Tag Archives: Southback

The Risk/Reward Calculus


As a ski patroller, I mitigate risk for a living. Whether on the edge of a groomer or the top of an avalanche path, my job is to reduce the risk for the skiing public. Perhaps that explains my fascination with the  risk/reward calculus in action sports. What started a few months ago as a suggestion from a good friend, (“Hey Kim, maybe you should write your next book on risks, and why people take them!”) has transformed into an all-out obsession. My research has taken me from psychology to neurology to the stories of amazing athletes pushing themselves to the very edge. Now, everywhere I look, people are talking about risk. It is like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also known as the red-car phenomenon, when you encounter a previously obscure piece of information and start seeing it everywhere.

Avalanche Basin

The light fading in Avalanche Basin

Friday, as I headed to the top of the King at the end of the day to sweep, I ran into a group of snowboarders preparing to drop into Avalanche Basin. Since it was the end of the day, and I was sweeping Southback, I explained to them that I would watch them all drop in and make sure they made it out the bottom before continuing on. None of them had ever skied Southback, and I observed their decision-making skills.

A few of them were tired from the hike and traverse. These ones were ready to drop-in and get to the bottom before it got dark. The best snowboarder of the group noticed the alpenglow surrounding Mt. Rainier. He seemed calm and prepared as he checked his line and smoothly dropped in. I asked the rest if they’d ever ridden this line. None of them had. I offered some beta on the various drop-in points, and waited for them to strap in. One of them laughed nervously. Another one seemed to obsessively check the screen of his POV camera, making sure it was on.

The visibility worsened as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. It would be totally dark in less than forty-five minutes. One by one the group dropped in. They waited carefully for each one to appear at the bottom of the chute and move to a safe location at the bottom.

Even though they appeared like newbies, they knew enough to go one at a time, to wear shovel packs and to check each area before dropping. As they prepared to to drop in, I watched them calculate the risk versus the reward. The rewards were big: three untracked chutes above an open fan with about 8″ of new snow. The risks, as always in the mountains, were many and varied. That 8″ of snow was sitting on a firm bed surface. Somewhere between the bed surface and the new snow was a layer of surface hoar. The visibility and the temperature were dropping. And now we had less than thirty minutes of daylight.

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

Three boarders remained. One, who I’d been following since the Throne saddle, waiting as he stumbled along the trail, expending twice as much energy as necessary, looked at me. His jacket was unzipped to his collar bone, and steam rose from his skin. “What’s below here?” He asked again. I explained the terrain carefully, then added, “this chute is the biggest. It’s the easiest way down.”

“The easiest way?”

I nodded, not that there is an easy way down Avalanche Basin, I pointed out. But of all the options, this one right here was the least risky.

He nodded and zipped up his jacket. I could see him doing the risk/reward calculus in his mind. He must have also considered his options. At this point, there weren’t many. It was too late to hike back out. To go any further would only mean he’d surely be riding out in the dark. It was now or never.

He was the last to drop in, and he carved a broad but respectable turn across the top of the chute. The snow rippled around his knees and sprayed onto his torso. It was a good thing he zipped up that jacket. I heard several whoops and hollers and continued my hike to the top of the King, glad I’d put fresh batteries in my headlamp.

Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks. These are the good days, the lucky days, the days when six friends can end their day with one last run in Southback. But other times the risks are too high, and we hope we’ve built the judgment to know the difference. On those days, we back off. We stand further away from the cornice, we choose a safe line down. We exercise our judgment, which is the single-most important tool in the mountains.

A few minutes later, I stood on top of the King and attached my headlamp to my helmet. The gray light was fading fast. I hollered one last time into Silver Basin, “closing!” and listened to the wind. I was the only one out here. Everyone else had gone home. After a minute, I dropped in and glided home too.

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday


Forrest breaking trail on the Throne

As predicted yesterday was “The Day” to call in sick and go skiing. It was by far our deepest snowfall to date this season at Crystal, and it finished with several inches of very light powder. While it wasn’t all blower (the high southerly wind from the night before stripped the Frontside and Grubstake) it was pretty darn close.

After completing two avalanche control routes (Throne, which was deep and Brand X, which was deeper), I stood by to open gates at Northway. While familiar faces stomped their skis and listened quietly as I reminded them all to “keep their partners in sight”, I enjoyed the 10 minutes of banter. It is not very often that a ski patroller has the attention of such a large crowd.

It reminded me of two things that I love about Crystal:

  1. The locals: We have some of the most dedicated group of skiers here. Considering that the closest city with real employment is 1.5 hours away, it’s amazing to see people drive 3+ hours every day just to ski here. Perhaps since many of our locals once owned shares in the company we’re blessed with skiers and riders that take ownership in the place. I like that.
  2. The compartmentalization: With both Northway and Southback, we can stagger the opening of our inbounds terrain. This means you can ski powder all day long. If you don’t make first chair so you can rip the Frontside to the envy of all the latecomers you can still be first in line at one of the Northway gates and get first tracks. Some days you can even do the same out South. If you’re lucky you can find yourself at the top of an untracked run on a pristine powder day, not once but twice or even three times. And that my friends is the closest thing to heaven you will ever find. Trust me on this.

Just one tiny little reminder. When you are standing at a gate and a patroller opens it so you can ski that beautiful pristine line while she coils the rope, please don’t stampede her or run over her skis or push her down. Remember, on powder days your true nature comes out. It’s easy to be Mr. Nice Guy on a groomer day.

As an example, here’s a hearty shout out to Joel Hammond. As I rushed to open Gate 10 at Northway yesterday, he told me to wait so he could give me a hug first. Now that’s a gentlemen. High-five Joel. I hope your run in Orgasm Meadows lived up to its name.


Weekly High-Five Report: Random Acts of Kindness on the King


Topping out on the King

At the start of every season, we patrollers carry emergency equipment to the top of the King (Crystal’s Southback peak), tie it to a tree and hope no one ever needs it. The toboggan is propped on its end in plain view, along with a backboard, sled pack and several probe poles as a constant reminder that this is dangerous business out here. While Southback isn’t true backcountry, much of the adjacent terrain is, and when rescue is possible, it could be long and even costly.

Last weekend was busy for ski patrollers, and the King’s toboggan got more use in one weekend than it normally does in an entire season. The weekend started with a backside rescue in Crystal Lake’s Basin, when a skier didn’t arrive home that evening. Several patrollers scoured the boundary that night, finally finding the missing and injured skier early Saturday morning far off the backside of the ski area. The sled at the top of the King was used to bring him out the heavily-treed drainage to the closed highway below.

It takes a village

The weather and wind didn’t allow us to bring the toboggan back up on Saturday. Only an hour after South had reopened Sunday morning, even before we’d had the chance to hike all that equipment back to the top, we received a cell phone call–a skier was injured on the North side of the King, and the only way to get to her was up and over.

Seven of us headed towards the King, each carrying a piece of the bulky and heavy equipment, listening for radio updates from the first patroller on the scene. Two patrollers battled with the toboggan, each carrying a part of it up the 1st and 2nd steps of the hike. In order to be more efficient, patroller Paul left his skis beside the trail, figuring he’d come back for them once the sled reached the top.

At one point on the hike, with a mental clock ticking in my head, wondering about the condition of our patient, a skier looked at Shannon and I with–dare I say it–a look of awe. He said he was impressed by how quickly we were getting the equipment out there. I nodded and continued on.

I suspect it is to this man that my weekly high-five goes to. Because someone, I’m not sure who, picked up Paul’s pair of skis and carried them to the top of the King. When Paul arrived at the top with the toboggan, his skis did as well, and he was able to bring the sled to the injured skier more quickly.

Shannon posted a note on Facebook, applauding the “unknown skier”:

Yesterday’s serious injury on the North side of the king required at least 7 patrollers to hike from chair 6 and arrive on scene with backboard, oxygen, belay equipment and a sled. The two patrollers with the sled, in their haste, left a pair of skis at the base of the hike to be retrieved after the sled made it to the summit…
Cheers to the unknown skier that pitched in and hiked those skis to the summit for us. That’s why we all love Crystal.

So here’s a shout-out to the “unknown skier” that helped out on Sunday. Bravo man. Thanks for pitching in. So, if you want to be like the unknown skier and start spreading kindness around, please do. Then the whole world would be a better place.

Oh, and later that day, the toboggan made it back to the top of the King, thanks to patroller Rich. Let’s hope it stays there.

Southback: Run of the Day


Go South

It's worth the hike

Yesterday Southback was the run of the day–smooth and fast. I took a few laps out there and plan to take a few more today. There are still plenty of lines out there. While today might be busy inbounds, I suggest taking the walk to get to the goods. You’ll be glad you did.

Avalanche Control–What a Day!


Yesterday I did two avalanche control routes with my good friend Anna. Due to the high winds and heavy snow of the previous day, the mountain was blown flat–rendered smooth and filled in. I love those kind of days when the mountain feels pristine and clean as if never touched by skis or boards.

But wind slabs are dangerous too.

Debris from the slides we started piled up high below Horseshoe cliffs. A shot placed in just the right spot can penetrate a weak spot and yank free an avalanche. Other teams got big results too. But then other shots did nothing.

In Southback, my first shot on the southeast side of the King pulled out an 8 incher that spread through the lower bench–not a bad result. But when the debris settled, Anna and I realized the pile of debris at the bottom was much too large. We later realized why.

When it barreled through the steeper section below the bench midway down, the weight of the avalanche broke lose a deeper layer–perhaps 2 feet lower, creating a much bigger, much deadlier avalanche.

The team on the north side of the King had a similar result above Elizabeth lake. Perhaps we have a buried surface hoar layer weakening our lower snowpack.

Looking out past ThreeWay in Southback, I also noticed signs of natural avalanches all the way from Joe’s Badass Shoulder, past Speed Control and Rooster Head towards Dogleg. From a distance, it’s hard to tell, but I saw what could have been a six-foot crown.

We finally opened Southback at 3pm, and in just 30 minutes of being open, our reliable skiers came to track it up and help stabilize the slope. Thanks to all those that kept the faith, didn’t leave early, waited at the gate off of Chair 6 and were rewarded with the deep promise of a pristine line all to themselves. I even saw Ross Gregg, Dirtbag King, enjoying some fresh turns.

All in all, an amazing day on the mountain!

Avalanche Control


This morning started off with an avalanche control mission into the Southback at Crystal Mountain. Oh, what a morning it was! About twenty inches of new snow had fallen since last open, and the freshies were deep and glorious. What’s more my stepson, Andrew, joined me for his first ever A.C. route. He couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

Hiking the King first thing in the morning, the wind and snow freezing my chin, invigorates me like nothing else. I like to think of it as my “happy place”, where hard work and pristine beauty mix with the raw power of explosives and nature’s terrifying strength.

After the past few weeks of warm weather, the cold forgiveness of snow brought a grateful joy to me today.

That and my new skis–the Rossignol S7s. These skis float through the untracked, pound through the crud and whisper in the four inches of fluff that fell this afternoon. And besides that, the graphics are pretty awesome too. Thanks Tim Petrick for these beautiful new tools.

Bluebird Day at Crystal


This morning while walking up to the base of Crystal from my house, kicking my boots through 6 inches of fresh snow, I looked up to notice the stars. I was amazed. Up early for avalanche control in Southback, I knew it would be a good day. Fresh snow and clear skies mean only one thing: bluebird.

I arrived at the patrol room in the dark, peered in through the window to see Chris talking to the forecasters at NWAC.

Teams headed up Chair 6 first thing in the morning while the sun rose behind us.

Casting the snow in a brilliant orange, we punched our shots at the top while the sun rose above the clouds.




Several teams hiked up the throne and out to the King. Shannon and I worked on Silver Basin, starting at the top of the King and working to Three Way. The chutes were smooth and filled with beautiful snow. Even the cornices weren’t too built up, letting us enjoy the towering views of Rainier to the west and the undulating light on the snow. It was glorious.

Yes, today was bluebird–fresh snow, blue skies, the sun warming my face as I rode up the chair.

Days like this make you want to soar. I suppose I’m not the only one who feels like flying.

Here We Go


Giddy.  Happy.  Blessed.  Sometimes the weather gods shine on us.  I love the promise of new snow.  I love opening my front door, checking the snow stake I set out the day before and seeing 8 new inches of fluffy, light snow. Even after a week of winds that scoured the upper mountain and kept the lifts from running, still a storm can make me vibrate with pleasure.

This morning I am up early, headed out for avalanche control in Southback.  The winds are finally calm, the temperature has dropped, and the snow is falling straight down in delicate, cold flakes.

I will hike to the top of the King, my favorite place at Crystal.  We will break trail through wind-hardened snow, carrying our heavy explosives in our backpacks.

Overlooking Crystal Mountain just to the North, the King reigns over the Southback. It’s steep north face, the backdrop for freeride contests and ski movies, fills in with snow, making tight chutes skiable and timid girls heroic.  

I spread the ashes of Rocket, my late avalanche dog, on the top of the King.

It is a sacred place.

The weather forecast is calling for cold, snowy days this week.  It should snow all day today, picking up another foot of snow by tomorrow morning. Monday night into Tuesday looks like another good one.  I have Tuesday off, so I’ll be out there, ducking my chin into my collar and seeking out the fresh lines, each time the new snow filling in my old tracks like a trusted friend.