It was one year ago today that I posted the first article on the Lake Louise Lowdown, created to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the operation of the Lake Louise Ski Area. Up until now, January of 2009 was the busiest month for blog visits. This October, however, has blown January out of the water, with over 13,000 hits this month alone. At the same time I suppose it’s no surprise that many people are as excited as I am for the start of the season.
It has just started to snow lightly in Lake Louise this morning, and the forecasts are calling for steady snow throughout the week. Temperatures are also dropping, which means the snowmaking system can run at or close to capacity all day long, without daytime temperatures warming enough to interrupt.
On the upper mountain, large drifts are forming around our snow fences, some up to four or five feet high. Natural snow depths vary wildly, mostly because our terrain varies wildly as well. Our avalanche forecaster has noted that we’re about 20-30cm of snow away from being able to travel on skis, although there are likely some places where this is already possible. Places like Boomerang, for example, which are flat with few surface features can be skied earlier than those places, like Whitehorn I, which are more bouldery and require much more snow and wind to make a viable ski run.
In the photo below, a snowmaker performs the tried-and-true sleeve test, which is a good indicator of the quality of snow being produced by the gun. The snowmaker stands in the snow “fallout” zone and holds out his arm. If the snow crystals bounce off the sleeve, they’re dry. If they stick, they’re wet, and the snowmaker will adjust the air/water mixture to achieve the desired result.
With higher clouds this morning it was easier than it’s been in days to see the upper mountain of Lake Louise from the base area, and even from that far away it’s easy to see that the snow fences in places like Flight Chutes and on the front side of Summit are starting to do their work. Large drifts are visible, and the Trail Crew has begun compacting the snow in these drifts as they travel around the mountain each day. Compacting the snow helps it stay in place and prevents it from blowing away. Compact snow also means a better base, which results in staff and eventually snow cats being able to travel in these areas.
In the photos below, you can see the drifting that has occurred along the fence lines. Once the drifts reach their maximum height, the fences are untied, the steel is removed from the ground, and the fence gets re-tied on the next row of steel over, although in some places there’s only one line of steel, so those fences tend to stay in place longer.
With ten days to go before the scheduled opening day of Lake Louise’s 2009-10 season, the mountain is humming with activity as all departments prepare for the big day. The snowmaking crew, working for a few weeks now, are getting more hours under their belts as temperatures continue to cool and the snow guns see more action. As I pass through the construction area on the highway east of Lake Louise early each morning, I can see the lights that dot the mountain, each one attached to an electric fan gun. If the light is on, the gun is blowing snow, and more lights means more snow.
There isn’t enough snow on the mountain yet to begin run preparation, but snow is in the forecast through the coming week, and things will keep getting better. There’s still lots to do at the base, as the momentum builds and new staff arrive daily. The trail crew has tied most of their fence to the steel rails pounded into the ground back in September, and the long fence lines are clearly visible from the village of Lake Louise.
Among the new arrivals in town are the members of the Ski Patrol, who have come from all over and begin their training tomorrow (Wed) and goes for seven days. Lift evacuation practice is the main focus, along with orientation sessions about all areas of the department and the resort. There is some first aid training as well, but since all patrollers already have an advanced first aid ticket, the focus is on essential skills. The same is true of their skiing – they have already passed a ski test or have previous patrol experience, so there is little on-hill training up until opening day.
Lift evacuation gets a lot of attention during training because the methods vary according to lift type. For chairlifts, the method depends on whether the chairs are fixed-grip or detachable. Different approaches are required to move the evacuation set-up from one chair to the next, as the grip on a detachable chair is much bulkier and will not allow the rope to pass over. Gondola evacuation is another story, with patrollers required to visit each cabin on the line, either by travelling down the haul cable Bond-style on a harness/roller device, or by ascending a rope directly to the cabin. To get the rope up and over the haul line (which can be 20 or more metres above the ground), a device called a line launcher is used.
Looking like a toy gun, the launcher uses a foam projectile to pull a thin pilot line over the cable, which is then used to pull the thicker and heavier evacuation rope up and over. The launcher uses a blank .22 cartridge to propel the foam and string. The other method, travelling down the line on a roller, requires a team of two to ascend the lift tower uphill of the cabin to be evacuated. One patroller rolls down the line, while the other belays from the tower. It’s exciting stuff, but complicated and physically demanding, too.
Don’t forget to check the weather forecasts linked to on the right of the page, particularly Lake Louise and Lake Louise Snow Forecast. They say different things, but they both say snow. For the snow forecast, the link now takes you directly to the page for the upper mountain (2636m). Scroll down a bit and look for the red numbers.
After watching it rain most of the night in Banff last night, I wondered if it was cold enough in Lake Louise for that rain to be snow. When I arrived in Lake Louise this morning, it was still dark, and was therefore unable to see the upper mountain. It was raining and about 2C at the base.
I then checked my e-mail to view the morning report from our remote weather station on Pika, above the base of Paradise chair. It said we had received around 4cm overnight, and that the temperatures had only just fallen below freezing. I assumed then that only part of the precipitation falling at Pika fell as snow, and since we have a lot of mountain above that spot, was hopeful that there was more new snow higher up.
It wasn’t until after lunch that I got my confirmation, since clouds obscured the view of most of the mountain all morning. A snowmaking supervisor drove a quad up to the top of the Grizzly Gondola, and was able to snap a few quick pictures. He estimated about 8cm of new snow had fallen overnight at that spot, with more likely higher up and on leeward slopes.
Enough to open? No.
Enough to get excited? You bet.
As I mentioned in the previous post, there are a number of conditions that must be met before we begin our snowmaking for the season. One of those conditions has now been met with the passing of October 15th – the traditional start to our snowmaking season.
Why then, you might ask, is there still no man-made snow on the mountain? That’s due to the fact that another condition of our permit – the flow level of the Pipestone River – has not been met. The Lake Louise Ski Area draws all of its water from the river, and for the snowmaking system to kick in, it must be flowing at 90% of its normal flow for that date. With a drier-than-normal August and September, there was less moisture than normal to end up in local rivers and streams. Then, with the well-below-freezing temps of the last few weeks, any available moisture was frozen in place, leaving even less.
Speaking about temperatures, that was the one necessary condition that was in place for snowmaking to start – it was cold enough to make snow. Not only that, temperatures stayed close to optimal for snowmaking, about -15C. Now that we’ve emerged from that early cold snap, we can continue hoping for wamer temps or wetter weather, or both. Today at Lake Louise, we have both, as there has been a steady rain falling all day in temperatures warm enough to begin to melt some of the snow that’s fallen in recent weeks.
Of course, nobody likes to hear about melting snow so close to opening day, but when you work in the ski industry, optimism is always welcome, and here’s my rosy take on the next few weeks. First, rain means more water in the river, which means snowmaking. Second, warm temps mean more melting, which also means more water in the river. Once the river gets back to normal levels, colder temps are inevitable, and our up-to-now silent snow guns can waken and do what they do best.
There are other benefits to our warm and rainy weather that have little to do with making snow. We’ve already had a few snow events this fall, meaning most places on the upper mountain have at least some snow, generally ranging from one or two cm’s to thirty or forty. Early snowfall isn’t a bad thing in itself, but the right things need to happen after to ensure those first layers of snow don’t deteriorate and come to haunt us for the rest of the season. In short, it needs to keep snowing regularly (even little bits are okay) and get colder gradually and not too severely. That didn’t happen obviously, and not only did it stop snowing, but the mercury dropped to new lows for this time of year, and the happiness over the early snowfall turned to concern that it wouldn’t survive this bout of Arctic weather.
Now, however, warm temps and rain are likely settling things out, and if all goes well, we may have an excellent base on our hands for the winter. At the same time, if the upper-mountain snowpack becomes too wet, it’s more likely to develop a crust, which can be more troublesome than a persistent weak layer in the snow. We haven’t yet had a chance to see how the snowpack is changing in this weather, so we’re crossing our fingers. Until then, we have an eager crew of snowmakers who are keen to ply their trade. At the first possible moments, the snow guns will roar to life, and we can get down to serious snowmaking business.
I learned some interesting tidbits about the flow of the Pipestone River the other day.
When determining whether there’s sufficient flow in the river, it all goes by date. That means that if we want to make snow on Oct 25, we must meet or exceed 90% of what is considered normal for that specific date. That number is derived from measurements on that date for the last thirty years, and can vary somewhat from day to day. Sometimes it can vary significantly from one day to the next, usually due to a sudden and extreme change in weather.
Right now, coupled with relief that there’s water being added to the river is concern that too much may be added. This may not affect us this year, but it may push up the nominal 90% figure for future years based on a higher-than-normal number being added to the formula. Of course, there’s little we can do about it!
Deep or prolonged cold snaps during the winter can also rob the river systems of water, in the form of river ice. Some forms along the river bed, which reduces the flow. Ice dams can also form upriver with the same result. These dams generally melt away with the return of warmer temps, but there have been occasions where the release of water was sudden and extreme, sending a torrent of water that has significant destructive potential.
With temperatures reaching -15 this morning in Lake Louise, one would think there’s no better time to fire up our extensive snowmaking system in order to get a jump start on the season. That may be true, but there other factors involved that dictate when and how we get started.
First on the list are the conditions of our water use permit, which first and foremost do not allow us to draw water from the Pipestone River until Oct 15, which is the same every year. Once we reach that date, a few other conditions must be met before we begin. First, the flow of the Pipestone River must be at least 90% of its usual flow for the time of year. Once that’s the case, we cannot use any more than 10% of whatever that flow happens to be. When snowmaking is up and running, we are required to monitor the river flow daily to ensure both these conditions are met. And finally, we need cooperation from the temperatures, which can vary widely at this time of year (as confirmed by the -30 temps being forecast for Lake Louise on Monday).
So, with midnight of next Wednesday quickly approaching, there’s lots of work to be done to prepare. On Saturday, all of our 50 snowmaking staff begin their training – the first department to do so. Once that wraps up, it’s all hands on deck to position the guns and their associated air and water hoses so they’re ready when the time comes. For electric-powered fan guns that get placed far from any power source, we also need to place generators in the right spots. These were all flown into place by helicopter on Monday, along with the fuel drums and containment trays that hold any fuel that may leak or spill.
Elsewhere on the mountain, final tests are being performed on the lifts, and work continues transforming Glacier Express back into a winter lift. This involves removing the gondola cabins that get placed on the line for summer sightseeing, and changing the ramp at the top station from a staircase to a ramp.
The Trail Crew is continuing with the pounding of steel for snow fence, and have also begun to tie fence onto posts already in the ground. While the upper mountain appears from the base to have a nice coating of snow, there isn’t nearly enough yet to travel on skis, and crews are still on foot. The earliest I can ever remember skiing on the mountain was on October 18 about ten years ago, when most of the fencelines on Summit had collected enough to snow to permit travel on skis.
It has only been a few weeks since the Bow Valley enjoyed near-record temperatures for September, almost reaching 30C in Banff. And with -30 looming for Monday, it’s almost as though we skipped autumn and went from summer right into winter. Given how nice September was in the area, few people are complaining.
And then around 4:00pm, the clouds parted briefly, and gave us another tantalizing look at the upper mountain and its new coating of snow. A little early maybe, but a glorious sight nonetheless.
Throughout the winter ski season at Lake Louise, it’s part of the daily routine for members of the Snow Safety team to prepare explosives and head up onto the mountain. It’s much rarer to see that in September, with this week being an exception.
Rock blasting is just that – using explosives to blow up rocks. This has been done a few times in the past at Lake Louise, mostly to improve the safety of the World Cup downhill course. Specialists would come to the ski area in an attempt to flatten rocks that had a history of compromising the safety of the course and damaging equipment. Early in the course-building process, snow cats travel in the softer snow to pack down a base. Sharp rocks can cause mayhem with the underside of a cat, causing delays that are costly in both repairs and time, which can be a scarce commodity in the weeks leading up to the races. Receiving the most attention were the areas in and below Sunset Gully, just below the start of the men’s course.
Surface blasting requires a wholly different certification than the one required for winter avalanche control. The protocols are much different, and the explosives used are made specifically for the task. Previously, certified surface blasters were contracted to come in and spend a day or two getting rid of pesky rocks. Last summer, an instructor came for the week and conducted a course for snow safety and operations staff from Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. The Lake Louise avalanche forecaster became certified to lead a surface blasting program, allowing us to proceed without the need of outside supervision.
This year, the run to receive the bulk of the rock removal was Saddleback, from the Notch to Rodney’s Ridge. This cat track is always difficult to build in the winter, as the ground is very uneven and does not provide an obvious way to traverse below Whitehorn 1. Boulders litter the slope, and the worn top edges of all of them are a silent testament to years of scraped skis and worn cat blades.
With the proper permits in hand from Parks Canada, a team of two went to the sites the day before blasting was to start in order to identify and prepare the rocks for their big day. Once identified, the crew began to drill the holes into which the explosives would be inserted. To do this, they had to lug around a generator and large rock drill to each location, then drill up to six or seven holes in each rock, depending on the size. Drilling the holes in advance saves time and allows the blasting to proceed more quickly.
The following day, four Snow Safety staff assembled the explosives and went back to the site to start blasting. The explosive charges are placed into the drilled holes, and the way they’re detonated depend on whether there’s one or more than one. For a single shot, the explosive is detonated by the same 2.5 minute fuse used on avalanche control rounds. The team member pulls the igniter, then has two and a half minutes to retreat to a safe distance, usually at least 100 metres.
For multiple shots, it is most effective to have all of them go off at the same time, which would be impossible if each had their own fuse. In this case detcord (detonation cord) is used to connect each shot. Detcord is an explosive cord that comes on spools and can be strung out and cut to whatever lengths are needed for the job. Each explosive has its own line, and they’re all taped to a single line that will have an igniter placed on the lone end. As before, the blaster pulls the ignitor, then retreats to await the blast. Once the fuse reaches the end of the det cord, it’s all over – detcord explodes at an incredible 8000 metres per second along its length. This speed allows for the simultaneous blasting of multiple charges, regardless of their distance from the ignitoin point.
The short video below shows two explosions, both using detcord. If you look carefully, you can see the cord explode along with the charges in the rocks. It travels much too fast to be able to tell which end it started at, though.
Once the explosion is over and it’s safe to approach, the site is inspected. Ideally the rock will have been shorn right at ground level. If there’s still some above ground level, more explosives are used. If a hole is left, the broken pieces of rock are used to fill it back in. Like any ground disturbance that occurs on the mountain, we must make the area look as undisturbed as possible.
In a mountain range known (and named) for its rocks, one might ask “Where do you start?” That’s a good question, and recognizing that it’s a long job that will likely take a few years, you have to start somewhere, and upper-mountain green runs like Saddleback, which can sometimes be hazardous to man and machine early season, top the list.