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).