…be right this time!!
Visitors to the Lake Louise Ski Area last week were treated to this summer’s first sighting of a grizzly bear at the resort. Last summer we didn’t see a bear until well into June, due chiefly to the much slower melt that occurred last year. Bears start their summer seasons at valley bottom, then follow the melting snow line uphill as it slowly rises. Last summer, a cool spring meant that we didn’t see grass around the base area of the resort until up to a month after normal, and the resulting late green-up also meant a late arrival for the bears.
This hasn’t always been the case, as a few winters ago a grizzly was spotted on Wiwaxy while we were still open for skiing. We closed the run, and the bear spent a short time in a futile search for food, then moved on. More recently, a bear was also seen over in the Larch area while we were open for winter, but after a few brief appearances also went on its way, not to be seen again until summer.
Especially in June and July, bears are regulars at the resort, and both black and grizzly bears can be seen most days wandering around the hill. It’s not common for bears to get close to where people are. The electric fence keeps them out of the base area, and they rarely approach the Whitehorn Lodge/mid-station area when there are people around. When it does happen, a bit of a lock-down goes into effect so that the bear(s) can go about their business undisturbed. People who are held up at Whitehorn Lodge because of bear, for example, don’t mind, since it usually means there’s a bear close enough to watch and get good photos of without having to leave the safety of a building.
If you’re lucky enough to ride the summer lift and go right over a bear, it’s an amazing feeling – you know you’re safely out of reach of the bear, but it can still be a little unnerving, especially for those who have never seen or been near a bear before. Needless to say, people get very excited.
The photo below shows our first bear of the season, and was taken just uphill of the main base area (as was the photo of grizzly sow with two cubs at the top of the page, taken in July 2008):
Now that we’re a bit into spring, it seems fitting that Lake Louise should get some typical spring weather, this week coming in the form of some short but powerful squalls.
On Wednesday, we had received 1cm overnight, but skiers venturing onto the mountain experienced up to 10cm in some places, thanks to a strong squall that blew through in less than two hours during the morning. With temperatures remaining cool in the alpine, the result was not typical spring snowfall – it was light and soft, and made for some great conditions.
Last night, another couple of squalls blew through and left another 5cm of soft snow on top of an already soft base, and with lots of fresh lines still left yesterday, conditions today (Friday) will be even better. With more snow forecasted for this weekend, that trend should continue.
After months of intensive control work and less-than-ideal cooperation from this winter’s weather, the Lake Louise avalanche control department has been able to open a couple of marquee pieces of terrain on the backside.
First to have its gate cracked was Fallen Angel (ER 6), off of the top of Paradise chair. A good part of the run was skiable long before it opened, but the narrow chokes through rocks near the top weren’t holding enough snow to allow the run to open. Recent snowfall changed all that, and the gate was peeled back for the first time this season.
Next on the list is a much more visible piece of double black-diamond real estate – Upper ER 5. This area needs alot of things to go right before it can be considered for opening, and like ER 6, the stars finally aligned and Upper ER 5 opened on Sunday.
One of the things that makes Upper ER 5 such a tricky place to open is the fact that it is a very complicated piece of terrain, with rocks, cliffs, gullies, and cornices requiring diligent and meticulous avalanche control. Especially in a season like this, the control team wanted to ensure that every square metre of the slope received control work, whether in the form of ski cutting or explosives. To paint a bit of a picture of the work required, Upper ER 5 this season has seen 69 single explosive shots and 33 double (“nukes”), as well as 13 avalauncher rounds and hundreds upon hundreds of ski cuts. Only after all of this work and observation did the control team feel confident that the terrain could open.
Those who spend any amount of time skiing Upper ER 5 will already have seen that some areas do not stand up to traffic that well, specifically at the entrance off of Paradise Bowl and through the narrow chokes at the transition between Upper and Lower ER5. As long as they remain viable ski lines, however, the run will remain open, avalanche conditions permitting.
This morning at Lake Louise it’s snowing lightly, and forecasts are calling for some more snow Thursday and Friday – let’s hope they’re right!
It’s been two weeks now since an avalanche buried two people in Sheol Valley south of Lake Louise. A party of four went for a ski tour, making their way to Surprise Pass. Crossing a large gully feature on the south face of Mt. Fairview, an avalanche started at the top of the slope and carried two of the party over one thousand vertical feet to the bottom of Sheol Valley, which separates Sheol Mt. from Mt. Fairview and Saddle Mt, and drains into Paradise Valley. This incident made news right away in a season that has seen avalanches on the front pages of many newspapers, but it hit especially close to home once we realised that the two who were caught in the slide were a Lake Louise ski patroller and the wife of another.
The party of four, all of whom are experienced backcountry skiers and have years of ski patrolling and guiding under their belts, drove up towards the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and parked in the public lots close to the lake. The route to Surprise pass starts by following the summer hiking trail to Saddleback Pass, then continues around to the south side of Mt. Fairview into Sheol Valley and up to Surprise Pass, which lies between Mts. Aberdeen and Fairview and leads down to the Plain of Six Glaciers hiking trail. The route starts in the forest, emerging just below the final approach up to Saddleback Pass. From there, the route follows tree-line and makes its way around to the south-facing side of Mt. Fairview, which is where the first avalanche slope of the route is located.
The slope is a long gully feature that starts near Fairview’s peak and runs all the way to the bottom of Sheol Valley. It is typically a cross-loaded feature, meaning it gets filled by wind-transported snow from the side rather than from over the top. This means the skier’s right side of the gully has more snow than the left, at least in the part that receives the wind-blown snow.
The group had done some test snow profiles and had been discussing the stability of the snowpack the whole way up, and when they reached the gully feature, they judged it suitable to cross and decided to do so one by one. Skier 1 crossed the slope with no trouble. Skier 2 crossed as well, and was waiting behind the first skier for the other two to cross. As Skier 3 began to cross the slope, a fracture line appeared along the skier’s right flank of the slope and zipped with lightning speed almost to the top, where the snow began to slide. All of a sudden the entire slope was in motion, and Skiers 2 & 3 were hit by the snow already sliding quickly down from above. The two skiers were carried over a kilometre through small trees and open slope, ending up far apart from each other once the sliding snow hit the valley bottom and spread into a fan.
Skier 2 heard the fracture as it started, and barely had time to react before the snow began to move. She recalls trying to self-arrest, but was unsuccessful. Her only other memory was of trying to clear a space in front of her mouth with her hands as the debris came to a stop . She ended up at the bottom of the slope, face down and completely buried by snow.
Skier 3 was also carried the entire length of the slope, but on the skier’s left side. When the debris stopped moving, she was face up and partially buried. Her head, arms, and legs were out of the snow, and she was able to dig herself out and begin the search for her companion as the two skiers who weren’t caught in the avalanche joined her. With their avalanche beacons, they located Skier 2 and started to dig her out. They reached her head, and when they pulled her head out of the snow, she had been buried for around fifteen minutes, which is widely considered the maximum amount of time a person can go without oxygen before suffering irreversible brain damage. She was unconscious and not breathing, and her hands and face were blue from lack of oxygen. As soon as they uncovered her head, though, she began to breathe on her own, though she didn’t regain consciousness right away.
Once Skier 2 was uncovered and awake, Skier 3 complained of a sore neck. Another party member, her husband, also noticed her bleeding from an injury on her face and from an avulsion on the top of her head. The others immediately used extra clothing to fashion a cervical collar to stabilize her neck, and got her to lie down on a pair of skis to keep her rigid and unmoving. With the party out of immediate danger, the husband made his way back to the Fairmont hotel to call for help.
Shortly after, a helicopter with rescue crew was dispatched to the scene, and two ambulances made their way to the parking lots by the lake to use as a staging area. All party members were flown out, with the two buried parties being taken to the hospital in Banff. Skier 3, with the neck injury, was transported by STARS air ambulance to Foothills hospital in Calgary. It was later confirmed that she had six fractured vertebrae – three in her neck. The doctors there expressed amazement that she was not paralyzed given her injuries.
Skier 2 spent a short time in the Banff hospital, then returned to her home in Lake Louise. She had suffered severe frostbite to her hands, since when the body is deprived of oxygen, the extremities are the first places to stop getting circulation, and her hands froze up right away, later requiring lacerations to relieve pressure from the swelling. Her hands are almost back to normal, and after four or five days of fatigue and soreness, she has returned to work on the patrol. She heads back to her real home in New Zealand in a few days for some much needed relaxation.
Skier 3 spent some time in hospital in Calgary, and has been home now for about a week. She is wearing a halo for the next two or three months to keep her head and neck still while the fractures have a chance to heal. While her recovery will be slower, she will recover, and is expected to return to 100%. She has a few staples in her scalp to treat the avulsion, and had a loose tooth repaired as well.
For the two skiers not caught in the slide, they both knew right away as it happened that this was serious. As soon as the debris came to a stop, they checked above to ensure there was no further possibility of avalanches on that slope, then skied down the slide path to begin the search for the other two. Skier 4, the husband of Skier 3, didn’t allow the fact that his wife was in serious danger to distract him from performing the search safely and according to his training.
We’re all relieved beyond words that our friends and coworkers emerged alive from an event that otherwise could have had a very different outcome. And, while the physical wounds will heal, I can’t imagine this event will be one any of the four will ever forget.
The Google Earth diagram linked to below shows the approximate route to Surprise Pass from the parking area near the Chateau Lake Louise, as well as the avalanche path as it ran that day and the locations of the skiers. All are approximate. The photos below the diagram were taken by Parks Canada wardens from the helicopter that perfomed the rescue.
Click link for diagram —> sheol-valley1
Even though we had a week or so of spring back in January, it really felt like it on Saturday at Lake Louise, as sunny skies and warm temperatures combined with over 10cm of new snow to make for fantastic conditions and a great day on the slopes. Despite the weekend crowd suggesting otherwise, there were fresh tracks to be found well into the day. As much fun as it is to be out skiing in the middle of a snowstorm, having great visibility with the soft new snow makes it hard to have a bad day.
Along with the new snow came a period of natural avalanche activity just outside the ski area boundary. A dramatic example was in an area called the National Geographics (or “Geos” for short) – the collective name for the south-facing gullies on an outlying ridge of Mt. Richardson, visible from the ski area boundary at the top of Boomerang. Each one of those gullies avalanched on their own during the night.
And yet, despite all of this activity, people are still venturing into closed avalanche areas or going outside the boundary into places that probably aren’t all that safe. One closed area that got traffic was the Ptarmigan Chutes. I stopped a few people as they were about to duck the closure right next to a “Closed” sign. They explained that they had ridden the Summit platter and asked the patroller at the top what West Bowl was like, and were told that they’d be crazy to go there given the touchy conditions. They heeded the patroller’s advice, which is encouraging, especially since they did not have any rescue gear with them.
However, they decided that they’d head over to the Ptarmigan Chutes and ride the closed area there. They barely broke stride when ducking the fence, and when I called them back and got their story, I was amazed that they had gone so far as to ask a patroller about conditions, then completely ignored the implications and went into another area – this time an avalanche closure and arguably more dangerous, since the entire slope had been exposed to the warm sun all day. In the end, I don’t think they understood why places are closed, but they seemed to respect the fact that they could not enter avalanche closures, and went on their way.
There is plenty of good skiing to be found inside the area boundary for those with no interest in leaving it, and with more snow forecast to fall this week, things continue to look up.
It’s been a fantastic week at Lake Louise, with a big storm dumping lots of fresh powder all over the mountain on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by two days of bluebird on Thursday and today (nothing like a couple of sunny days on the slopes to recharge the ol’ batteries, eh?). The cats did a great job of laying down a whole lot of corduroy last night, and carvers had these groomed runs all to themselves for most of the morning.
When the avalanche forecaster arrived at work this morning, the weather data from our Paradise top telemetry station reported about 12 hours of 30km winds or greater, starting right when the hill closed yesterday. Upon seeing this, his initial reaction was to expect significant wind-loading on lee slopes, since there was lots of fetch (snow available to be transported by wind) after the storm, and 30km winds, especially 12 hours of them, can move a lot of snow.
Since it was a clear morning, the forecaster grabbed his binoculars to see if he could see any signs of wind effect on the front side of Summit, which can be seen right from his desk. Contrary to what he expected, there were no signs at all of any scouring, which is the usual result when the wind comes from the southwest. That could mean a couple of things – either the cold temperatures immediately following the storm stiffened up the snow enough so that the wind couldn’t move it, or the winds were just low enough to hit our weather station, but none of the terrain. Once we got on the mountain, it was clear that it was the latter, since the new snow was still soft and would definitely have moved had the wind been low enough to do so.
On avalanche control, my partner and I headed to B and C Gullies of Whitehorn II, and when we unloaded the Summit lift we could see without even entering the run that the wind had only blown minimal amounts of snow, which had settled between the bumps that lie in the first 15 or 20 metres of the slope. Below that, there was no sign of wind-transported snow at all. The photo below shows the gate into Boomerang, and you can see the snow that was blown onto the cat track overnight, which isn’t much.
Once we were done in Whitehorn II, we went to join another team over at North Cornice, which had developed a bit of its namesake cornice from the wind that circles around from Bare Ass Pass and hits it from behind. As in other places, the loading was limited to the immediate lee part of the slope, so for the most part our mission was to knock the cornice down before it had a chance to grow too big and become a safety issue.
When controlling a cornice, the first team member will travel along the top of the ridge, kicking the cornice with their ski and trying to get it so that there is no overhang. The second patroller will travel behind the first and a metre or two below, ski cutting the slope that received the loading. Although it wasn’t in this case, kicking cornice can be a little frightening, since you hope that you’re not standing on the piece that decides to fall! If there’s any indication this might be the case, a patroller will travel along with the one doing the kicking, hanging on to them so they can pull them back if needed. The photos below show three patrollers as they move along North Cornice towards Lake Pitch, which is the eastern end of the feature and so named due to the little lake that lies in the flats below but hidden from view by ice and snow in the winter (click the link for Summer 07 to the right to see a photo of this area in the summer).
When we arrived at Lake Pitch, we could see pillow of wind-loaded snow that might be a concern, and while nothing we had seen so far this morning indicated it would be an issue, it was decided that to be sure we should use an explosive. When the snow is firm, like it was here, you need to tie the shot onto a length of cord and hang it over the cornice – otherwise you risk the shot bouncing on the surface and ending up at the bottom of the slope, where it is of little use. In the first photo below, you can barely see the shot hanging in place (though you may need to click on the photo for a lrger version to see better).
As you can see in the last photo above, only the top 5cm or so of snow reacted to the bomb, and we were satisfied that Boomerang, Brownshirt, and North Cornice were good to open. As we made our way back to Paradise chair, we watched two other control teams put some more ski cuts into Upper ER 5, which is slowly but surely getting closer to being open. Not yet, but we`re hoping soon!
Went out to my car this morning in Banff to find that a huge cornice had developed off the back edge of the roof from all the wind last night, making me wonder a) how much fun the drive to Lake Louise was going to be, and b) how much fun avalanche control was going to be this morning, since wind always contributes to elevated avalanche hazard when accompanying new snow, making things a little more exciting.
The drive was certainly interesting, with ten or so trucks and a few cars in the ditch and whiteout conditions. I made it, thankfully, as did our avalanche forecaster, and now starts the task of getting the mountain open for the day. When we arrived at 0700, it was still snowing hard, as the following photos show (compare the photo of the quad to the similar shot in yesterday’s post):
We’ve received well over 20cm since the storm started, with still more forecasted to fall. Despite the windy overnight conditions in Banff, it was a different story in Lake Louise with not much wind of note overnight and currently calm conditions at mountain top. This means that we’re likely going to find a whole lot of blower powder all over the mountain, especially since current mountaintop temperatures are around -24C with no wind chill.
So, dress warmly, drive carefully, enjoy the long-awaited powder conditions, and I’ll provide updates once the morning’s avalanche control work is done.
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…
At the start of this season, the avalanche control team at Lake Louise was joined by Tim Ricci, an experienced patroller who had previously worked on the snow safety teams at Marmot Basin near Jasper and Mt. Norquay in Banff. Along with his experience, Tim also brought his dog Cholo, and the two of them were on their way to becoming a certified avalanche rescue team with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Cholo is a purebred yellow lab, weighs about 35kg, and is about two-and-a-half years old.
Tim and Cholo had started on this path when Cholo was a six-month-old puppy, and two years later, on February 2 of this year, they passed their final exam to lose their “team in training” status and become fully validated with CARDA. There are only thirty or so validated teams in Canada, with most in B.C., a few in Alberta, and one in the Yukon. Becoming an avalanche dog handler is a decision that is usually made before a puppy is acquired, since breed and temperament are important factors to consider when choosing a pup. There’s more info on dog selection at the CARDA website: http://www.carda.bc.ca/education/
Even though Tim and Cholo are now a validated team, it doesn’t mean the training has come to an end, and when things are a little slower in the avalanche control world, there is opportunity to continue to develop the skills of both dog and handler. Yesterday was one of those days at Lake Louise, so we went about setting up a scenario in which the dog would have to find two buried “victims”. Using live people in scenarios (rather than just a scented article of clothing) is better, since it more closely mimics the real thing, and it also allows the “victim”, once rescued, to reward the dog with play and enthusiastic encouragement, all of which reinforce the search drive in the dog.
Two holes were dug around the bottom of East Bowl (ER 1) – one a shallow ditch, and the other a small cave. In the ditch, a patroller lay down on her stomach, leaving an air pocket around her face and a radio in her hand, and the snow was shovelled in on top of her. I went into the small cave, which was just large enough to allow some movement and the taking of some photos, and it then had its narrow entrance covered and smoothed over on top.
We both had with us articles of clothing that had been scented (don’t ask) to help the dog and to use as a play toy once the dog had located us. Once we were in place, the dog was brought to the scene and a search commenced. The buried patroller was lower on the slope and therefore closer to the dog, which picked up her scent quite quickly and went right to the burial spot. Once the dog started to dig in the snow, other patrollers (the rescue team) took it as their cue to dig as well, and the patroller was re-introduced to daylight in a matter of seconds.
Once she was uncovered, Cholo continued the search, and picked up my scent about thirty feet or so from where I was in my little cave. I had my camera in one hand, and the scented article in the other, ready to reward Cholo when he found me. The snow blocking the cave entrance began to fall in, and suddenly Cholo’s head peered in. Once he saw me, he began to dig like crazy and eventually ended up in the cave with me, making things even more cozy, and trying to drag me out of the hole. I crawled out of the hole while playing with Cholo, and once back on top let him drag me down the slope.
The reward for a good search is critical. Tim instructed us to be over the top and act like idiots when praising Cholo, with the idea being that there is no greater moment in the dog’s life than when he finds a buried victim. He said that if we didn’t make other people turn and stare with our praise, then we weren’t being idiotic enough! There’s little question that as a handler you want your search dog to be very enthusiastic when it comes to finding people buried in the snow. In fact, I remember a search scenario that occurred in Brownshirt a number of years ago that involved both the Lake Louise patrol as well as the parks service and their dog team. The dog was in training, and when it uncovered the dummy we had used as a buried victim, the dog was so into it he ripped the head and arms clean off the dummy’s body.