Keeping a ski resort free of inbound avalanches is all about prevention
It’s early. As in, the sun hasn’t even thought about rising for the day. But if there was any snowfall last night, the safety team at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is already at the office deciding what to do. Their office? All 3400 acres of puff that can go poof. The last thing the team wants to see is a cornice crumble and sweep down the slope potentially endangering the lives they are protecting.
Steve Crowe, one of the members of the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort safety team knows firsthand that being caught in an avalanche is unpleasant. He was caught in two on the same morning. But here is the difference between Crowe and the rest of us. He is highly skilled, is prepared with all the avi gear he needs and knew what he was doing.
“It was early season conditions and we were assessing the stability of the snow, trying to weaken the snow load. I was anticipating the slope to slide so I was prepared and was able to stay safe,” said Crowe. “When we ski cut, we always work in pairs. One person will quickly cut across a small slope from a safe spot to another safe spot testing the movement while the other patroller stays out of the zone but watches. Usually, we feel the snow move and can move away quickly. On both of these avalanches, because of my training, I was able to stay above the snow. If I thought I was in any danger, I would not have gone onto the slope.”
The safety team includes the mountain manager, the avalanche forecaster, the mountain safety team lead and a whole bunch of patrollers with specific roles. Each bowl from Super Bowl all the way over to the newly opened Rudi’s Bowl has an avalanche technician monitoring the bowl all day, reporting back to the avalanche forecaster.
“There are two places on the ‘It’s a Ten’ road that have to be maintained for avalanche control each day. The knob right at the top where almost everyone heading towards Crystal Bowl uses and a corner called G7 at the egress of skiers using Feuz Bowl further down. Those spots have to be clear for snowmobiles and groomers,” says Crowe. A normal day starts at 7:30 but if there was snow overnight, a crew shows up at 6:30 so they have plenty of time to push off the excess snow and set off the bombs.
Lobbing bombs for a living can be cool
Ah yes, the bombs. Crowe admits there is an adrenalin rush working with explosives.
“Throwing the bomb is pretty thrilling. It’s quite the adrenalin rush – especially when you have a result. You are torn though. You want to make the slope safe, but you are also taking off some pretty great snow.”
An avalanche is trigged in a few different ways by the team. Usually, they throw 1 or 2 kg bombs onto start zones, but for the road control a tripod is set up There is a small detonator with a meter-long fuse on it. That is lit by an igniter giving the team at least 2 and a half minutes to get clear of the area. The air blast caused by the explosion will hopefully release the snow. If there has been a heap of snowfall overnight, a helicopter from Golden is called in. “Big snow days we bring in the helicopter to hit a lot of areas quickly and get the terrain open. A helicopter can do in 20 minutes what a crew would do in a day. But if there is no visibility, we still have to send the team out,” says Crowe. There are guns aimed at closed areas and wires hung across some slopes that are used to send explosives further down the slope before they ignite.
The terrain is opened in a sequence that caters to the most people first so that’s Crystal Bowl, Bowl Over and CPR Ridge. The avalanche control will move out from those prime locations trying to avoid pockets of closures.
Crowe says they take care of the macro avalanches. The smaller pockets that could sluff are in chutes and slopes where people using it are usually capable of riding out a small avalanche.
“”People get mad when we are slow to open terrain, but we have to think of everyone’s safety. Yes, we are overly cautious – but we have to be. We put up as much rope with tons of signs as possible which either delineates the end of the resort property or a closure. If people duck under our boundary ropes to go out of the resort area, that’s fine, hopefully they are prepared. But inbounds, a rope with signage means a slope or run is closed. If people choose to duck under those ropes (they are called poachers by the patrollers) they know the slope is shut for a reason. We can’t protect people who don’t respect our efforts,” says Crowe. “If poachers are caught, we have zero-tolerance. If they have a season pass, it’s frozen for three weeks.”
Prevention is an all-day effort
Crowe says as the avalanche forecaster the day starts in the office creating the initial plan of attack, but the rest of the day is out looking for spots and assessing the potential for avalanches. He’ll dig snow pits and check the snow characteristics always asking, “Did the forecast match what is going on?” As much as they rely on data and education, gut feeling is also a major component and that comes with experience.
The forecaster can’t just think about how yesterday’s storm is affecting today. There are so many layers of snow under that last dump that add to the story. Crowe says they have to think about how the weather has impacted the other layers. If snow came down warm on a broken surface, it bonds. If the surface has melted and refrozen, it creates a crust that can contribute to a weak layer beneath the next snowfalls. It’s all about preventing that release from happening when the slope is open.
“The safest slope is the one skied the most. If you see a rope across a run with that sign saying the slope is closed, it’s for a better reason than saving freshies for the weekend.”
So, what can patrons at mountain resorts do to stay safe? Simple. At the ski resorts, ski between the lines and follow the rules. If a chute or a run or a ridge within the resort boundaries is marked closed for the day, the season or forever, it’s for good reason. If you don’t want to feel the confines of the fences, the backcountry is the perfect place to get fresh tracks. Take avalanche awareness courses, load up on all the avalanche gear you can find and then, get out there. But make sure you come home to tell the story.
Learn more about avalanche safety by checking out Avalanche Canada