The Leg Burner

This past Saturday saw a long-running ski patrol tradition continued, as almost one hundred competitors signed up for the annual Leg Burner at Lake Louise.

Aptly named, the Leg Burner is a race that is held after the lifts have closed and patrol have completed their sweep of the mountain, and as late in the spring as possible. Competitors race solo at thirty second intervals, and there are categories for male & female skiers and snowboarders. The route starts on Shoulder Roll on Boomerang, follows Boomerang Flats to the base of Paradise chair and down to the Ski Out, which is followed all the way to the base area. Racers must then get to the deck between the two main lodges, where they will find a full cup of nice cold beer waiting. They must drink the entire cup, without spilling, before the clock stops on their run (soft drinks are available to those for whom beer is not in their diet).

One beer, you say? No problem.

Well, try it after tucking and skating on slushy snow for over ten minutes, then running up two flights of stairs and staring that beer in the face while gasping for breath. There are few people who can get that beer down quickly without spilling any, and this part of the race is often the deciding factor in what otherwise could be a fight for the top spots. Obviously, training is required for both skiing and drinking, and those who focus only on skiing do so at their own peril.

People prepare well in advance by scouting out a couple of the different route options, even doing a number of timed practice runs to see which way will lead to the podium. At the same time, the speed of the course, and therefore the amount of tucking vs. skating, is largely dependant on the weather. Saturday was a slightly cool and cloudy, which prevented the snow from getting to slushy. The course was actually faster than usual, and racers reported being able to tuck more than usual.

Racers approach the Leg Burner with varying amounts of seriousness. Some find downhill race skis and then stuff themselves into skin-tight one-piece racing suits. Others get their hands on long nordic ski poles, which allow for more push while skating. At the other end, two patrollers installed two sets of bindings on one pair of skis, and raced tandem. As awkward as that may sound, these guys have raced like this for a few years, and managed a seventh place this year!

This year’s champion was Brian Donnelly, who had already won a few times. He attacked the beer with a focused intensity that frightened some of the children in attendance. Defending champ Matt Penner, while unable to repeat, did manage second place, trailing Brian by eighteen seconds. The jury is still out on whether his snake-skin pants helped or hindered. Below are the official results for the top ten finishers, as well as the top three in each category:

Overall Results

  • 1 – Brian Donnelly – 10:00
  • 2 – Matt Penner – 10:18
  • 3 – Paul Buck – 10:33
  • 4 – Andrew Mason – 11:00
  • 5 – Don McLatchie – 11:27
  • 6 – Laura Penner – 11:31
  • 7 – Marc Burrell-Smith and Matt Fitzgibbon (tandem) – 11:55
  • 8 – Rhys Windle – 12:06
  • 9 – Gus Wyeth – 12:10
  • 10 – Gavin Barron – 12:11

Skiers – Men

  • same as top three, above

Skiers – Women

  • 1 – Laura Penner – 11:31
  • 2 – Heather Allen – 12:59
  • 3 – Kat Simmons – 14:56

Snowboarders – Men

  • 1 – Dave Beuchler – 13:42
  • 2 – Michael Pullinger – 14:04
  • 3 – Michael Hennesse – 14:06

Snowboarders – Women

  • 1 – Zoe Brulee – 18:50
  • 2 – Irene Dupuis – 19:43
  • 3 – Vanya Fullerton – 20:05


This event is always a popular one for ski area staff and locals. If you think you’d like to participate next year, find a ski patroller around the start of April, since the date is only decided a few weeks in advance, and word-of-mouth is the only advertising.


Skoki Lodge

It was a nice Easter weekend at Lake Louise, and on Sunday I made a quick trip out to Skoki Lodge for the day to get some photographs before the lodge closed for the spring. I arrived in time for breakfast, and wandered around the lodge as the last guests of the season packed and prepared for their trip back to Lake Louise. Skoki is now closed until late June, when the first guests of the summer will make the 11km hike in, hopeful not to encounter too much snow.
The pioneers of skiing in the Lake Louise area first envisioned a European-style system of backcountry lodges that skiers could string together in multi-day trips, and Skoki was the first. World War I and troubled financial times put a stop to these grand plans before any other lodges could be built, though construction materials for another can still be found in the woods above Douglas Lake, to the east of Skoki.
The trip to Skoki is about 11km and starts at a cut-off on Marmot just uphill of Temple Lodge. The trail is well-maintained, and travels along the gentle rise of the Ptarmigan Valley, over Boulder Pass, across Ptarmigan Lake, then over Deception Pass and down into the Skoki Valley to the lodge. This trip can be done in two or three hours, depending on equipment and ability. Most supplies for the lodge, including food and laundry, are taken in by snowmobile on a trail that is mostly separate from the ski trail, and larger items, like the huge propane tanks that fuel the kitchen and generator, are flown in by helicopter at the start of the season. In summer, a helicopter is used until the trail is clear of snow, and then horses are used to pack all supplies in.
On Ptarmigan Lake, looking back at the ski area.

On Ptarmigan Lake, looking back at the ski area.


Ptarmigan Peak, with Richardson's Ridge barely visible in the background at far left.

Ptarmigan Peak, with Richardson's Ridge barely visible in the background at far left.


From the top of Deception Pass, looking towards Ptarmigan Lake and Eagle Ridge.

From the top of Deception Pass, looking towards Ptarmigan Lake and Eagle Ridge.


Starting the ski down from the top of Deception Pass, with the north face of Mt. Redoubt upper left.

Starting the ski down from the top of Deception Pass, with the northeast face of Mt. Redoubt at upper left.


Eagle Ridge and Paradise Chair in the back left, and Hidden Bowl on the right (tempting, but suspect).

Eagle Ridge and Paradise Chair in the back left, and Hidden Bowl on the right (tempting, but suspect).

Once the ski season is over, I’ll be posting a more detailed history of Skoki Lodge and how it relates to the beginning of the Lake Louise Ski Area.

Whitehorn II Now Wide Open !

Today’s another beautiful spring day at Lake Louise, and while cold temperatures overnight and this morning meant a slow start to softer snow, the avalanche control team was able to give a huge gift to those at the Lake today – the rest of Whitehorn II. ‘A’ gully opened early in the season along with the rest of the Saddleback/Rodney’s Ridge area, and ‘B’ and ‘C” Gullies came later. These three gullies remained the only open parts of Whitehorn II until this morning.

Better late than never, the amount of terrain offering winter-like snow conditions has multiplied, and skiers and riders are being treated to runs that have remained smooth and soft. Like a few other places on the mountain, the narrow parts of the runs (the chokes) have some rocks, but they are easily navigated, and do little to take away from otherwise beautiful runs.

The time of year that all of Whitehorn II opens varies greatly from year to year. It can open before Christmas, or wait as long as it did this year. A long series of things going right needs to happen in order for the gates to crack, and while it took most of the season this year, it still happened – enjoy !


P.S. This is spring, so Whitehorn II, like all avalanche terrain, can open or close at any time of the day. If you’re going to duck a rope to enter an avalanche control area, you must make sure the run is open every time you enter.

Spring Avalanche Closures

Okay – I’m back at Lowdown HQ after some time off and a busy Easter weekend…

We’re a  few weeks into April now, and while we’ve not been getting total cooperation from Mother Nature as far as a warm spring goes, we have had enough warm weather lately to create a few melt/freeze cycles, and also for the avalanche control team to put up their one big spring avalanche closure line.

We’ve had warm (+0C) days throughout this season, but there’s one main difference that sets apart a warm day in January and one in April, and that is the temperature during the night following a warm day. In January, it’s highly unlikely that above-freezing temperatures will continue through the night, meaning that whatever melting that occurred during the day will have a chance to recover overnight once the temperatures dip back to below 0C. This freezing will bring back whatever snowpack stability may have been lost the previ0us day, and the next day starts on a clean slate.

In April, there’s a much higher chance that warm temps will continue through the night. The snowpack will have recovered less, and will start the next day already behind the stability 8-ball, so to speak. Especially in areas that receive a lot of direct sun, unsafe conditions can arise quickly. These unsafe conditions come in the form of an isothermal snowpack, which means the entire pack is the same temperature from top to bottom, rather than having a gradual change as you move through the various layers. Isothermal snow loses all cohesion, and the snow becomes completely unsupportive. On steeper slopes, isothermal snow is unable to adhere to the slope or surrounding snow, and will often avalanche on its own, without any natural or human trigger required.

On warm days the avalanche control team continually monitors all avalanche terrain, ready to close it if conditions become too hazardous. Usually, only the top of the snowpack will experience recovery, while the rest remains unsupportive. This is a type of bridging, where the solid top layer will support the weight of skiers or riders only so long as the temperatures and exposure to sun permit. After a long, cold night, there may have been significant bridging, and the crust stays strong well into the next day. If overnight freezing temperatures were only brief, then recovery will be minimal and the top layer will quickly succumb to more warmth or sunlight. The avalanche control teams constantly monitor snowpack temperatures in order to be able to act proactively in closing terrain.

S0 – what weather makes for great spring skiing from a stability point of view? The key is cold, clear nights. Clouds act as an insulating layer, so if a particular day was warm, and then the clouds move in for the night, then all that warmth from the day will be trapped and the snowpack won’t have a chance to recover. A cloudless night allows accumulated heat to escape, giving the snowpack a better chance. During the daytime, clouds can be a good thing, since they’ll lessen the effect of direct sunlight. For quality of skiing, this can be good or bad, since some heat is good in order to soften the snow enough to make for good turns.

Anyone at Lake Louise on Easter weekend for the annual Big Mountain Challenge may have noted that the venue for the finals on Saturday was changed from Upper ER 5 to Er 3, since Friday was a hot day and parts of Upper ER 5 became isothermal. Without knowing how it would recover that night, the avalanche forecaster decided to close that area and move the finals down the ridge a bit. In Upper ER 5, the conditions were variable. For example, in the gullies dividing Upper and Lower ER 5, the skier’s right sides were solid and almost crusty, since they were protected from the sun. The skier’s left sides, on the other hand, directly faced the sun, and turned to slop in no time at all. With that kind of variability, the slope had to be closed until it could have a good chance at recovery.

Warmer weather and longer days also means that areas normally not a part of an avalanche closure become so. These areas are on the frontside of the mountain and sit in the sun almost all day long, and include Mirkwood, Grizzly Gully, Grizzly Bowl, and Kernahan’s. In order to protect these areas behind a closure, a long fence gets set up every spring. It starts at the top of the Flight cat road above Home Run, and follows Home Run as it rounds Grizzly Gully towards the top of the old Olympic chair. It then continues down the skier’s left side of Wrong Turn so that people aren’t able to do a long traverse from that run over to Kernahan’s. Ski patrol can then easily close the entire area if conditions dictate.

This avalanche closure is like any other on the mountain – it can open or close at any time, and it’s important that those entering these areas are certain that the area is open before ducking a rope. Just because it was open on the last lap doesn’t mean it will be on the next.

Spring Squalls Bring Surprises

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.

New Terrain Open at the Lake

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!