It’s been a fantastic week at Lake Louise, with a big storm dumping lots of fresh powder all over the mountain on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by two days of bluebird on Thursday and today (nothing like a couple of sunny days on the slopes to recharge the ol’ batteries, eh?). The cats did a great job of laying down a whole lot of corduroy last night, and carvers had these groomed runs all to themselves for most of the morning.
When the avalanche forecaster arrived at work this morning, the weather data from our Paradise top telemetry station reported about 12 hours of 30km winds or greater, starting right when the hill closed yesterday. Upon seeing this, his initial reaction was to expect significant wind-loading on lee slopes, since there was lots of fetch (snow available to be transported by wind) after the storm, and 30km winds, especially 12 hours of them, can move a lot of snow.
Since it was a clear morning, the forecaster grabbed his binoculars to see if he could see any signs of wind effect on the front side of Summit, which can be seen right from his desk. Contrary to what he expected, there were no signs at all of any scouring, which is the usual result when the wind comes from the southwest. That could mean a couple of things – either the cold temperatures immediately following the storm stiffened up the snow enough so that the wind couldn’t move it, or the winds were just low enough to hit our weather station, but none of the terrain. Once we got on the mountain, it was clear that it was the latter, since the new snow was still soft and would definitely have moved had the wind been low enough to do so.
On avalanche control, my partner and I headed to B and C Gullies of Whitehorn II, and when we unloaded the Summit lift we could see without even entering the run that the wind had only blown minimal amounts of snow, which had settled between the bumps that lie in the first 15 or 20 metres of the slope. Below that, there was no sign of wind-transported snow at all. The photo below shows the gate into Boomerang, and you can see the snow that was blown onto the cat track overnight, which isn’t much.
Once we were done in Whitehorn II, we went to join another team over at North Cornice, which had developed a bit of its namesake cornice from the wind that circles around from Bare Ass Pass and hits it from behind. As in other places, the loading was limited to the immediate lee part of the slope, so for the most part our mission was to knock the cornice down before it had a chance to grow too big and become a safety issue.
When controlling a cornice, the first team member will travel along the top of the ridge, kicking the cornice with their ski and trying to get it so that there is no overhang. The second patroller will travel behind the first and a metre or two below, ski cutting the slope that received the loading. Although it wasn’t in this case, kicking cornice can be a little frightening, since you hope that you’re not standing on the piece that decides to fall! If there’s any indication this might be the case, a patroller will travel along with the one doing the kicking, hanging on to them so they can pull them back if needed. The photos below show three patrollers as they move along North Cornice towards Lake Pitch, which is the eastern end of the feature and so named due to the little lake that lies in the flats below but hidden from view by ice and snow in the winter (click the link for Summer 07 to the right to see a photo of this area in the summer).
When we arrived at Lake Pitch, we could see pillow of wind-loaded snow that might be a concern, and while nothing we had seen so far this morning indicated it would be an issue, it was decided that to be sure we should use an explosive. When the snow is firm, like it was here, you need to tie the shot onto a length of cord and hang it over the cornice – otherwise you risk the shot bouncing on the surface and ending up at the bottom of the slope, where it is of little use. In the first photo below, you can barely see the shot hanging in place (though you may need to click on the photo for a lrger version to see better).
As you can see in the last photo above, only the top 5cm or so of snow reacted to the bomb, and we were satisfied that Boomerang, Brownshirt, and North Cornice were good to open. As we made our way back to Paradise chair, we watched two other control teams put some more ski cuts into Upper ER 5, which is slowly but surely getting closer to being open. Not yet, but we`re hoping soon!
The latest storm has come to an end, and Lake Louise ended up with around 30cm of powder that was nice and light, thanks to both the lack of wind and the -25C mountain-top temperatures. The cold also made the snow incredibly sticky, making travel on flatter areas more of an effort. The hard pre-storm snow surface was still evident in some places, but as more traffic packs the new snow into a soft base, it should set things up nicely for the next system to come through – currently forecasted to reach us after the weekend. Things are also supposed to warm up right away, with clear skies expected on Friday.
Enjoy the great conditions, and for those attending the 5th annual Red & White Ball in Banff tonight, we’ll see you there!
Went out to my car this morning in Banff to find that a huge cornice had developed off the back edge of the roof from all the wind last night, making me wonder a) how much fun the drive to Lake Louise was going to be, and b) how much fun avalanche control was going to be this morning, since wind always contributes to elevated avalanche hazard when accompanying new snow, making things a little more exciting.
The drive was certainly interesting, with ten or so trucks and a few cars in the ditch and whiteout conditions. I made it, thankfully, as did our avalanche forecaster, and now starts the task of getting the mountain open for the day. When we arrived at 0700, it was still snowing hard, as the following photos show (compare the photo of the quad to the similar shot in yesterday’s post):
We’ve received well over 20cm since the storm started, with still more forecasted to fall. Despite the windy overnight conditions in Banff, it was a different story in Lake Louise with not much wind of note overnight and currently calm conditions at mountain top. This means that we’re likely going to find a whole lot of blower powder all over the mountain, especially since current mountaintop temperatures are around -24C with no wind chill.
So, dress warmly, drive carefully, enjoy the long-awaited powder conditions, and I’ll provide updates once the morning’s avalanche control work is done.
It’s always nice when forecasts for snow play out as they say they will, and, as of 12:00 Tuesday, with over 10cm on the ground since Monday night and more on the way, things are looking to take a turn for the better for skiers at Lake Louise.
I’ll try to post updates on this storm both at the start and end of each day that it’s happening, along with pictures, which are always great for providing a true glimpse of the situation. Let’s start off with another of my ‘unofficial’ snow measurement stations – the quad parked outside the Mountain Operations building at the base area:
Our excitement at the end of last week at the weather forecasts were calling for snow early this week seems not to have been in haste, as confidence is high that Lake Louise is about to get their first significant snowfall since the big storm in early January. Various forecasts are calling for 20-35cm of new snow, starting later today (Monday) and going through to Wednesday.
Along with all the excitement, there is some curiosity as to how this new snow will stick to the current snow surface, since with little snowfall over the last six weeks or so, it has become quite packed and, in some places, smooth. This could be a concern in steeper terrain, since the new snow won’t have much to hang on to and may react fully to avalanche control efforts. Of course, whether this happens remains to be seen, since things like temperature and wind have a way of playing with our expectations. In the end, there will be lots of good skiing to be found, it’s just a question of where. I’ll be posting updates as things progress over the next few days.
One benefit of new snow that usually escapes the notice of most skiers is how it can be worked into the man-made snow that exists on runs with snowmaking. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that man-made snow is more dense and has more moisture than natural snow, contributing to a harder and sometimes icier snow surface (the melt/freeze cycles we’ve had also contribute to this). When new snow falls on top of man-made snow, the groomers jump at the chance to mix the two together and get a better skiing surface. A snow cat will travel on a run with its front blade down, stripping the top few centimetres of man-made snow and mixing it with the new. The tiller and flaps on the rear “whale tail” then mix it further and produce the corduroy surface that carving skiers love so much. Care must be taken, however, since working the new snow too much by snow cat can break the crystals into smaller particles which pack more densely and have less air around them, defeating the purpose of mixing the two. There’s a fine line between working the snow too much and not enough, but when it’s done properly, the result can be a huge improvement in the skiing surface.
Another thing to consider when grooming a run, particularly with soft snow, is that it takes a few hours for the recently tilled snow to firm up enough so that it doesn’t get destroyed by the first few skiers. If you ski on corduroy immediately after it was laid down, you’ll leave deep ruts that will quickly mar the surface. After six hours, however, the snow has firmed up enough to prevent the deep rutting and still provide a very “carvable” surface. With this in mind, the runs that get the most traffic will see grooming first, so that they have all night to set and be ready for the following day.
You may remember a few years ago that Cameron’s Way would get closed daily around lunch time for its regular mid-day groom. We wanted to provide skiers with the chance to ride fresh corduroy in the afternoon. One of the problems we ran into when doing this was that the run had no chance to set, since we’d open it immediately after the cats were done, and the soft surface couldn’t stand up to the traffic.
For now, keep your eyes on the forecast, and be ready to enjoy some fresh powder at the Lake. Also, don’t ignore the forecasted temperatures, since they’re supposed to drop over the next few days as well. Stay tuned for updates as things happen.
At the risk of getting excited too early, click on the two Lake Louise weather links on the right to see what both are saying (I always use the 2636m elevation for snow-forecast.com). Keep your fingers (and skis) crossed!
Well, after probably getting a few people excited about the imminent opening of new terrain in Whitehorn II, I’m afraid I have to deliver a bit of a blow to those with ‘H’ Gully dreams. After a series of discussions on the matter, the plan for Whitehorn II has changed, and it will likely be a little longer before ‘H’ Gully and environs see their first skiing guest.
The main reason for this backtrack is that a lot of intensive control work is needed to get the terrain adjacent to ‘H’ ready to open, and this would be very difficult to accomplish in a safe and timely manner if there was open terrain immediately next to the slope being worked. Also, with the way the snowpack has been behaving this winter, the avalanche forecaster wants to ensure that every square metre of the terrain receives traffic and gets its snow packed onto the slope. And finally, we realised that opening such a large piece of terrain bit by little bit is not an efficient way to go with this year’s snowpack. Every time terrain is opened, we must ensure all avalanche closures and ski area boundaries, if applicable, are in place and signed accordingly. This can be very time-consuming, and constant changes to what is open or closed means the patrollers are spending a lot of time worrying about setting fences up when they could be making faster progress on control work and getting more terrain open.
On the bright side, stability overall continues to improve, which is a trend that bodes well for expanding the list of open runs at the Lake. The recent sunny weather has made skiing quite pleasant, even though soft snow is getting harder to find (but not impossible). North-facing slopes are generally softer, since they are less affected by the daily melt/freeze action that is more prevalent on south-facing slopes during warmer weather.
Weather events since the New Year have conspired to create improved stability in the snowpack at Lake Louise recently, and as things trend from fair to good, there are a few pieces of terrain that should have their gates open for the first time this season if this trend continues.
Closest to being ready is H Gully of Whitehorn II, which has received intense control work in the last little while with lots of bombs and patroller traffic putting the slope to the test. The bombs are always used first to gain confidence before venturing onto the slope, and the patrollers will go (or not) depending on what happens. Once the avalanche forecaster is satisfied with the stability, closure fences need to be set up along both sides of the entire run, as it slices through the middle of closed terrain.
It’s not that common for one the Whitehorn II gullies to stand alone as an open run, other than ‘A’, which usually opens first. The others then open in succession from skier’s right to left as conditions and control work permit. The nutty weather we’ve seen since opening (long cold snaps, huge dump, hot temperatures, and extreme winds) has meant that only ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’ have opened so far. None of the next four have enough snow in them to be skiable.
The final step in opening ‘H’ Gully is not avalanche-related, and involves getting a snow cat up to the top to push in an entrance, as currently you need to take off your skis and walk about 15 metres to get to the top of the gully. The cat track traverse from the top of the Summit Platter has only been in place for a few weeks; otherwise, pushing the entrance to ‘H’ Gully would not be possible. The photo below is an aerial shot of the Windy Gap area, which you pass through on your way to Boomerang. There is less snow currently than in the photo, and the bottom three snow fences have been removed in order to allow the snow cat room to build the ‘H’ Gully entrance.
Building the traverse by cat is tricky, as you need a lot of snow to build a level road across a steep slope. That snow can be found right uphill of the lift shack in the form of the huge drift that forms and runs up to the true peak of Mt. Whitehorn. The cat pushes that drift one bladeful at a time and inches its way across the slope. Snow pushed around by or driven on by a cat will stiffen and become supportive, but it takes awhile. Building a road across a steep slope means lots of snow is needed on the downhill side, and it may or may not support the weight of the cat as it drives over – it depends on the temperature and the condition of the snow. One year, the road collapsed as it was being built, and the cat slid down slope about 30m into the little bowl above ‘D’ and ‘E’ Gullies, and had a bit of a rough time climbing back out.
Another area getting a little closer to opening is Upper E.R. 5, but it’s still at least another 50cm of new snow away from being ready. In particular, the narrow chokes through the cliffs that divide Upper and Lower E.R. 5 have had the hardest time keeping snow and are in the most need. A lot of avalanche control takes place on the upper slopes, and no matter where the results, the avalanching snow always gets funneled through the chokes, stripping them of their snow. This past week, the avalanche control team installed a short piece of orange plastic fence in the middle choke, hoping to catch some of the sliding snow. Looking up now, it does look like there’s a bit of snow there, but it’s so shallow and unsupportive that it wouldn’t survive past the first ten skiers through there.
While we’re hoping for another storm to roll through, there’s still great skiing to be had in the alpine. Dribs and drabs of snow over the past few weeks have softened already smooth runs on the backside, particularly in places like Whitehorn I and Hourglass. Regular Lake Louise skiers already know that it doesn’t take much snow to change the game…
At the start of this season, the avalanche control team at Lake Louise was joined by Tim Ricci, an experienced patroller who had previously worked on the snow safety teams at Marmot Basin near Jasper and Mt. Norquay in Banff. Along with his experience, Tim also brought his dog Cholo, and the two of them were on their way to becoming a certified avalanche rescue team with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Cholo is a purebred yellow lab, weighs about 35kg, and is about two-and-a-half years old.
Tim and Cholo had started on this path when Cholo was a six-month-old puppy, and two years later, on February 2 of this year, they passed their final exam to lose their “team in training” status and become fully validated with CARDA. There are only thirty or so validated teams in Canada, with most in B.C., a few in Alberta, and one in the Yukon. Becoming an avalanche dog handler is a decision that is usually made before a puppy is acquired, since breed and temperament are important factors to consider when choosing a pup. There’s more info on dog selection at the CARDA website: http://www.carda.bc.ca/education/
Even though Tim and Cholo are now a validated team, it doesn’t mean the training has come to an end, and when things are a little slower in the avalanche control world, there is opportunity to continue to develop the skills of both dog and handler. Yesterday was one of those days at Lake Louise, so we went about setting up a scenario in which the dog would have to find two buried “victims”. Using live people in scenarios (rather than just a scented article of clothing) is better, since it more closely mimics the real thing, and it also allows the “victim”, once rescued, to reward the dog with play and enthusiastic encouragement, all of which reinforce the search drive in the dog.
Two holes were dug around the bottom of East Bowl (ER 1) – one a shallow ditch, and the other a small cave. In the ditch, a patroller lay down on her stomach, leaving an air pocket around her face and a radio in her hand, and the snow was shovelled in on top of her. I went into the small cave, which was just large enough to allow some movement and the taking of some photos, and it then had its narrow entrance covered and smoothed over on top.
We both had with us articles of clothing that had been scented (don’t ask) to help the dog and to use as a play toy once the dog had located us. Once we were in place, the dog was brought to the scene and a search commenced. The buried patroller was lower on the slope and therefore closer to the dog, which picked up her scent quite quickly and went right to the burial spot. Once the dog started to dig in the snow, other patrollers (the rescue team) took it as their cue to dig as well, and the patroller was re-introduced to daylight in a matter of seconds.
Once she was uncovered, Cholo continued the search, and picked up my scent about thirty feet or so from where I was in my little cave. I had my camera in one hand, and the scented article in the other, ready to reward Cholo when he found me. The snow blocking the cave entrance began to fall in, and suddenly Cholo’s head peered in. Once he saw me, he began to dig like crazy and eventually ended up in the cave with me, making things even more cozy, and trying to drag me out of the hole. I crawled out of the hole while playing with Cholo, and once back on top let him drag me down the slope.
The reward for a good search is critical. Tim instructed us to be over the top and act like idiots when praising Cholo, with the idea being that there is no greater moment in the dog’s life than when he finds a buried victim. He said that if we didn’t make other people turn and stare with our praise, then we weren’t being idiotic enough! There’s little question that as a handler you want your search dog to be very enthusiastic when it comes to finding people buried in the snow. In fact, I remember a search scenario that occurred in Brownshirt a number of years ago that involved both the Lake Louise patrol as well as the parks service and their dog team. The dog was in training, and when it uncovered the dummy we had used as a buried victim, the dog was so into it he ripped the head and arms clean off the dummy’s body.
Today marks the one month anniversary of “the storm” – over 50cm of snow in three days. I figured it’d be a good time to finally post some photos from the heli-bombing mission that took place on the morning of January 9. As it turned out, there were three boxes of bombs, and with four people already in the helicopter, I had to give up my seat to one of the boxes. Along with the pilot, there was one patroller lighting the bombs, another throwing them out the door, and a third up front recording the placement and result of each on a shot sheet. The whole thing took about twenty minutes, and results were many, as was clear to anyone skiing the Lake in the few days following.
I always love the way aerial photos show terrain in a whole new light, showing an angle that you just couldn’t get otherwise. The photos below were taken by two of the patrollers on the flight.