Even with this hot weather, the mercury has already dropped below freezing overnight on a few occasions, and as a result, the larch trees that line the Bow Valley along tree line turned their trademark fall yellow in what seemed like a matter of hours last week, and hot temperatures or not, that’s always a sure sign that winter is just around the corner.
The summer sightseeing operation of the Lake Louise Ski Area finishes next Wednesday, and then we enter what is always a busy month in October as we race to prepare the mountain for opening day early in November. While the pounding of steel rails for snow fence continues on the upper mountain, there are other people getting ready in other ways for the arrival of snow.
Looking up Easy St. from the base area, one can see the evidence of another way we prepare runs. This is a result of “mowing the lawn”, or hitting as many lower-angle runs as possible with a tractor-mounted mowing implement, leaving swathes of cut grass and brush. In places where it’s too steep for the tractor, we have a crew on foot using gas-powered brush saws. There are a couple of reasons for doing this.
First, we’re trying to remove any potential air pockets that may form as the first snow falls and remains suspended on high grass or thick brush. These air pockets make it harder to establish a skiing base, and can even accelerate the melting of the snow farther down the road. Also, the lower we can make the top level of growth, the sooner we can have a run that is skiable from side to side, with fewer detours needed to get around clumps of small trees or bushes. In the case of the tractor, it’ll mow down anything in its path. The brushing crews will focus on the bigger items, like bushes and trees, since cutting grass with a brush saw is very slow and would take forever.
While the tractor has been a staple on the slopes for years, we only starting having a dedicated brushing crew last year. With a long list of runs that need brushing, we expect to take a few years getting everywhere. Higher in priority are high-traffic runs like Pika and Larch, and once those are done, we’ll move into steeper places like Kiddies’ Corner and Pika Trees. We can’t start any of this cutting until after Labour Day, to ensure that any ground-nesting birds have vacated their nests.
Does this mean we’re making new runs on the mountain? No, since we’re only permitted to cut on runs that had previously been cleared. We’ll go as long as the weather permits, and once the snow falls (and stays) we’ll hang up the saws and turn more of our attention to the upper mountain snow fencing.
Thanks to an intense squall that just blew through Lake Louise this morning, the top half of the mountain is now covered in a new blanket of snow, which makes it that much harder not to get excited about the approaching ski season!
Snow on our mountain can happen any time of year, as it did in August. Nobody ever expects snow from a summer storm to last into winter, but as we get closer and closer to November, one can’t help but wonder if this could be the first snowfall to last until opening day. I’ve been here long enough to feel that this isn’t it, as we’re bound to get at least one more day of hot temps on the upper mountain, erasing any snowfall that comes too early. At the same time, it’s great to see snow, however fleeting, and we’re slowly dusting off the toques, gloves, and jackets that have remained unused since closing day last season.
Do we want this snow to stay on the mountain? Probably not, since it would likely undergo a series of temperature changes over the next month-and-a-half, turning it into a poor base and creating a weak layer of snow that would have the potential to haunt us throughout the season. Due to the relationship between snow depth, ground temperature, and air temperature, the ideal scenario would be for it to snow lots before it gets too cold. This would likely provide us with a thick, firm base upon which to build the season. A bad scenario would be for there to be some snow, followed by a cold period with no snowfall. The cold temperatures would weaken that snow, and in our steeper terrain we’d need the entire snowpack to avalanche so the run would have a chance to rebuild from the ground up – literally.
Now that the Labour Day long weekend has passed, the thoughts of those in the Mountain Operations department at Lake Louise are turning from bears to snow, which may seem strange given that we’re enjoying very summery weather and that our summer sightseeing operation continues until the end of September. Labour Day also starts the two-month countdown to opening day of the ski season, and work projects are now geared toward preparing the mountain for that day.
The first big job on the mountain is pounding in the over 2000 studded steel rails that will eventually support the kilometres of snow fence used to catch wind-blown snow in strategic spots. These fences play a vital role in establishing our early-season base, so an early start ensures that we take advantage of every flake. Each steel rail is about 5 lbs, and must be pounded into the ground one at a time with a heavy post-pounder, making this a physically demanding job. Most rails and rolls of fence were stashed on site at the end of last season, next to rocks, bushes and other natural features. Other than replacing old or damaged fence, little transporting of materials is required.
Snow fence installation in the fall goes in two stages – pounding of steel, and tying of fence to the steel. Pounding the steel in September allows us to take advantage of softer ground and generally better weather. Once all the steel are in the ground, we then wait for the ground to freeze (usually in October) before tying the fence, otherwise the soft ground would offer little support in a strong wind, and the fence would be flattened. At the same time, fence placement is not an exact science, and there are times when pounding into the frozen ground of mid-winter is necessary.
Steel rails are placed using a post pounder, which is a heavy metal tube closed at one end, with handles on the sides. The pounder is placed over the steel, which is then pounded into the ground using muscles and the weight of the metal. To remove the steel, an un-pounder is used. Similar to the pounder, it is open at both ends and is a bit lighter. It is placed over the steel to be removed, followed by a steel collar which is screwed firmly into place on the steel. The unpounder is then hit upwards against the collar, gradually knocking the steel out of the ground.
So, how are the steel placed, and what areas get priority? Ideally, fences should be placed so they’re perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction, which is from the southwest in our case. Depending on the area, the steel is placed wherever we’d like to have a fence during the winter. On wide open runs like Outer Limits, this means pounding in four or five long lines of steel, usually about 15-20′ apart. Once the ground freezes, fence will be tied to the windward-most line of steel. Once enough snow has been deposited on the leeward side, the fence is untied and moved to the next row, allowing the new drift to join the main part of the run.
In addition to winter-long locations, steel and fence are also placed in locations vital to our ability to open terrain as early as possible. For example, a run like Boomerang almost always provides great early-season skiing conditions due to its leeward aspect and smooth surface, meaning it gets lots of snow and doesn’t need a lot to fill in the cracks like would be the case on more bouldery runs. However, while Boomerang may be ready to go, getting to and out of the run can be a different story. On the way there, skiers pass through Windy Gap. Aptly named, it would always be barren rock if it weren’t for the snow fence installed there. Indeed, even with the fence, it can be a real challenge getting snow to stay put. The entire area is coated with wall-to-wall fence, and then once we open that area for skiing, enough fence is removed to allow passage. The same thing goes for the tops of both Paradise and Top of the World chairlifts. The unload areas are covered in fence prior to opening, then some is removed so people have room to get off the lift.
This past weekend also saw a work crew of World Cup volunteers on the mountain, installing fence on the top part of what will be the men’s downhill course, from the top of Sunset Gully to the top of Tickety Chutes. This is a difficult section of course to build, and the World Cup crew began last year coming in September to put up some fence in the hopes of capturing more snow. hey will not return until after the first snowfall has arrived, so they pounded the steel and tied the fence all in one go.
Our Trail Crew is currently four members, and as we get further into fall, more will be hired and our bootpacking program will begin, enabling us to have two or more crews on the mountain and to respond quickly to areas of concern. In the middle of winter, it can be difficult to gauge the effects of our snow farming program as everything blends together. However, it’s never hard to find a local who’ll rave about coming out early season to ski the long fence line drifts that dot the mountain. It’s a great way to get some pre-Christmas powder turns, and get your legs in shape for the months ahead.