World Cup Starts Today – Men’s Downhill

Months of hard work by hundreds of volunteers has paid off, and today they get to watch as the World Cup season gets underway with the men racing their first downhill race of this Olympic season.

If all goes according to plan, the first of ten forerunners will leave the start hut at the top of the course above Sunset Gully and make their way through 41 gates to the finish just uphill of the base area, followed by 78 racers. They’ll cover the course, which is a shade over 3km long and drops 831m in vertical, in about two minutes, reaching speeds well over 100km/h. The best way to really get a sense of the speeds reached on this course is to stand next to it and watch the racers fly by with a whoosh of wind.

The photo below was taken towards the end of the day yesterday, when I had the chance to ride in the helicopter that’s currently parked near the patrol building. The entire course is bordered by red safety netting, which is visible in the photo and clearly shows the route down the mountain (click on photo for large version). I figured the helicopter might also be a good place from which to watch the race, but I was a few thousand dollars shy of making that a reality.

World Cup Men's Downhill course at Lake Louise - Nov 27, 2009


20cm in the Last 24 hrs

It’s still dark here in Lake Louise, but it looks like the skies are clearing, and with 20cm of snow on the upper mountain in the last 24 hours, it appears we might be in for a repeat of Tuesday, where the combination of sunlight and new snow made for a fantastic day. Yesterday was also one for the books, and the poor light didn’t stop people from enjoying fantastic conditions – November or not! Temperatures have cooled somewhat since yesterday, but are expected to rise again over the weekend, accompanied with the chance of some more snow tomorrow (Sat).

The training run of the World Cup men’s downhill was cancelled yesterday due to the heavy snow, and crews have been working all night to clear the track in preparation of today’s – the last before the downhill and Super-G races this weekend. During World Cup, Glacier and Top of the World chairs open long before sunrise, and I arrive at work to see the resort already bustling with activity. There’s a helicopter parked right outside my office window, and with it coming and going, I’m always checking to make sure wy windows are tightly closed, otherwise the office would get a nice new coating of snow with every take-off and landing.

With yesterday’s snowfall, some slopes that had avalanched on the October crust and facet layer are well on the way to recovery. Avalanche control teams were able to ski on the bed surface (the top of the snow upon which an avalanche slides) in Brownshirt, and provided the weather cooperates, that area should open in the near future. And although still a little bony, Whitehorn I is also coming along.

There has been little to no wind in the last day or so, so all of this new snow is sitting there waiting to get blown around by the wind, whenever it decides to show up. We can expect significant changes once that happens. Leeward slopes will fill in, and avalanche hazard will also increase with the added load and potential for slab conditions. The avalanche control team will have their hands full, but it’s all for the greater good, and we’ll soon be able to enjoy the fruits of their efforts.


Lake Louise, November 26 2009 – 9:30am

And it’s been snowing steadily since…


More Snow at the Lake!

Things keep getting better at Lake Louise, and with more the than 15cm of new snow we received last night (as of 11:00am), the trend continues. It’s still snowing this morning, and forecasts are calling for a few more cm’s through today.

Those who were out skiing on Tuesday were treated to a fantastic day of new snow, sunny skies, and great skiing conditions. It was a treat to be able to see in the good light, and powder turns were available throughout the day. Good light also allows avalanche control teams to move more quickly through tricky terrain, and great progress is being made on further expanding our alpine terrain.

Next on the list of openings is the ER 7 area. Control teams have done a great job working the area, and we’ve managed to avoid the widespread avalanching that we’ve seen in places such as Whitehorn I & II, Brownshirt, and ER5. Control work has produces avalanches in Big 7 (far skier’s right of ER7), but the snow has stayed in Vertical Cornice and the ER 7 Gullies, and with fence work nearing completion, we’re just waiting for colder temperatures before it all gets opened to the public.

It has been quite warm the last few days, and the rise is the mercury causes the snowpack to become less stable in the short term. A return to colder temps will change that for the better, and once the avalanche forecaster is happy with the conditions the gates will open.

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On the World Cup front, we received the go ahead last week  from the race organizers to proceed with the Men’s Downhill this weekend, based on their inspection of the course work to date. With that approval comes a marked increase in activity surrounding the race. All of a sudden there are hundreds of athletes, coaches, volunteers, and media milling about, and almost hourly trucks arrive with everything from the huge Jumbotron to the grandstand seating for the finish area.

The start of the men’s race will be near the top of the Wave on Summit. This is higher than the start of the last few years, and racers will launch into Sunset Gully with even more speed. The race can only be run if there has been at least one successful training run, and with that occurring yesterday, the only thing that could stand in the way of race weekend is the weather.

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The photos below are from Tuesday, November 24 2009:

World Cup crews attach padding to obstacles just outside the race netting.

Start for the Men's Downhill.

Steep & Flats, near Top of the World chair.

The hike to Upper Boomerang.

Sue enjoys the goods in Boomerang.

Whitehorn III, with I Gully just left of centre.


Boomerang Open

If all goes according to plan, Boomerang will open to the public for the first time this season later today (Sat). The bowl itself has been loaded with snow for a while now, but a few things have prevented us from opening that terrain sooner.

First were the open creeks at the end of the outrun flats, at the Hump. It’s the only way to exit the area, and there needed to be enough snow to fill in the creeks. Also, we’ve been faced with the same avalanche conditions that exist elsewhere on the mountain – conditions that have produced large avalanches in much of our alpine terrain, thanks to the rain crust and layer of faceted crystals formed in October.

Similar to the results we saw a few days ago in Whitehorn II C and D Gullies, the avalanche teams were working their way along the hike to Upper Boomerang, throwing shots to control the slope along the way. When they arrived at the top of Brownshirt, they saw that almost the entire slope had avalanched, likely from one of the shots thrown earlier hundreds of metres away. The avalanche also reached into the skier’s left flank of Shoulder Roll, and based on these results, the avalanche teams had to do more laps through the area to ensure they removed the risk, and to set up the long fence lines that are needed to control this large piece of terrain. The fence line that divides Brownshirt from Boomerang and Shoulder Roll had to be placed on steel rails pounded into the ground, since the snow in which they usually sit had all slid away.

Skiers traveling to Boomerang may notice that F and G Gullies of Whitehorn II look to be in great shape. True, there’s lots of snow in both of those gullies, but they are subject to the same crust and facet layers that exist elsewhere, and it’s now almost a certainty that those will slide as well in the near future – whether naturally or as the result of explosive control work. Hard to watch, but necessary so that the run can rebuild with a more stable snowpack.

So, for those who have their hearts set on skiing some of this terrain, do not only watch for snow in forecasts, but also for wind, since these are leeward slopes, and wind is instrumental in filling them in with snow.


Larch & Ptarmigan Open Friday

Exactly two weeks after opening day, November 20  marks the first day that all lifts (except the humble Magic Carpet) will open at Lake Louise for the 2009-10 season. Thanks to continued snowfall and good snowmaking weather, most runs accessed by these lifts will open as well. While Pika is the only back side run that has received snowmaking, most other runs accessed by these lifts are in great early-season condition. As usual, ‘early-season’ means there’s still small trees, bushes, rocks, etc that lurk at or near the snow surface, so caution is advised. Runs like Ptarmigan and Lynx are in excellent condition for those adventurous skiers who are able to navigate around these obstacles.

The only back side runs that remain closed in these two areas are Ptarmigan Chutes, Lipalian Chutes, Elevator Shaft, and Rock Garden. Tower 12 & Lookout Chutes will open pending further avalanche control work. In addition to Pika, Larch, Marmot, and Lookout runs have been groomed, and while they have not yet achieved their mid-season smooth grade, there’s lots of soft corduroy for those looking for it.

The Larch area has actually been in great shape for a week or two now, but the only thing preventing it from opening earlier was access along Pika, particularly the lowest part between the base of Paradise chair and Temple Lodge. The narrow section below the chair has an open creek running down one side, and it takes a lot of snowmaking to fill that in and produce enough snow that the snow cats can build the run.

On Ptarmigan side, most of the preparation revolves around avalanche control and closure fences for Ptarmigan Chutes. The fence that runs along the top of the ridge is fairly straight forward, but the one that runs downhill parallel to the lift goes through stands of trees, and is slow going.

All that aside, the hard work of snowmaking, grooming, patrol, and avalanche control teams has paid off, and with all chair lifts now open on the mountain, we can continue working terrain and getting more open.


More Powder at the Lake

The last few days at Lake Louise have seen some turbulent weather, as the latest system to roll through came in like a lion (high winds), and went out like a lamb (fluffy snow). Yesterday (Tuesday), most lifts on the mountain closed for at least part of the day as high winds played havoc with both our lifts and avalanche closure fences and signs.

Since the wind we get at Lake Louise usually comes from the south/south-west, the front side lifts are more susceptible to wind closures, and once we started getting gusts in excess of 80km/h at the top of the Grizzly Gondola, the time came to stop loading the lift and wait for the wind to subside a bit. Top of the World chair followed shortly after. Chairs can swing wildly in high wind, and the chance of a line derailment increases if the lift is moving. Also, if the lift were to stop, we have to think about any people who might be sitting on the chair and exposed to potentially unsafe conditions.

The other alpine lifts – Paradise and Summit – remained open, at least for the short term. Paradise is on the leeward side of the mountain, and riders don’t get a sense of the wind that’s pounding the front side until they get to the last few metres of the ride. The one thing we need to make sure of there is that people are able to unload the chair without the wind blowing them back into their seats. The Summit Platter is a surface lift, and therefore is not subject to the same issues as a chair lift in high wind.

At the same time, both Paradise and Summit did close, but not for lift-related reasons. While traveling down the fence that separates Paradise Bowl from Upper ER 5, and avalanche control team noticed that entire sections of closure fence and their signs were being blown away. Without the ability to maintain these vital fences during the wind, the avalanche forecaster decided it was best to close all alpine terrain until the wind let up and we could get a chance to ensure all avalanche closures were in place.

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This morning we arrived to a different scene. The winds had almost completely abated, and another 10cm of new snow had fallen during the night. The avalanche forecaster had a tricky morning of doing his stability checklist and deciding on the best course of action for the day’s control work. Not only were the winds from the previous day blowing strong, they were also coming from other than the usual direction, which means re-thinking every bit of avalanche terrain and having the teams ready for anything.

My team headed straight for Summit, and after hiking up to the peak, skied down over the Boomerang entrance traverse and made our way to the top of D Gully in Whitehorn II. We had 5 explosive shots with us – three single shots, and two nukes (two shots taped together). Due to a combination of high wind, moving snow, and the predominant rain crust and facet combination that has been causing natural and manmade avalanches all over the national park, we expected big things, especially in terrain like Whitehorn II, where there has not been extensive control work.

Making sure fuse is lit before throwing bomb.

Kaboom! - above the Boomerang traverse.

Once at the top of D Gully, I attached an igniter to the fuse of one of the nukes, lit it, and threw it down as far as I could so that it landed on the skier’s left flank of the gully, well above the narrow choke about halfway down and the part of the slope that generally produces results. The bomb went off, and while nothing but surface snow was affected around the shot placement, it did cause an avalanche to start about 30-50m downslope. All snow above the October crust ran, and it included the full width of the gully by the time it got to the choke, running far out onto the flats at the bottom.

Satisfied with that result, we began to make our way over the top of C Gully to do the same thing there. My partner began the traverse, and was no more than a few metres into it when suddenly there was a “woomph” as his weight caused the weak layer in the snowpack underneath him to collapse. he heard and felt this happen, and immediately looked around to see if the slope was avalanching. The snow around him stayed in place, but as we looked downslope, we saw that another large avalanche had started about 60 or 70 metres below, and, like in D Gully, was running on the crust and went pretty much side to side. This was a remotely triggered avalanche, since the start point was different from where the load (weight of skier) had been placed on the snowpack. In all likelihood, the weak layer of facets had collapsed under his weight and travelled horizontally to a point in the snowpack where there was enough tension, and possibly a weak point (boulder or other ground feature), resulting in the avalanche. This was similar to what we saw in Whitehorn I recently, when a patroller traveling well underneath the slope remotely triggered an avalanche far above him.

Remotely-triggered avalanche in Whitehorn II 'C' Gully.

With the avalanche starting far down slope, we were concerned about the snow higher up that did not slide (hang fire), and there was still quite a bit left. A single shot was thrown ahead of our progress, and when the explosion did not result in an avalanche, our worries eased.

Watching a slope get most or all of its snow taken away by an avalanche can be heartbreaking, but when you have such a suspect layer in the snowpack that’s producing avalanches all over the place, it has to be done in order to let the run rebuild itself. Otherwise, we’d spend the entire winter worrying about it. Now, at least in the places that have avalanched, that layer is no longer a concern, and the slopes have a chance to rebuild with a sturdier snowpack.

With most of the morning’s control work done, control teams can concentrate on ski cutting and getting ready for the next system to come our way. The forecasts are calling for more snow tonight and tomorrow, so the sooner we can rid ourselves of the weak layers, the sooner the slopes can begin the rebuilding.