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…
I posted an aerial photo of Eagle Ridge on Dec. 29, but ER 1 & 2 at the eastern end weren’t visible. This shot, also taken May 10, 2007, shows the same area from a different angle. Even though ER 6 & 7 are hidden from view, you can still see both ends of the ridge – from ER 1 on the left to where Saddleback hits the very bottom of the Chunky’s cornice in Whitehorn I at far right.
When I started patrolling at the Lake in the mid-90′s, ER 3, 6, & 7, as well as Upper ER 5, were permanently closed avalanche areas. This was a remnant of the days when the parks service performed all avalanche operations for the ski area. Since then, the avalanche forecasters have done a great job of learning about and getting open the areas which had previously always been closed.
Upper ER 5 is the closest thing we have to a permanent closure on the back side of Eagle Ridge, and that’s because not only is it steep and rocky terrain, but it’s also huge, consisting of a large number of micro-features, all requiring their own analysis and plan of attack. Upper and Lower ER 5 are divided by a cliff band that crosses the entire slope, with a few narrow chokes that are slow to fill with snow and can be the one thing preventing the terrain from opening, since there must be skiable lines from top to bottom in order for it to open.
Lower ER 5 opens sooner, since it consists mainly of a fairly even scree slope, which is much smoother than the boulder fields that lie above the cliffs and requires less snow to fill in. At far skier’s left of Lower ER 5 is M.G. Gully, a steep, narrow, tree-filled chute with a drop exit, and is a place that gets lots of snow. To get there you need to enter from the Saddleback/Split Rock area and traverse across the top of Kiddie’s Corner, and if you stay high enough you’ll end up right at the top of the gully.
Below is a shot of the top of Upper ER 5, for those hoping to scope out their lines for the Big Mountain Challenge taking place this spring (don’t forget, these photos were taken at the end of an exceptional snow year, and all areas of the mountain are currently much less filled in).
This helicopter photo from May 10, 2007 shows most of Eagle Ridge, with East Bowl (ER 1) off-picture to the left, and ER 7 and all but the very top of ER 6 off to the right. Like previous terrain photos, runs labelled in black are as they appear on the Lake Louise trail map, with patrol names shown in red. Fence lines are shown as orange dotted lines.
The Corridor runs from the top of Paradise Chair to the top of East Bowl and serves as the access to all runs in between. East Bowl (ER 1, not shown) is the bowl directly above the top of Ptarmigan Chair. Crow Bowl is a narrow bowl that usually has a prominent cornice at the top. If you’re standing at the top centre of Crow Bowl and turn around 180 degrees to look towards the base area, the pitch below you is Patroller Pitch, which acts as a quick way to get down to the top of the old Eagle chair and is not on the trail map.
Hidden between East Bowl and Crow Bowl is a little gem of an area that seems to be one of the last areas to get tracked after a snowfall. It isn’t that steep, but it can be a nice surprise when all other areas have been tracked out. The narrow entrance to this area is directly to the skier’s left of the top of East Bowl, and the run below can’t be seen until you’re actually on it. It can be entered from below on either side, but you miss the first bunch of turns. There are a few small clumps of trees, but they’re widely spaced on the smooth terrain to allow lots of choice of line.
Here’s another shot taken during a helicopter flight on May 10, 2007, this time showing the Brownshirt and North Cornice areas. Like previous terrain photos, official trail map run names are shown in black, control path names in red, and other features in white.
One thing I like about this photo is that it clearly shows how North Cornice gets most of its snow. While most wind at the Lake comes from the south-west, Mt. Richardson, which is to the right of the area shown in the photo, redirects the wind around and back south to pass through Bare Ass Pass and straight on to North Cornice (you can see the valley the wind approaches through in the background, behind OOB Peak). The easiest way to know local prevailing wind direction is to look at the cornices – they’ll only form on leeward sides of features.
On the occasions where the wind blows from a different direction, it’s easy to see how that affects the mountain, as you’ll see drifts and cornices where you usually don’t, and runs that you’re used to skiing a certain way change their character. One place for me that really changes after a strong north wind has been blowing is the Corridor, heading over to Crow Bowl or East Bowl. The reverse wind loading is obvious the entire way as you travel along the ridge top.
OOB is a place that has only recently been added to the run inventory at Lake Louise. Up until about 6 or 7 years ago, the boundary line went down the skier’s left edge of Brownshirt Main Gully and along the top of North Cornice. Beyond that was a permanent avalanche closure blocking access to OOB – an area we controlled to protect in-bounds terrain, but was never opened as a ski run. This was similar to a few other places on the mountain, such as Flush Bowl and Lipalian on Larch. These avalanche closures were inconsistent with places like West Bowl, which is also outside the resort boundary but had no restrictions on access – anyone could enter this area at anytime.
After consultations with Parks Canada, our avalanche forecaster changed these permanent closures into area boundaries, sometimes moving the boundary out to include terrain that had previously been closed (but still within the resort’s leasehold) allowing people to access the backcountry from anywhere on the mountain.
Please note that the open boundary is different from the avalanche closures that exist within the resort. Access to these areas are strictly controlled, and are all marked with red stop-sign-shaped signs indicating the area is closed. Only when these signs are yellow and say “Caution – Avalanche Danger” is access permitted. For those who wonder why the sign would say that when the terrain is open, it really means that you’re entering heads-up terrain, which is usually steep and has many unmarked hazards like cliffs and rocks . The sign also means that the terrain can close at any time due to increased hazard, and that each time you should check that the run is open before entering.
The Ultimate Steeps is the area on the Lake Louise trail maps that is also known by its avalanche control name, Whitehorn II. The photo below is another taken from a helicopter on May 10,2007, and the effects of the warm spring weather are made obvious by the prevalent snowballing that can be seen. Comprising seven gullies, Whitehorn II is a vast and steep area that used to be a permanent avalanche closure, and has only recently become a regular part of the yearly run inventory at Lake louise.
Up until about 15 years ago, all avalanche control at Lake Louise was performed by Parks Canada. I can remember my first few seasons skiing at Lake Louise, skiing along the valley bottom towards Paradise chair and seeing a park warden sitting on a snowmobile at the bottom of ER 5, waiting to write tickets for those entering the avalanche closure above. When avalanche control operations were handed to the ski area, it took a number of years for the control staff to learn all of the intricacies of the weather history and also of the terrain that had up to then been regularly open. While an in-depth knowledge of a slope’s snowpack is essential to forecast hazard, one must also be intimately familiar with the ground that lies underneath, since surface features such as trees and rocks play a large part in how the snowpack behaves on a slope. These features can also affect how the wind travels across a slope, and have a large influence on how wind-blown snow (fetch) distributes itself in any given area.
Once the avalanche control team had become familiar with the reguarly-open terrain, they began to set their sights on places that had never opened, and for which little historical information existed. The first year Whitehorn II opened was for the final two weeks of the season, when the relative lack of experience in that terrain was tempered by the settling effects of the warm spring temperatures. Then, with each passing year, and as familiarity increased, that terrain would open earlier and earlier each season, provided of course that conditions permitted. In a good year, when things like snowfall, temperature, and wind cooperate, Whitehorn II can be opened well before Christmas.
In the photo below, runs that appear on the Lake Louise trail map appear in black text. Other features of note appear in red or white. In the recent re-naming of much of the alpine terrain, each of the gullies in Whitehorn II received a new handle, and to avoid confusion, each gully’s name starts with the letter with which it was formerly identified (e.g. Adrenaline = ‘A’ Gully). While knowing which gully you’re in can sometimes be a little confusing, there are a few visual aids that can be helpful. For example, when looking up from below, Chimney (‘C’ Gully) is the first gully, going from left to right, that reaches the full height of the Summit Platter. Chimney is also the gully you’d be skiing if you unloaded the Platter and went straight over the back and down without traversing. Adrenaline and Big Horn are shorter, and start lower down.
To enjoy the full vertical of F, G, and H/I Gullies, cross the Boomerang traverse and enter through the gate at the high point at the end of the traverse, rather than the gate at the top of the lift. Most people enter through the lower traverse, meaning four or five turns in mostly-untracked snow await those who enter from above. As mentioned in an earlier post, you won’t find ‘I’ gully on the trail map since it is actually a part of Whitehorn III. However, in order to open H Gully, I Gully must also be controlled, and in good years is a skiable line. H and I Gullies always open and close together, since there is no practical way to divide the two with closure fences.
These shots were taken May 10, almost two weeks after Lake Louise closed for the 2006-07 season, which had been one of the best for snowfall in a long time. The week preceeding the flights had been very warm, which explains the wet look of the snow, as well as the “snowballing”. Also, because the winter had seen so much snow, many surface features normally evident were smothered, and the terrain looks a lot smoother here than it actually is. Nonetheless, I like the fact that you get a view that you otherwise wouldn’t, and it makes it easier to piece together all of the many and varied pieces of mountain that make up the ski area.
What had started as a blue-bird day had begun to cloud over by the time the helicopter arrived, and a number of shots ended up being slightly spoiled by cloud shadows, as seen in the second photo of the area around the base of the Summit Platter. I auto-bracketed each of the 300 shots I took (3 different exposures for each one), since I didn’t have the luxury of time to constantly fiddle with the settings.
This first labelled photo is of the area called “The Wall” on the trail maps. Runs marked in black text are as they appear on the Lake Louise trail map, and the red text represents each individual mountain face as it applies to avalanche control. Each face of a mountain is subject to its own weather and avalanche-related conditions, based on elevation, slope angle, exposure to wind, and aspect (which compass direction it faces=amount of sun exposure). The control names are based on the name of the mountain or ridge, and are numbered left-to-right looking up. “E.R.” stands for Eagle Ridge, and there are seven distinct faces, starting with East Bowl (E.R. 1) and ending with the gullies that make up E.R. 7. Some run names at Lake Louise still use their control names, and others do not.