash or Check only on day-of event purchases at the door

The Greatness of Dogs

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Rocket Circa 2003

My good friend Lisa asked me to dog-sit this week. Of course I jumped at the chance. Her dog, Ari, is the spitting image of the late, great Rocket, my ski patrolling partner and companion that passed away five years ago. They are both small black labs, with jet-black noses and big hearts.

While hiking with Ari yesterday at Crystal, I was reminded why I miss my dog so much. I loved the way he would run ahead a few yards and look back at me, his pink tongue glistening against his teeth. Being an avalanche rescue dog just like Rocket, Ari doesn’t stray too far from the trail either.

They are alike in other ways. Just like Rock, Ari has an on/off switch. Enthusiastic one minute, he knows how to listen and sit and stay when necessary. When he finds a patch of snow, he rubs his nose against it, rolls on his back and slides down like a skier. He walks so close to me that I mistake him for my shadow. And when he looks at me and cocks his head, shakes his tail back and forth in a long, slow wag, it almost breaks my heart.

Ari hiking near Crystal Mountain, August 2011

I’m not ready for another dog. Rocket ruined me. Not once in his 8 years did he ever do anything wrong. Well, there was that one time when he jumped on the counter and devoured an entire loaf of bread. I was dumbfounded when I got home. How could he do such a thing? The dog hardly breathed without permission. It was just a few months before he died, and I realized later that this erratic behavior was the build-up to the inevitable.

Besides that, he was the perfect avalanche dog. (I even sang to him and for those of you following along, “Who’s the best dog in the United States? It’s you Rocket-dog. It’s you.”)

But I digress.

When training him, I often expected that he would someday be a hero. He would find a person buried in the snow, bark and dig in just the right spot so I knew where to search. The victim would emerge whole and alive.

But that’s not how it happened in real life.

When Rocket did find his victim, the man was already dead. He’d been swept through trees at a tremendous speed. As the group of patrollers that collected around the body waited for the toboggan, not one of us looked at him. We avoided eye contact and focused on our ski boots, gathered emergency gear and disconnected the probes and shovels.

But not Rocket.

He stared at the body. I couldn’t divert his attention. I brought out the toy used only when he found a victim, something he loved more than anything else in the world, and he looked at me with a pitiable look. He seemed to say, “This is serious. This is not play time.”

He watched the body until the toboggan arrived, and I did too. It seemed the right thing to do.

The best lessons I’ve ever learned I got from my dog. He loved snow more than anything else, he said hello with enthusiasm and hardly acknowledged goodbyes, and most importantly, he knew when to play and when to be serious.

Having Ari here is a little blessing—a reminder about the greatness of dogs.

Part of this post is excerpted from my forthcoming memoir The Next 15 Minutes.

North Cascades Highway: Still under 75 feet of snow

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WSDOT hopes to have Highway 20 open by Memorial Day. But they aren’t making any promises.

A D6 dozer takes on a 75 foot wall of snow in the North Cascades

SR 20, also known as the North Cascades Highway, closes every winter due to avalanche hazard. Usually the road is open in April. This year, they are hoping to get it open by the end of May.

A snowblower digs through debris on the road

According to the WSDOT website, crews are working hard on Cayuse Pass, Chinook Pass and SR 20, hoping to get “at least two of the passes open by Memorial Day.”

They call this spring cleaning

While they are getting close on Cayuse and SR 20, they still do not have an estimate on Chinook. The website also states, “the last time all three passes opened so late was in 1974.”

Check out more WSDOT photos on Flickr.