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 Crow, one of the members of the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort safety team knows first hand that being caught in an avalanche is unpleasant. He was caught in two on the same morning. But here is the difference between Crow 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 Crow. “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 have 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 Crow. 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. Crow admits there is an adrenalin rush working with explosives.
“Throwing the bomb is pretty thrilling. Its 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 a tripod is set up holding a 12.5 kg bag of explosives about a metre off the ground. There is small detonator with a metre-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 snow fall over night, 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 Crow. 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.
Crow 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 (poachers) to go out of the resort area, that’s fine, hopefully they are prepared. But inbounds a rope with signage means a slope is closed. If people chose to duck under they know the slope is shut for a reason. We can’t protect people who don’t respect our efforts,” says Crow. “If poachers are caught, we have zero tolerance. They are escorted out. If they have a season pass, it’s frozen for three weeks.”
Prevention is an all-day effort
Crow 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. Crow 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 froze, and fresh snow lands, there is a slippery slope waiting to release. Its all about preventing that release from happening when the slope is open.
“The safest slope is the one skied the most. Some people think we save the snow for ourselves or for the crowds on the weekends but that’s not the case. If you see a rope across a run with that sign saying the slope is closed, its 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. For back-country excitement, take an avalanche awareness course, load up on all the avalanche gear you can find and get out there. The back-country is the perfect place to get those fresh tracks – not in the out-of-bounds areas of a ski resort.
Learn more about avalanche safety by checking out Avalanche Canada