7:45am, Thursday January 26, 2012:
As snow stability and coverage continue to improve in Whitehorn II, the Avalanche Control has decided the time is right to open it all up, side to side, top to bottom. Up to now, just A Gully has been open, but it is treated as a part of the Rodney’s Ridge area, and has no bearing on whether the rest of the gullies open or close. Crews were happy with the way things had set up in the rest of the gullies, and just a little more work was required this week before the gates were cracked for the first time this year.
One significant difference in opening this terrain this year over previous seasons is that the entire Whitehorn II area will open together, rather than one or a few gullies opening at a time as crews move across. This is mainly due to the fact that stability has improved to the point that crews have been able to move quickly and cover a lot more ground than usual, rather than picking their way through every piece of micro-terrain in each gully (there’s a lot of them!). These little areas still need attention, but when snow is sticking to the slope despite the efforts of the control teams to make it avalanche with explosives and ski cuts, confidence in snowpack stability increases as does the ability of the teams to move quickly through the terrain.
One of the greatest tools available to control teams for slope stabilization is skier compaction. Until an avalanche area opens to the public, this compaction is achieved by Ski Patrol and Trail Crew members skiing the slopes. While it could be argued that opening the run to the public would allow compaction to happen much more quickly and thoroughly, we still need to tightly control who goes into these areas and where exactly they go. The Avalanche Forecaster communicates where he wants compaction to happen, and staff are in constant touch with him and each other by radio so the highest level of safety is maintained.
One benefit of opening all remaining gullies together is that crews do not need to place the fence lines that are usually used to separate open areas from closed. This is time-consuming work, and not having to do it in this case allows the terrain to open days sooner than it otherwise would have. There will still be a fence placed between G and H Gullies as in previous years, however, since they have a more easterly component to their aspects, and therefore have greater potential to be affected by the warm spring sun and may need to be closed while the rest of Whitehorn II can remain open.
I took a lap through B Gully on Monday, and even through the choke of the gully conditions were fantastic, and only got better down on the fan below (the ‘fan’ is the area where avalanching snow will spread out and slow down after it passes through the narrow choke). The underlying snowpack was nicely supportive, and the soft boot-deep snow on top was literally the icing on the cake!
Occasionally we get asked about our snow reports – how we measure, where we measure, and how we track the changing snowpack over time. Staying on top of changes in weather and snowpack in real time is actually a little more challenging than it may appear, due to a number of reasons. I hope now to answer some questions and clarify how it is we accomplish this very important function.
Snow Safety operates two snow plots on the mountain – one near Pika Corner above Paradise base, and the other in Boomerang near the top of Whitehorn III. The plot at Pika, which represents the mid-mountain snowfall amount, has equipment that measures everything from height of new snow to temperature to snow moisture content. The Boomerang plot, representing the upper mountain totals, has stakes to measure height of new snow and height of snowpack. Other than what they’re able to measure, the main difference between the two plots is that the one at Pika is sheltered by trees, and generally gives measurements that are less affected by wind. The Boomerang plot is in an unsheltered location in the alpine, and is much more susceptible to the effects of wind.
Why does this matter? Well, when measuring snow, the goal is to get an amount that reflects only the amount of snow that’s fallen, and not any that may have been blown into or out of the plot by the wind. So, in Boomerang, it could be said that the totals we get there tell us how much snow did not get blown away, and not the total snowfall for that area. This is still valuable information for our control teams, as it is just one piece when it comes to figuring out the complicated puzzle that is the Lake Louise snowpack.
For the Lake Louise Ski Area’s public snow reports, most of our information is gathered from these two plots. These reports, which get communicated by e-mail, fax, website, and phone recordings, are created every day between 5:00am and 6:00am. In addition to the plots, we can contact cat drivers and snowmakers who are working at night if we want more information. If we receive snow during the day, we update the conditions section of our website, but we will not send out more than one set of faxes or e-mails per day. The website always indicates the time at which the update was made, so it’s the best place to go for the most up-to-date information.
The big question we get is why does there so often seem to be more snow than the snow report says there is? For that, once again we can thank the wind, which has a wonderful habit of blowing snow from the windward slopes (usually those facing southwest) and depositing it on the leeward slopes (those facing northeast). In the right conditions there can be up to three or four times the amount of reported snow on leeward slopes. This all depends on the strength and duration of the wind, and how much snow there is available to be transported. Snowfall with no wind will usually result in a consistently deep cover all over the mountain, while the same amount of snowfall accompanied by wind will result in wildly varying amounts in different places on the mountain. As a rule of thumb, there’s usually wind blowing, so the savvy Lake Louise skier will know that our back bowls – the usual beneficiaries of wind-blown snow – will have more than the reported amount.
Finally, we are asked why the year-to-date and the depth of snow amounts are different. If we get 100cm in a month, why isn’t the depth of snow 100cm? A number of things conspire to reduce the depth of snow, but settlement and wind are the main culprits, with temperature joining the mix once the warmer days of spring arrive. As already mentioned, wind can blow snow away. Settlement is the natural process of the snow crystals changing shape and moving closer together under their own weight, and warm weather accelerates this process.
All of these changes in the snowpack are monitored by the Avalanche Control department from the day the first flake hits the ground in autumn until after the mountain closes for the ski season, and help staff gain as comprehensive as possible a picture of the state of the mountain snowpack.
Blue skies greeted avalanche control teams as they made their way to Whitehorn II yesterday morning to make the first foray of the season into D Gully. With no snowfall in the few days leading up to yesterday, there was little control work required in terrain that had already opened, and crews had the chance to continue work in closed terrain, getting it ready for its eventual opening.
In Whitehorn II, control work always begins at the far skier’s right, at A Gully. This gully, along with B Gully, starts lower than the rest, and is accessed by skiing along the fence line on skier’s left of Whitehorn I toward Rodney’s Ridge, then hanging a left where the fence turns to head down the fall line. Barely recognizable as a gully, A Gully is treated as a part of Rodney’s Ridge, and has been open for most of this season. Control teams will always leave a buffer next to open terrain – in this case, B Gully. In other words, for A Gully to open, B Gully needs to be controlled, too.
As one gully opens, teams move to the next, and so it goes until all of Whitehorn II opens. Yesterday marked the first control efforts in D Gully, and the start of a long process of control for a piece of terrain that is steep, complex, and, in addition to the main pitch of the gully, contains a few smaller cells that have characteristics all their own. This is true of all Whitehorn II gullies, and many rounds of explosives, bootpacking, and ski cutting are required to get the area ready to open.
D Gully has the largest start zone of all Whitehorn II gullies, and a number of explosive shots were used in this area. A start zone is where the bulk of wind-loaded snow usually ends up, and is therefore where most avalanches start. Two types of explosives were used – the usual dynamite-style charges, as well as bags of ANFO (ammonium nitrate & fuel oil). The smaller charges are thrown onto the slope and ideally will penetrate the surface layer so that the explosion has a better chance of reaching deeper into the snowpack, which is where the troublesome layers usually exist. On big slopes where the desire is for an explosive to cover a much greater area, ANFO is the ticket, as each charge can be built bigger or smaller depending on the wishes of the avalanche forecaster. The one used yesterday, for example, was about 7kg and packed a much larger punch than the usual hand charge would have, both outward and downward. If a slope doesn’t avalanche after an ANFO shot or two, control teams have that much more confidence in the stability of the slope and their ability to move safely on it, especially in the earlier stages of control work.
Prevailing winds generally blow across the slope from the skier’s left, which means that half of the gully will have more snow and therefore a greater potential for avalanches. With this in mind, five of us made our way down the right side, using ski cuts as we moved and stopping often to throw explosives on the left side. Happily, none of the shots produced significant results, which bodes well for the continued improvement of the slope. Much more work is needed, but good progress has been made, and every lap control teams make gets us closer to opening and having it available for all to enjoy.
NOTE: This post has been edited – it originally stated that ER6 was opened, when in fact it was not, and hasn’t yet opened this season. Crews are working at getting it ready, and I’ll let you know when it’s good to go – sorry for the mistake!
A happy new year indeed! After an incredible few weeks of fantastic weather – lots of snow, blue skies, warm temperatures – skiing at the Lake is about as good as it gets. We’re getting close to having all of our terrain open, and we’re proud to start the new year by adding the Big 7 area to the list of open runs. The ER7 gullies have been open a few days now, but the rest of ER7, including Big 7 and Vertical Cornice, followed suit once control teams were satisfied with that area.
2012 started a little on the cold side, but also with clear skies, and skiers who braved a day on the slopes after a big night out were rewarded with that million-dollar view that the Lake is famous for. We’re always happy when the holiday season experiences good weather and conditions, as many of the people visiting that week are first-timers, and what better way to get them to leave with a great first impression than to experience Lake Louise at its finest. Of course, it doesn’t hurt us that many ski areas, in North America and in Europe, are experiencing low snowfall and decidedly less-than-ideal conditions.
As for our snowpack, things are certainly looking up – not only from the amount we’ve been getting, but from a stability standpoint as well. After a series of big avalanches (both natural and the result of control work) cleaned out much of Whitehorn II for example, we entered a phase of rebuilding, when the slopes start over and we all hope that the snowpack can build without any weakness or instabilites. That seems to be the direction in which things are headed at the moment, and while there isn’t enough snow yet to allow skiing, what is there is sticking to the slopes, even after explosives are used.
Some areas not that far from here are seeing a buried surface hoar layer from mid-December that is causing some concern, but for the most part we aren’t seeing that here. This past week, control teams from Parks Canada were using large bags of ANFO (ammonium nitrate and fuel oil) thrown from a helicopter to control the slopes on Mt. Bosworth, which overlooks the Trans-Canada Highway between Lake Louise and Kicking Horse Pass. Their efforts resulted in numerous size 3 avalanches, all running on this buried surface hoar layer, and in some cases stepping down to lower layers in the pack.
For now, avalanche control teams will continue the charge, controlling slopes that have already opened and getting into slopes that are still closed, preparing them for their eventual opening.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 64,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Skiers and riders at Lake Louise have been blessed with incredible conditions over the holidays, as numerous snowfalls and a generous amount of wind have left our slopes covered in powder. After the last two storms, the skies have cleared and visibility was the stuff of dreams – great light and great snow make for an unbeatable experience!
There’s lots happening at the Lake Louise Ski Area these days as months of hard work come to a head with the arrival of the Christmas holidays. Once summer ended, everyone’s sights were set on opening day. SInce then, the target has been the next few weeks and setting the stage for the first big influx of destination visitors.
With Lake Louise not hosting the NORAM races this year, we were able to get a week head start making snow on runs that were used by or closed for the race course. Among other things, this means that the Showtime terrain park will debut tomorrow (Wednesday) in its permanent winter home on Juniper Jungle, with a mixture of rails, boxes, hips, and jumps to make a total of fifteen features. Features will be added to the park each week as more snow is made and the footprint of the park grows.
Returning this year is the SBX (skier- boarder-cross) course, which will also be in the same area as last year, though with minor modifications to the line, locations of turns, etc. Once set-up of the course is complete, it will be open to the public as another part of the terrain park, except when closed for races or team training.
Fans of big air will be happy to learn that after a brief absence, big jumps are making their return and will be the centrepieces of the XL line that will run along the skier’s right side of Easy Street. We’ve had big jumps here before, and with an enthusiastic audience riding overhead on Glacier Express, there’s always a good show.
In other news, on Sunday there was a human-triggered avalanche in Lipalian 2 that initiated a search involving ski patrol, Parks Canada Public Safety Specialists, Parks Canada and Sunshine Village. Like the in-bounds avalanche from Nov. 24, this one had a happy ending, as all involved parties escape unharmed. Like that first avalanche, this one also has lots of pieces to put together, and I hope to have a report posted in the next day or two. Stay tuned…
As mentioned in the previous post, we took advantage of good light and the presence of a helicopter to go on a photo mission around the Lake Louise Ski Area, including a trip across the valley to get some shots of the ski area with the Chateau Lake Louise in the foreground. The hotel was in shadow, as it is most of the day this time of year, but parts of the ski hill were bathed in sunlight and made for some dramatic photos.
Here is a selection from the flight:
With a great early season at Lake Louise still rolling along, this coming week will see even more runs opening as crews work hard in all corners of the resort. The Mountain Operations department is running on all cylinders, with Snowmakers, Groomers, Ski Patrol and Avalanche Control all doing their part.
Immediately following Sunday’s last race of this season’s edition of the World Cup, crews got to the task of dismantling the course, from its start at the top of Sunset Gully to the finish just above the base area. What took months to construct will largely be gone in a matter of days, with priority given to any netting or fencing that blocked access to other runs. With that out of the way, Juniper opened today, thanks to snowmaking that was able to continue during the night throughout the World Cup. Once the run was cleared, it was a relatively quick job of having the cats do the final build and Ski Patrol placing barricades, fence, and signage in the right spots.
Men’s Downhill will take a few days longer to get ready, mainly because all of the 10m-high ‘A’ net that lines the sides of the World Cup course. This is the tensioned safety net that keeps fallen racers on the course and out of the woods, and is anchored into the snow along its entire length. If left in place when the run opens, people skiing along the sides quickly build up snow that buries the net itself, and it becomes a huge task to remove, requiring snow cats and a run closure to excavate and increasing the potential to damage expensive equipment. Once the anchors are dug up, crews can go about removing the netting and cables unobtrusively and without preventing the run from opening.
On Juniper Jungle, snowmaking is going at full tilt making enough snow for what will once again be the Showtime terrain park. If optimal snowmaking conditions continue, we could see a park there in a week or so. The likely scenario is that as much snow as possible will be blown by day’s end Friday. If forecasts predict ideal snowmaking conditions through the weekend, then it will continue non-stop. If warmer temperatures seem likely, then the guns will be turned off, the huge mounds of snow will be pushed flat, and Juniper Jungle will open as a groomed run for the weekend. The goal is to have a uniform covering of at least 45cm of man-made snow on the run, and once the weekend is over, this snow will be re-gathered and distributed into piles that will eventually become the take-offs and landings of the park features. The SBX (Skier/boarder cross) course also returns this year, with a slightly altered course in the same location as last year.
Higher on the mountain, control teams are moving further into avalanche terrain. A heli-bombing mission last week helped to defuse the bomb of a heavy load on top of a weak facet layer in the snowpack, and while much of the Lake’s double-black diamond terrain is in rebuilding mode after a cycle of natural and explosive-triggered avalanches cleared much of the snow out, crews have still been able to prepare a lot of our bread and butter single-black diamond terrain. Teams are aiming to have Ptarmigan Chutes and Lower Rock Garden open Tuesday, with 2/3 Shoulder, Crow Bowl, and East Bowl following hot on the heels on Wednesday. Of course, this is barring any weather that may decide to force a re-think of the plan.
Once these areas open, teams will move over to the North Cornice area to finish work there. Brownshirt and North Cornice are separate runs, but are treated as one piece of avalanche terrain. They both close and open together – if one is considered safe and the other not, then they both stay closed. Brownshirt is in better shape than North Cornice, but both are far enough along that not much more control work is needed before they can open. Please remember – almost ready to open does not mean open. Crews can’t get ahead if they spend their time worrying about people entering closed areas while explosives are in use.
And while places like Whitehorn II, ER6, and ER7 are rebuilding, it still pays off enormously for crews to head in there and continue control work, as every visit inches the runs closer and closer to their eventual opening. The more they can cut up and disrupt any troublesome layers in the snowpack, the more stable it will become. This bodes well for these runs opening on the sooner rather than later side, provided the weather cooperates of course!
On Sunday, after the race and before the helicopters that were here for the World Cup returned to Canmore, a few of us loaded into one of them and spent just under thirty minutes traveling around the ski area and across the valley on a photography mission, taking advantage of clear skies and great conditions for aerial photos.
One of the things I noticed in the few seconds I took to breathe every once in a while were the amount of ski tracks in uncontrolled terrain outside the ski area boundary. Despite consistent and significant avalanche hazard, and bulletins and notices stating such, people are taking their chances in questionable areas. There are tracks in the centre of West Bowl, which has recently slid, as well as in Deep Throat and Maintenance Gully. Skiers exploring the Corral Creek slide paths at the south-east end of Richardson’s Ridge found out the close and personal way just how touchy things were in that area, luckily with no negative consequences.
All anyone has to do is look up into places like Whitehorn II to see the results of natural avalanches. Natural means it happened on its own, with no human or human-caused trigger. If conditions are such that large avalanches can happen on their own, then adding the weight of a skier or two onto a slope certainly does not help the situation. Parks Canada currently states the backcountry danger rating as ‘considerable’ at tree-line and above, which means natural avalanches are possible, and that human-triggered avalanches are likely. Likely is a big word, and backcountry travelers must be ready to practise the careful snowpack observation, cautious route-finding, and conservative decision-making that the ‘considerable’ rating suggests. Looking at the tracks from the helicopter, it didn’t look like many were taking these essentials into account.
With in-bounds skiing so good right now, we hope that it’s easier to be patient and that people looking for good backcountry turns wait a bit to let things settle down a bit.