Tag Archives: Ski Patrolling

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?

Chair 6 is Gone, Dude: What I learned about big avalanches

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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.”

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

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.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the avalanche moments after we started it.

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.”

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

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.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

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.

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.

Big Avalanche Results and More About Treewell Safety

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Paul Baugher, the Ski Patrol Director at Crystal Mountain, is concerned about treewell safety. Treewells are the airy voids around trees draped heavily with snow. If you fall into one headfirst you might not be able to get out. Check out this video with Crystal’s Paul Baugher and patroller Christina Von Mertens that offers tips about how to avoid getting stuck in one.

Tree Wells & SIS Safety: What To Do If You Go Down from SIS Safety Videos on Vimeo.

The snow is still draped heavily on the trees here in the Cascades, and the forecast is calling for one last storm tonight. Then it looks like things will mellow out. We might even get some warm high pressure later in the week. In the mean time, the dangers still lurk. We set off some big explosives yesterday in Southback, both from the helicopter and on foot. I was on the hand route, and we worked mainly in Avalanche Basin. We got some big results below Appliances Chutes that wrapped around to lower starting zones. The debris ripped out trees in Damn Fine Forest and ran all the way to Elizabeth Lake. In my 25 years at Crystal I’ve never seen these slide paths run this far.

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Avalanche Debris in Damn Fine Forest

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Appliance Chutes went big, with up to 5 foot crowns

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Blaine Horner tossing a big shot

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

Pat Fleming standing in front of one of many of these

 

We’re ALL Winners: Free E-Books, The Next 15 Minutes

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Get Your Free E-Book Today

Get Your Free E-Book Today

Today I’m celebrating. My memoir, The Next 15 Minutes, has been honored by the North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA) with the Harold Hirsch award for excellence in journalism in the Book category. The Next 15 Minutes, if you’re new here, is the high-octane story of how lessons learned as a ski patroller helped me get through my husband’s harrowing cancer diagnosis. More adventure-story than medical-memoir, this book reveals what it’s like to make the ski industry your life and how to use our voluntary adventures to get through real-life disasters. I’ve always believed that we get out on the edge to see what we’re made of. But we don’t expect to use that expertise in a real emergency. Until we have no other choice.

If you haven’t yet read the book, now’s the time.

Harold_Hirsch

Thanks NASJA!

The Book category is only given every three years. Judges are chosen based on their expertise in the field, and are not members of the organization. The award is named for Harold Hirsch, a long-time ski journalist, and member of the NASJA Board.

I’m thrilled to be honored by NASJA. My late father-in-law, Everett Kircher, was given NASJA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Mammoth, CA in 1999.

My husband and his brother, Steve, accepted the honor in their father’s name. It’s fitting that I received my award in Mammoth 14 years later.

To celebrate, my publisher, Behler Publications, is giving away free e-books of THE NEXT 15 MINUTES today and tomorrow. Just email Lynn Price at: lynn_at_behlerpublications.com (replace “_at_” with @ symbol) and put FREE NEXT 15 MINUTES in the Subject line. Hurry. This special celebration ends tomorrow.

Yea!

Ingrid Backstrom Wins Best Female Performance

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Seven days ago, John and I looked at the forecast for Niseko and thought maybe this would be a good week to go ski the deep Japanese powder everyone has been talking about. Ingrid Backstrom was at Crystal for the week, and we asked her if she wanted to go. In her humble Backstrom way, she thanked me profusely, but said she couldn’t join us. Instead she was supposed to be in Aspen. When I asked her why, she just shrugged and said, “The Powder Awards.”

Oh yes. The Powder Awards, in which viewers get to vote for their favorite performers. I, of course, voted a few months ago for Ingrid. I’ve known her since she was a young racer at Crystal, trying to act inconspicuous in the ski patrol room while her parents worked. In fact, it was Ingrid’s mom, Betsy, who taught me how to run a toboggan with finesse. As a petite woman running toboggans three times her weight, Betsy showed me how to press my hips down onto the handles to get the brake to bite in, allowing me to steer with my arms, rather than my quads. Now, when I teach new patrollers this skill, I always think of Betsy’s soft-spoken smile as she handily showed me the ropes.

This year, for the 5th time in her career, Ingrid won Best Female Skier. Way to go Ingrid. We may have missed a great week at Niseko, but I suppose winning this award was worth it. Check out this video in which Ingrid accepts her award and gracefully dedicates it to Sarah Burke. In case you were wondering, this is what it means to be a Backstrom.

Becoming a Ski Patroller: An unlikely path

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I started ski patrolling in 1989, my freshman year in college, when my dad informed me that his ski instructor discount no longer extended past my 18th birthday. Welcome to adulthood and the great responsibility of buying your own season pass. I quickly surveyed my options. I could follow in my parent’s footsteps and teach others to ski, but I didn’t want to spend my days on the bunny slopes. I wanted to be higher on the mountain and in the thick of things, so I tried out for the ski patrol. I looked up to the patrollers, admiring their cowboy-like stoicism and their wild antics. I was neither stoic nor wild, but I wanted to be.

Early 70s patrollers at Crystal Mountain. Photo courtesy of Ty Anderson

Attending classes in Olympia, my weekly drive to the mountain taught me that someday I wanted to live in a mountain town. I didn’t like the commute. I would spend the next seven years as a volunteer patroller while first a college student and later a literature and writing teacher. While I knew I was ready for a change, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. I liked the sound of “author”, but thought “ski bum” sounded pretty good too. At least in the short term.

So I got on the patrol as a professional, thinking I’d spend a year ski bumming before making my next move. I had high aspirations–perhaps I could become a writer for Powder Magazine, maybe I could move to Jackson Hole or Aspen or Chamonix. I was ready for a change.

The decision to stay at Crystal full time happened on a single morning.

A more recent photo of the crew

I was on an avalanche control route on Exterminator Ridge with a senior patroller. He was showing me the ropes—how to attach a party pack (a large explosive made from ANFO) to a bomb tram. After I lit the shot and sent it down the cable, I wedged myself in the tree above the chute where the tram cable stretched across the starting zone, and plugged my ears. Thin snow haloes danced above the slope as the sun rose above the peaks, and I waited for the 90-second fuse to burn down. My breath echoed in my ears and my heart thumped against my fingertips. This was what I’d been looking for. This moment right here, when the cold air froze my nostrils and the morning sun illuminated floating snow crystals. It didn’t get any better than this. Not in the city and not necessarily in another mountain town. By the time the bomb exploded, pressing my sternum against my lungs, I’d made my decision. I would stay another season. I would press myself up against the cold snow, the steep peaks and the frightening task of carrying armed explosives in my backpack and see what happened. I could make this my home.

Now I marvel at how much my life has changed and how much it was stayed the same.

I still carry the same heavy explosives to the tops of the starting zones, I still haul injured skiers down in the same toboggans, I still string black and orange rope around closed areas and place bamboo sticks to warn skiers.

The Sublime

In some ways, I’ve become a little jaded. Injured patients no longer scare me; big avalanches no longer surprise me. I’ve come to expect a bit of crisis, and I’ve learned how to flow with it. But in other ways I’ve become more sensitive. Life is more precious when lived closer to the edge. The site of morning sun on fresh snow can bring tears to my eyes. The gratitude of a single guest can carry me all day.

When I married John, my role at Crystal forever changed. I’m still on the ski patrol (which surprises new friends 90% of the time), but I am also married to the owner. I host guests and happily play the role of Mrs. Crystal. John and I plan new projects together, and he listens to my opinions (even when I claim the ski patrol needs a new hut).

I’m not sure if I ever mastered the stoic-wild oxymoron of the previous patrollers I admired. But I have found my own contradictory lifestyle. You might see me wearing my ski patrol uniform one day and the next I’ll be out getting early ups with my husband on my day off, or shoveling out the propane tanks during First Tracks breakfast.

I take the sublime with the guanch, the stellar with the rock-hard ice. And you something? It’s not a bad life at all.