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
Don’t stare at the Kicking Horse trail map for too long. The diamond glare might hurt your eyes as in 39 black diamonds to go with 60, yes 6-0, double-black runs. It’s no surprise the very same topography that defines this mountain provides what most consider the best backcountry fodder in the world. There’s really no other way to put it, the Horse’s badassedness resides in a corral all its own.
Like everyone I know who’s skied here I still vividly remember my first time. I was heading to the backcountry out of Golden for a few days so I figured I’d warm-up at Kicking Horse, ease my legs into my boots before tackling the challenging stuff deep in the Purcell Range. I hadn’t bothered to look at the trail map, figuring one interior B.C. ski area was pretty much like any other Powder Highway stop. After my first 4,000-plus foot vertical descent I suddenly felt like that kid who hadn’t bothered to study for a test only to enter class and discover it was the final exam. (Come to think of it I was that kid!)
My saving grace on the mountain was the justification that cutting down blue Sluiceway and Cloud Nine all day would preserve my lactic acid for what was to come. In other words, I had a ready to excuse take it easy. “Let’s stick to the bowls and gullies,” I suggested to my partner, an outstanding skier who doubles as a Seattle architect. “There’s no reason to pop onto the ridgelines given where we’re heading.”
He readily agreed.
I didn’t harbor the same excuse the next time I pulled into Golden and, truth be told (again!), my previous backcountry foray had paled in comparison to the “warm up” terrain anyway. On that day I’d peeked at all the chutes just below Eagle’s Eye Restaurant off CPR Ridge with a ready excuse to avoid them. Not so this trip. It was time to see what all the hype was about, the chatter about the regular Freeski IFSA Nationals held here and the 100+ diamond runs that glitter like the studs in David Beckham’s ears.
It may sound strange but CPR Ridge reminds me a little of the coral reef in Indonesia. Though individually named, the chutes are so abundant they’re just listed as 49-64 on the trail map. What recalls diving in Komodo National Park is their diversity, not simply this ladder or that gap. One could spend the day floating around down “Spurline,” “Iron Horse” or, my favorite, “Craigellachie” and never get bored.
The mundane does not actually exist anywhere at Kicking Horse, one of those rare resorts where you can ski every terrain type on a single run, an unanticipated virtue, at least by me, of skiing a hill top-to-bottom on a regular basis. I’d sum it up this way, to steal a cliché and turn a few stomachs: Kicking Horse is a little bit backcountry and a little bit rock and roll.
“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”
Words by Crai Bower
Photos by Felix Dallaire & Nick Nault
“You’re taking your kids to Kicking Horse to bike? That’s an aggressive hill…”
Those words rang in my ears as we headed west to Golden for a family trip to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. The kids, ages 1, 5, and 7 were buzzing with excitement. The parents were buzzing too – but with nerves. Our little boy had ridden lift-access trails only a couple of times, the girls were both too young to bike, and we hadn’t looked into whether or not our golden retriever was welcome. Great planning – I know.
When we pulled up to our campsite right on the hill, our breath was taken away. We couldn’t help but give in to the kid’s excitement with the sweeping mountain views. Within minutes, the kids discovered a park, beach volleyball court, frisbee golf and a pump track that got them grinning. The members of staff were all so friendly, giving directions and tips and even patting our vagabond pup. Things couldn’t have been better and we hadn’t yet gotten on a lift.
The five of us hopped on the high-speed quad chair to go see Boo the grizzly bear who’s lived at the sanctuary since his mom was poached as a cub. Between his enormous presence and the guide’s funny and informative lecture, we were enraptured. (The Steve Erwin-type experience was only enhanced with his Australian accent – the guide’s, not Boo’s.) The kids could hardly believe that we came so close to this huge grizzly, and I could hardly believe we were spending all this time together as a family even though only a couple of us were riding at a time. After the tour, our son chased us down the mountain on our bikes where we all met again to head up the gondola.
The views from the top were staggering, and we drank it in from the Eagle’s Eye restaurant. We enjoyed watching climbers on a via ferrata adventure before heading back out where the younger two scrambled at the top with their dad and our seven year old and I tore down the mountain. The green and blue runs were perfect for him the entire way down. Often, green runs at lift-access locations means cross country-like up and downs that would never be found at the top of the mountain and they can be a bit boring for downhill riders. Not so at Kicking Horse. Green runs meant appropriately steep single track with equal care put into the building and design as black diamond trails. Rolling wood features, little jumps and fun sweeping berms were characteristic of the easier runs. My husband and I loved taking turns biking with our oldest, while the other enjoyed endless activities with the younger two which often included all of us taking lift and gondola rides together and spending time exploring between biking. It was really hard narrowing down the best parts of our trip – so we asked the kids. The “pro list” got ridiculously lengthy, so I tried asking what they would change.
“Next time, let’s stay for fourteen days instead of four!” That summed it up perfectly.
Photos & Words by Chelsea Mackenzie Photography
The 7 Inches of Pleasure DJ tour, featuring Monster Energy artist roster headliners, will be doing a Western Canada swing early 2017.
No CD’s, no MP3’s, no Laptops, Just 45’s & good vibes. The night features some of North America’s most prolific record collectors and turntabilists including DJ Scratch from EPMD (Brooklyn, NY), MAT THE ALIEN (Nanaimo) & DJ ILLO (Ottawa).
The 7 inch vinyl record is the preferred audio delivery device from some of the best era’s in music history. Between the years of 1950 – 1975 it was the only physical way to manufacture some of the best songs ever created, and continues to be used to capture some of the most iconic and original tracks recorded today.
FREE SHUTTLES ALL NIGHT FROM ROCKWATER TO KHMR!
Snowy Image of the Week – December 13
As far as we remember, we’ve never seen T1, T2 & Whitewall all open at this time of the year, especially with knee deep powder.
Let’s admit it: This is the best opening KHMR has ever known. Cheers to an amazing season start… and to the good times ahead!
Photo captured on Saturday, December 13 at 3:00pm on Terminator 1.
The best deals of the winter season have just been released! Book now for winter and save up to 35% on your getaway. Packages available include The Weekender for shorter stays, The Midweek pack for the best deals, the new Ski Weeks packages (booking everything for you from air/car to lodging/lifts) and The Holiday Pack – already taking bookings for Christmas & New Years.
Freebies are included in some packages – view our Early Booking offers, all are available to be booked online. Give us a call at 1-800-258-7669 to book with a friendly vacation specialist over the phone or visit www.skircr.com/vacations to chat live with a specialist (during business hours).
We’ve already been hit with a few snowstorms, hopefully this foreshadows an awesome season to come! The below image was taken at Eagle’s Eye restaurant on September 2nd, 2015.
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