Avalanche control teams are just putting the finishing touches on their control work and fence lines in Boomerang, and expect to have it open for the first time this season within the hour (by 12:00 Wednesday). The photo below, taken Monday, leaves no doubt that the run is ready to be skied!
Like every year, the bowl itself is ready to go early in the season – it’s the outrun, particularly at the Hump, that needs to be built so people can get out of there and back to a lift. On Monday, the Trail Crew along with a few cat drivers were hard at work at the Hump preparing it for today. Historically, the Hump itself, which is the aptly named short steep pitch that leads onto the Lower Saddleback/Pika flats, has been the only way out, and crews spent all season trying to keep that pitch in good shape. Because it’s a narrow, steep pitch, most people tended to snow plow or sideslip down the pitch, scraping the snow off and leaving bare patches, and maintaining the pitch was a huge challenge.
The solution to this problem is what skiers see now at the Hump – two long wooden fences and (eventually) a run that skirts the Hump to the right, using a narrow but lower angle creek bed. With enough snow, this bypass can be built up to three times the width of the Hump, and combined with the lower angle makes a much better alternative for beginners, who have the space they need, and experts, who no longer run into the log jam that formed at the top of the Hump.
Building the creek bypass is quite a bit of work, and we could not do it if it weren’t for the wooden fences and the rows and rows of plastic fence that line the creek bed itself. These fences trap wind-blown snow, and once there’s enough, crews can get to work. The cats spend a few hours ‘harvesting’ their farmed snow into large piles, while the Trail Crew removes their plastic fences to make way for the snow that will eventually be pushed in to build the run.
Over the last few years, we have investigated ways of reducing the amount of snow required to fill in the creek and build this run. One obvious solution is to build a sort of deck over the creek that could get us started much sooner than usual. However, because this creek is sensitive to changes and building a deck over a section would prevent sunlight from reaching the plants that need it, this plan was shelved. Even building a metal frame that we could add planks to in the winter and remove in the summer was not permitted, as it would require digging and terrain modification that could also adversely affect the creek.
What we may see in the future then is a few more rows of wooden fences added uphill of the existing ones, increasing the amount of snow we’re able to farm. Plans for a project like this need to be in place long before summer, which is when the fences would be constructed. Because there is no road to the site, all supplies too heavy to carry would need to be brought by cat while there’s still snow, or flown by helicopter in the summer. Work crews could drive to the base of Paradise chair, and would then do the short walk up to the site.
As mentioned in the previous post, Thursday morning was an eventful one, as crews began the huge task of controlling slopes that had been pounded by over 50cm of new snow and hit by moderate strength winds blowing from the south-east and south-west. Throw in a weak snowpack that existed prior to the storm and expectations were that control work would produce numerous results. In fact, as crews reached the upper mountain that morning, it became clear that a number of natural avalanches had occurred since the end of the storm, including one that released along the ER 4/5 fence line (dividing Paradise Bow and Upper ER5), and ran down and into Hell’s Kitchen. Brownshirt Main Gully and most of Whitehorn II also ran naturally.
A further indication of the touchiness of the snowpack occurred Friday when control teams placed an explosive shot towards the skier’s right side of ER3, and the resulting blast cleared out most of the slope, and also caused a sympathetic release at the top of Swede’s that cleaned it out and ran down and into Hell’s Kitchen. The ER3 slide ran down onto and past the bench far below it.
As control work was proceeding Thursday morning, access to the back side was given through the gate at the top of the Grizzly Gondola, giving skiers the terrain that exists below Pika – Exhibition, Ptarmigan Glades, Old Ptarmigan, Ptarmigan, Raven, and Pika Trees (Ptarmigan Chutes stayed closed). This access can almost always be given while control work is ongoing on the rest of the back side, which remains closed until the work is complete.
When the gate for Pika at the top of the Gondola was opened, most skiers headed toward the Exhibition area. The first pitch of Exhibition, which runs directly underneath Ptarmigan Chair, is a less steep section that leads to the main, and much steeper, pitch that makes up the run. Immediately to the skier’s left of the top of this steeper pitch is a treeless knoll, and three skiers made their way to the top of this feature. The first skier on the slope went down the centre of the slope, without incident. The second dropped into the right side, and the third skier started down the left side. As the third skier got onto the slope, he triggered a slide, but was able to grab a tree to prevent going down the slope further. He was unable to see the first two skiers, but did yell out. The second skier later told us he sat down as soon as the slope began to avalanche and rode a short distance on top of the debris before it came to a stop, then got back up and continued to ski.
When the slide had stopped, the third skier could not see the other two skiers. Unharmed, he made his way to the bottom and to Temple Patrol near the base of Larch chair, where he found a patroller and reported what had happened. The patroller immediately called the avalanche forecaster, who was with me and a few others performing control work in Flight 2. The initial information we had was that there were three people involved in an avalanche, and that two of the involved parties were unaccounted for. As a result, we immediately initiated our rescue plan, with the forecaster heading down to his office to act as Base Rescue, and the rest of us in that group making our way to the Gondola so we could get to the scene. At the same time, the Snow Safety Manager was at Pika Corner, a few hundred metres above the base of Paradise chair, and he and his partner made their way to Ptarmigan chair so they too could get to the scene.
While the various patrollers were making their way there, more pieces of the puzzle continued to fall into place. By the time we had reached the top of the avalanched slope, it was apparent that there had been two incidents – the one first reported, and another on the top steep pitch of Old Ptarmigan, which is just to the north of Exhibition. This second avalanche was smaller, and there were no involvements.
As part of the rescue plan, we had notified the Parks service, and a few Public Safety Specialists began to make their way to the ski area.The avalanche forecaster also asked for a dog team, and a helicopter was dispatched from Canmore to transport the team to Lake Louise. Normally, a Parks dog team would be dispatched, but as they were unavailable at the time, the helicopter flew instead to Sunshine Village ski area, where they picked up patroller Tim Ricci and his dog Cholo, who are a certified CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) rescue team. Another Sunshine Village patroller, Martin Lefebvre, was available as well and joined Tim and Cholo for the flight.
As Parks teams were en route to Lake Louise, the two skiers who had up to that time been unaccounted for identified themselves to patrol. Unable to provide absolute certainty that there were no other parties involved, the search and rescue operation continued, which by now involved a number of patrollers at the avalanche site using various methods to search the slide zone and debris. On scene were two Recco receivers, and every patroller had their beacons switched to receive and their probes out and assembled, fanning out and covering as much of the debris field as possible.
The avalanche was a size 1.5, which can often be harmless to people when only considering the mass of the slide. There are bunches of trees below the open part of the slope, and since debris can pile up deeper above trees, this is where probing efforts were focused.
Even though we were reasonably certain that all involved parties were now accounted for, that certainty wasn’t 100%, so the search continued. When the searchers reached the bottom end of the avalanche debris, we left the slope clear so that the dog team, which was now minutes away, could have full access to the slope.
The helicopter arrived just above the top of the avalanched slope, and after patrollers, Public Safety Specialists, and the dog team discussed their plan, Tim, Cholo, and another patroller headed toward the slope, with Cholo having no choice other than to follow their ski tracks through the deep snow. The team made quick work of checking the slope, and with Cholo not indicating any “hits”, the slope was declared clear once the completed the search.
Now that the incident has passed, we’ve had a chance to get a clearer picture of what happened. In previous reports of avalanches that have appeared on this site, the decisions made by involved parties always played a large part in telling the story. Why did people pick the route they used? What observations did they make about the snowpack? What information was gathered prior to the trip? How well-prepared were they to be in avalanche terrain? What was the experience level of the party members?
Given that this incident occurred in-bounds, these questions are largely irrelevant here. There’s usually no expectation that special knowledge, equipment, or experience is required to ski in open, in-bounds terrain. The people involved were likely thinking of nothing other than how great their powder turns were about to be, and rightly so.
For an incident like this, a rescue begins by “shrinking the mountain”. In this case, Top of the World chair was closed so patrollers could be freed up to join the rescue effort. We can never leave an area unpatrolled if staff are required elsewhere, so the decision to close an area is key to providing the needed resources.
The photos below were taken by a Parks Public Safety Specialist from the helicopter that was flying overhead while the dog team searched below. The video shows the helicopter arriving and the dog team making their way to the avalanche scene.
(Click on any photo for larger version)
The following shots were taken as patrollers readied themselves for the probe search at the top of the pitch, and on the slope itself as the search was conducted. One shot gives an idea of how far down the slope the debris ran through the trees.
Just as the weather reports said would happen, Lake Louise was walloped by 55cm of snow in the last few days, and there’s no question it was a game-changer for skiers itching to access more of the Lake’s as-yet-unopened terrain. But, like most weather events that we get here, the snow was accompanied by wind, and combined with a weak snowpack that existed prior, as well as strong winds that blew from more than one direction, the result was a touchy snowpack that we expected would produce widespread results from avalanche control work.
It was a spectacular morning on the mountain, and with good visibility, avalanche control teams were able to move through the terrain more quickly than the previous day, where pea-soup conditions slowed everything down. Explosive placement is easier when you can have a good look at the slope you want to control, and crews can also have a good look at the results of their shots. On a day with poor visibility, crews may need to have a second lap in an area just to see if their shot produced an avalanche.
My control partners and I rode Top of the World chair, then hiked up to the top of Paradise chair (which is much faster than skiing to and riding Paradise). We then made our way into Flight Chutes, with the intention of heading over into Upper Flight 2, which is the closed area above Flight 2. Armed with nine shots between us, our plan was to make our way down the slope, using a combination of ski cuts and explosives to control it.
It wasn’t until the fourth shot was placed the we got a result. An avalanche was triggered by the shot, and a few seconds after it began to run, a sympathetic release started about 30m skier’s left of the shot placement. In the video below, you can hear Avalanche Forecaster Craig Sheppard happily yell “Yay! Finally, an avalanche!” followed shortly after by “Sympathetic!” when he saw the second slide starting to run. Both slides ran onto a small bench below the main slope and stopped there. Happy with our work, we all got a chance to enjoy the fantastic conditions before moving on to other places.
For those looking for a report on the in-bounds avalanche at Lake Louise on Thursday, we still have some information to gather, mainly regarding the snowpack and avalanche characteristics at the site. I hope to have the report posted by day’s end today, or early tomorrow at the latest. Stay tuned…
…be right this time!!
Thanks to a week of decent snowfall at Lake Louise, we’re happy to announce that as of today (Thursday), Top of the World chair and the Summit Platter have been added to the list of open lifts, with access to some front side runs only for the time being. From Top of the World, Home Run will lead to other open areas in the Grizzly Gully area, as well as a way to get to the Platter, which will have Outer Limits as the available run.
Outer Limits in particular is in great shape, thanks to the recent snowfall and the effectiveness of the permanent snow fence that runs for most of the length of the skier’s right side of the run. This run is a regular early season performer, and skiers can really put their legs to the test after a week of carving turns on groomed runs.
As exciting as this news is for skiers, please keep in mind that it is still early season, and until we get more snow and compaction, there are all sorts of buried ‘treasures’ hidden on the runs, and it is highly recommended that skiers be certain of snow depth and support on a particular run before hurtling down at full speed.
With more snow overnight, and with the help of wind transported snow, things will just keep on getting better, and the push to open more terrain and lifts will continue.
Closer to what, exactly? Well, a lot of things. For instance, a number of days of snowfall this week have inched us closer to opening more terrain at Lake Louise. All of our snow fences and leeward slopes are benefiting from these snowfalls, like they always do when there’s wind involved. Crews traveling on the upper mountain are still mainly using snow fences as their highways, but it is becoming increasingly easier to travel away from them, especially in areas where the ground cover is smoother.
Avalanche control teams are throwing ski cuts into every slope they can, and one of the advantages of snow coming in many little bits rather than one big bit is that it’s much easier to stay on top of things for the crews. Not that anyone was complaining, but one aspect of last winter’s near-record-breaking snowfalls in January and February was that it was harder for control teams to keep up. More snow generally means more avalanche hazard, at least at the outset, so crews must adjust their routes and procedures to accommodate the increased risk, and this always means that things slow down. Crews take longer to cover ground, and runs take longer to be controlled and get opened.
Also high on the mountain, crews are busy preparing the course for the Men’s and Women’s World Cup ski races that are quickly approaching. The part of the course below tree line (below the base of the Summit Platter) is coming along to the satisfaction of race officials. This represents the minimum acceptable length of the course, and once they’re confident that a race can be held on that course, the decision is made to make snow and build the topmost part of the course, beginning at the top of Sunset Gully, which is the traditional starting point for the Men’s downhill races. The decision has just been made, on a day officials and course workers refer to as “Snow Control Day”.
So, today, the mountain was alive with the sound of a helicopter transporting all the required equipment onto that top part of the course so that snowmaking could begin. This includes snow guns, generators, and the fuel needed to run them. Without the ability to construct permanent facilities on the course that could house these items, this mass movement of machinery and fuel occurs every year. Once the race is done, it all comes back down to the base.
With a few busy weekends under our belts now, new staff are settling into their groove, and all the pieces that make up our resort are continuing to fall into place.
Mother nature keeps cooperating, as another 15+cm of new snow arrived at Lake Louise overnight, adding to the snow we received earlier in the week. If the photo below (of a patroller in his shiny new uniform) doesn’t get you excited about the winter…
I mentioned in the last post that control teams were about 30cm of snow away from being able to travel in the alpine on skis. Well, that wasn’t quite correct – it was more like 20cm, and that’s exactly what fell at Lake Louise over the last 24 hrs or so on higher parts of the mountain. The snow was dense, providing the support that teams needed to make travel on skis efficient and faster than walking. In fact, large enough drifts had formed along the snow fences that some honest powder turns were had.
The photos below were taken by control team member Dave Petch as crews covered the front side of Summit on Monday. With snow falling all the way to the base of the mountain, avalanche crews were able to ski from the top of Summit all the way to the base. Granted, it was sporty, but to be able to that before we eve open is certainly worth mentioning!
Of course, the snowfall bodes well for the start of the season at Lake Louise. Having denser snow near or at the bottom of the snowpack is a good start, as it’s more likely to form a more stable base. We talk about the season’s snowpack building right side up or upside down, and it’s the density of the layers that make up the snowpack to which this refers. Right side up – lighter density snow on top of heavier snow – is what we want, a firm base with less of a load on top. Upside down is not what we want, as heavier snow on top of lighter snow means a heavier load on top of a layer or layers that are less able to handle a heavy load.
It’s still early, and lots can happen over the next few months that will determine the fate of the snowpack for the winter. The worst things that could happen are a crust, from either rain or a melt-freeze cycle, or a long cold period with little or no snowfall, which would cause a deterioration in the snow crystals and a corresponding weakening of the snowpack. These are not uncommon events in the Rockies, and the best we can do is cross our fingers and hope that one good weather event leads to another, and another, and so on until things are in good enough shape that control teams feel confident in the stability of the snowpack and open the runs we’ve been waiting all summer to ski.
Preparations for the imminent winter season have reached a fever pitch at Lake Louise, and all departments are going full steam ahead training new staff and setting up their areas. With one week to go before opening day, there’s lots to do before skiers and snowboarders make their first runs of the season and quickly discover which muscles have lain dormant over the summer!).
With the completion of the main water supply line replacement, the snowmaking department was ready to jump into action, and the finger was on the trigger waiting for the thermometer to show that temperatures were dropping below the freezing point. And soon enough, drop they did, and now large snowmaking whales dot the mountainside.
The Ski Patrol has been going through their pre-season training since Monday, and this weekend they’re joined by the large group of volunteer patrollers who augment the numbers on holidays and weekends throughout the season. The main focus of the week-long training is lift evacuation, with other sessions centred around all aspects of the daily routine of a ski patroller – first aid, guest service, paperwork, run checks, and policy enforcement, among others.
Lift evacuation training receives so much attention for a few reasons. The main one is that this week is the only time all season when all patrollers are in the same place at the same time. Also, with different types of lifts using different methods, access is much easier than it would be if we were already open and lifts and lift staff were unavailable. We occasionally use the time after the lifts close for training, but with the days getting shorter, the window of opportunity gets shorter as well, and any training must happen with small groups and focus only on a specific part of the process.
Detachable chair lifts, fixed-grip chair lifts, and the gondola all have distinct evacuation methods. The gondola requires patrollers to climb the lift towers and descend to the individual cabins along the haul cable. The patroller is belayed from the lift tower for the first cabin, and then from the ground for the remaining ones in the span. Once the evacuation of a span is complete, the team ascends the next tower and starts the process again. As can probably be imagined, this system uses a lot of specialized equipment, and patrollers must be comfortable and confident in their ability to use it properly and efficiently.
Evacuation for detachable and fixed-grip chairlifts varies slightly. The method of lowering those in the chair to the ground is the same – a rescue seat is at one end of a rope that is placed over a large hook that’s attached to the stem of the chair (between the seat and the grip), and belayers on the ground lower evacuees one by one. Getting the rescue seat and rope to the chair is where the methods differ. On a fixed-grip chair, the grip is generally low-profile, and once a chair is emptied the rope can be flicked over the grip and moved down the line to the next chair. Detachable chairs have grips that have large springs that stick out above the cable, so flicking is not an option. Instead, a feeder rope is connected to the com line, which is the communications cable that runs along the centre of the towers and between the cables. This feeder line is used to place the rescue rope in the hook of the chair, negating the need to get the rope over the bulky grip. All lifts have com lines, so even if a fixed-grip chair has grips that are too bulky, the com-line method is always an option.
Meanwhile, the Trail Crew continues the huge task of tying fence to the thousands of t-steel that have been pounded into the ground, mostly in the alpine. With recent snowfalls and wind, drifts have already begun forming on the leeward sides of these fences. In the photo below, a drift can clearly be seen along the lift line of the Summit Platter, which means crews will be able to ride the lift shortly on skis. There’s no point doing that at the moment as there still isn’t enough snow on the terrain for crews to travel on skis, but the avalanche crew states that another 30cm or so of snow on the upper mountain ad crews can put away their hiking boots for the winter.
Along with the Trail Crew, a team from avalanche control has been spending time on the mountain. They spend the entire winter with their fingers on the pulse of how the snowpack is behaving, and this observation begins as soon as the first flake hits the ground. Knowing how snow changes over the course of a winter is one of the most important pieces of information that anyone in snow safety could have. Almost as important is knowing how this ever-changing snowpack interacts with the terrain upon which it sits. While a patroller having a late start to their season can get caught up by looking at records and previous observations, they miss a crucial chance to have that intuitive sense of the snowpack that is so necessary when managing risk in avalanche areas.
One of the usual early season control jobs is actually on a run that usually otherwise doesn’t receive any control work all season long – Men’s Downhill. This run doesn’t typically jump out as an issue in the avalanche control world, but these days, with the push on to build the World Cup course, giant whales are forming on one of the steepest pitches on the lower mountain. In the interest of worker safety, control teams will detonate hand charges in these whales to make sure they’re stable, or to make them avalanche and remove the hazard. This makes for an exciting day for the snowmakers who get to watch!
The final few projects in preparation for the coming winter season are underway at Lake Louise, with all eyes on the target date of October 15, which is the day we are permitted to begin snowmaking. These projects are taking place alongside the usual preparations for winter, which include placing snowmaking guns at their various locations on the mountain, cutting of grass and brush on ski runs, and making sure everything is ready for the influx on hundreds of new staff who will arrive over a period beginning this week and stretching to Christmas.
The first and arguably most important project underway is the replacement of the water supply line that links the ski area to the primary pumphouse, located a few metres from the Pipestone River in the valley below. This line supplies the ski area with all of its water, and must be ready in time for the snowmaking season to begin. The new line will replace the existing one, which is getting old and is becoming more prone to breaks and therefore leaks. The old line leaves the base area and heads downhill close to the old road that accessed the original gondola. About halfway down it veers off and runs parallel to the Pipestone River until it reaches the pumphouse. Shortly after this juncture, the pipe sits in ground a few hundred feet above the river, at the top of a sheer bank. The new line will take a different course, so that it is more easily accessible in the event staff need to expose the pipe for repairs or maintenance. The line also takes a smoother route, which means there are no sudden turns or corners that would have a negative affect on the flow of water through the pipe, and that would also require stronger pipe to deal with the increased forces that result from sudden changes in direction.
The new route required that a section of a few hundred metres had trees removed and a new ditch dug. Part of this line uses a section of the old (up to the 1950′s) ski out that brought skiers all the way to the original gondola base (even after all these years, it’s still visible in the forest). The photo below shows part of this section, with the topsoil and organic layer separated and covered with tarp along the side so that it can be replaced back on top of the ditch once it’s filled in. Much of the material that was cut for this section has been saved and will be also be placed on top once the project is complete.
Related to this project is the replacement of the section of buried pipe that feeds water to the snowmaking system on Deer Run. This is also an older section that has experienced breaks in increasing numbers over the last couple of years. Fixing breaks in the summer, while still a big job, is nothing compared to doing it in the winter, when snow, skiers, and frozen ground make it much more difficult to make repairs quickly. This project does not need to be completed by start of snowmaking, since the section in question can be isolated and repair work conducted without any ill effect in the rest of the system. Still, it’s always an advantage to get the work done while the weather cooperates and access roads remain dry.
Finally, a section of the buried power cable that feeds Paradise chair is being replaced following a lightning strike that ran through the ground and completely obliterated a section of it. The cause of the break in the line was only realised once the damaged section had been located and exposed. This is specialized work, and required that we find a company with the training and equipment to be able to find the break without having to dig up the entire line. Once exposed, it was obvious that lightning was the culprit, as the surrounding ground was charred black and the date of the damage (i.e. when power was lost) coincided with a rather severe thunderstorm that rolled through the Lake Louise area.
These projects, like all others in the national park, are subject to a lengthy process of environmental assessment, public and parks review, and the creation of construction agreements that acknowledge best practices with regards to the project and the rehabilitation that follows, and takes into account site guidelines, which dictate how work can and cannot proceed in various ecological zones. In the end, the goal is to restore disturbed areas back to their original state in as short a time as possible. This happens quickly given our short growing season and variable weather. There are some previous pipeline replacement projects on the mountain that are becoming difficult to see after only a few short years.