Avalanche Control in Whitehorn II

Skiers visiting Lake Louise this week were treated to blue skies and sunshine, thanks to a high pressure system that’s settled in nicely in our area. And while skiers get to enjoy beautiful weather and great visibility on the mountain, this has also meant that our avalanche control team has been able to venture into and spend a lot of time in Whitehorn II.

Good visibility is always welcome during avalanche control work, and sometimes will be the deciding factor on whether the teams go into a certain area. Especially in a place like Whitehorn II, which is a huge piece of steep terrain with ridges, rocks, and cliffs, good visibility provides an extra measure of confidence for the crews traveling there. Stable weather generally results in little change to snow stability, allowing control teams to dedicate more of their time in places they had previously not spent much time in.

Looking back a bit, the week leading up to Christmas saw a few significant weather events, starting with about 20cm of snow that fell with little to no wind. As the snow petered out, the high pressure system moved in, announcing itself with west/northwest winds that redistributed most of that snow. This wasn’t the first time this season that winds came from other than the usual direction, and skiers familiar with how our mountain usually develops would have noticed drifting and scouring in unusual places, and Whitehorn II was no exception.

As a result of strong winds that blew in before the cold snap earlier in the month, the fans (areas at the bottom of slopes where avalanches “fan” out) of Whitehorn II had all their snow blown away, and it was only with the new snow before Christmas that these places had a chance to recover. The more recent winds resulted in hard slab conditions higher on the slopes, and because they came from the west/northwest, snow was distributed across the slope from the side, rather than down from above as is usually the case.

Wind slabs are the result of wind-transported snow. As the delicate snow crystals are blown across the surface, they are broken into tiny pieces. This means they can be packed into a tighter and denser layer of snow, a result increased by the packing action of the wind. Wind slabs often form the most destructive avalanches since they are harder to break apart than softer snow, and must be treated with caution.

Patroller stands next to upper edge of a slab avalanche. (photo - C. Sheppard)

One problem that can arise from a thicker and denser slab is that it can be for the most part supportive under the weight of a skier, which can give a false sense of security in the stability of the slope. Features on the slope (rocks, etc) can create weak spots, and even when the rest of a slope seems supportive, one turn in the wrong spot can cause the whole slope to avalanche. In the case of Whitehorn II, this slab was especially stubborn, due to its thickness and density.

When making snowpack observations, avalanche technicians use a scale to describe snow density. Rather than a number scale, as is used to describe sizes of avalanches for example, snow density is described by how easily a certain object will penetrate the layer horizontally (vertical penetration may go through more than one layer of snow, resulting in a variable and inaccurate reading). From least to most dense, the scale goes fist, four finger, one finger, pencil, and knife. The slab in Whitehorn II is pencil, which is about as dense as it gets before you get ice or a melt/freeze layer (knife). In the photo below, you can see that the patrollers’ ski cuts are barely visible at the top of the slope, due to the density of the snow and the inability of skis to penetrate that top layer.

While these slopes have reacted to explosives, the avalanching has not been widespread. In other words, rarely would one bomb be enough to get the whole slope. Snow that should have avalanched but didn’t is called hangfire, and enough hangfire remained in all gullies that many shots were required to clear each slope.

So – where does that leave us in Whitehorn II? It’s not ready to open yet, and while it may be easy to say we’re one or two snowfalls away from opening, there’s more to the picture than just snowfall. Wind and temperature have already played a big part in how the mountain has developed this season, and will also have a role in deciding what it’ll take to get Whitehorn II open. In the end, it’s a big piece of terrain, and lots of work by avalanche control teams will be needed no matter what the weather does.

Avalanches and ski cuts in Whitehorn II. (photo - C. Sheppard)


Merry Christmas!

All the best to everyone for the holidays!

It looks like we’re entering a spell of nice weather for the next few days. Even though it’s cold in the mornings, there has been an inversion of 5-10C the last few days, and the sunshine is expected to warm things up nicely once it rises over the mountains.

Enjoy your time with family and friends, as well as some beautiful sunny skiing in the Rockies!

Goodbye Cold, Hello Snow

After almost forgetting what it’s like to be warm, the cold snap that has embraced Lake Louise for the last few weeks has finally left, and yesterday saw a dramatic rise in temperature to bring us happily back into the realm of seasonal norms. If forecasts are correct, the warming won’t stop there, as Banff is expected to see temperatures close to 0C in the next day or two.

While things were warming up yesterday, it was also snowing lightly for most of the day, and with the addition of more snow overnight last night, we’ve now seen close to 10cm of new snow in the last 24 hours or so. The recent cold temps and steady winds had buffed the mountain into a chalky smooth snow surface, and now with this new snow on top, skiing conditions are expected to improve even more in a season that has already seen above average snowfall to date.

In the snowmaking world, these cold snaps are a dream come true, despite the added difficulty in dealing with frozen equipment. Huge snowmaking whales appeared overnight all over the mountain, and our fleet of snowcats can barely keep up with them. Even on closed runs, we can’t let the whales get too high, and cats are needed to knock the tops off of ones that get too big. Especially for the tall tower snowmaking guns, the water pellets need the time it takes to fall to the ground to freeze adequately. The taller a whale gets, the less distance the water has to fall, and therefore has less time to freeze, reducing the quality of the snow. Even a metre or two of height can make a big difference, so the cats spend a large part of their night visiting the whales and keeping them in check.

With the completion on Friday of NORAM racing, the bulk of the course has now been removed, and we’re slowly reclaiming the parts of the mountain that were used for that. Places like Men’s Downhill, Sunset Gully, and Tickety Chutes require a bit of rehab before they’re able to be opened to the public. Down on Easy St., the site of the terrain park had its race fencing removed and snowmaking set up within a few hours, taking great advantage of the cold temps. If all goes well, we expect to have a large part, if not all, of the terrain park ready to go by Christmas.

Video – Helicopter Avalanche Control

As promised, here’s a video from the helicopter avalanche control that happened at Lake Louise on November 27. I found a nice perch at the top of Whitehorn II and filmed the action below as the crew dropped bombs in Whitehorn II, Brownshirt, Upper North Cornice, Boundary Bowl (OOB), and along Richardson’s Ridge. Most shots produced little to no result, with the exception of Whitehorn II, Upper North Cornice, and Boundary Bowl. Of the two explosions in the video, the second is the one visible at the top of the gully in a photo from the original post, just from a different point of view.


A Look Back – Early Days of Skiing in Lake Louise

As was mentioned in a post near the end of last season, the Lake Louise ski patrol saw the retirement of Peter Spear from patrolling, as he prepared to have knee surgery after an incredible career spanning more than fifty years. Since the operation last spring, Peter has been collecting his thoughts from his time here and putting them to paper, and has been kind enough to provide them for posting here.

I find it easy to assume that the Lake Louise Ski Area has always more or less been similar to what it is today, at least in available terrain if not facilities. That is however far from the case, and Peter’s descriptions of traveling to and skiing at Lake Louise (originally Temple Ski Area) provide a fascinating glimpse of what is was like in the days before the Trans-Canada Highway even existed.

Following is the first installment of Peter’s personal history of skiing at Lake Louise.

The Early Days of Skiing at Lake Louise.

These are my recollections of the early days of skiing at Lake Louise starting in the late 1950’s. I have skied in the Lake Louise area for over 52 years, and some readers can relate to my adventures, and others marvel at our patience and fortitude with gritting it out under less than favorable conditions in the pioneer years.

The Drive.

A trip to ski at Temple for a weekend in 1957, began usually for me on a Friday night around 6 PM in Calgary when a Canadian Youth Hostel member would pick me and others up about 6 PM for the  3 ½ – 4 hour drive to get to the Lake Louise Youth Hostel.

The route led northwest in the city and out what is now Highway # 1A, to Cochrane, around Ghost Dam, through the old Banff Park gates near the Kananaskis lime plant,, then Exshaw, over the Gap Lake Hill and into Canmore. Then west the road led to the old Anthracite coal slag heaps (still visible today) just east of the Cascade power plant.

Here there was a t-junction, with the right turn leading to Lake Minnewanka, but we turned left, crossed the CPR mainline, and then traversed under the base of the Hoodoos, and then the road led steeply up the Anthracite Hill to present-day Tunnel Mountain Drive before dropping down the hill to the area of the Indian Grounds (near the present-day Rocky Mountain Resort). Then it was into Banff town site, and then past the CPR train station, and across the CPR line. The road then wound around what is now the Vermillion Lakes Drive with the constant threat of sliding into the lakes on the narrow blasted road, onto the present day 1A, across the hillsdale flats, past Johnson Canyon, and to Castle Junction and turnoff to Radium.

Almost there! The road meandered to Baker Creek, crossed Corral Creek and then headed west to the Bow River, where the CPR was crossed again (this is where there is a present-day emergency exit for the campground area). The road led past the Temple View Bungalow camp and Texaco station and recrossed the CPR. A bridge over the Pipestone led to Boyles Grocery Store and the original Post Hotel, which was all there was at the townsite

To get to the hostel and the road leading to the Temple Ski Area, we re-crossed the Pipestone bridge, turned left, and then went to the present-day # 1 highway and turned off the Temple road to the Gondola Base area where the hostel was located, prior to the construction of the Gondola. The Lake Louise Hostel was a series of three buildings that had been at Morley as part of the conscientious objectors camp and had been moved in the early 50’s as part of the hostel “chain”. At -30 degrees, a dorm was hard to heat up before we crawled into our sleeping bags for rest and the prospect of skiing at Temple.

A Day of Skiing at Temple Lodge.

Most of the skiers at Temple stayed in Banff, as the original Post Hotel had few rooms. That meant that there was at least a one hour drive from Banff.

My morning began early, as often we had breakfast and skied across the flats, crossed an ice bridge on the Pipestone River, and tried to get to the Post Hotel to make the first transport to Temple Lodge. We bought one-way tickets ($.50) or round trip tickets in the lobby of the Post Hotel, sold by Alpha Legace, a local legend along with her husband Ray Legace, an original outfitter.

The transport to the hill started at 8:30 AM with a Dodge PowerWagon, fitted with a cab that held 12 jammed skiers. It was followed later by a chained-up school bus carrying some 30 passengers for the exciting ride to Temple, particularly the ascent of Ford Hill. Once at Temple, one went inside to purchase the $3.50 lift tickets.

Temple Lodge, Skoki and Halfway Hut were owned by Sir Norman Watson, an English absentee owner, and the company was the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies. The original lodge was located 75 metres beyond the present “Temple garage”, by the cutoff from Larch to the present lodge. It was a two story log building with a high peak and several rooms that could be rented for the winter weekends. Noted renters were the family of John Worrall, later to become a long time area employee and manager.

The lift was an original Poma, with the mechanical release pulled by an attendant. Tripods supported the pulley and cable as one ascended to the top unload, which is the present flat spot where Lookout, Larch and Marmot diverge. This is about 100 metres below the present quad top.

Larch was a curvaceous run about 15 metres wide and wound its way down the hill. Once one reached the present lower steep pitch, where skiers/boarders often stop to rest, the slope was cleared to almost its present width. One could show off their skills to the waiting line-up. The present Larch was cleared in the summer of 1965.

If one made the early Power Wagon or school bus, one could have a great series of runs before the next load of passengers arrived. At day’s end, one could ride back to the Post Hotel or take the ski out which was an arduous adventure .The descent took Lookout, then through the present closed area that leads to the treacherous Ford Hill. There it ran parallel to the access road on a narrow un-groomed trail till it crossed the present road near Fish Creek parking lot. Here the trail went to the left, and reached the base of a steep hill which had to be ascended. It crossed the present paved road to Whiskey Jack near the Texas gate, and then continued to climb the steep bank. One was lucky to survive the descent to the Hostel (now the old gondola base), cross the flats, and then the ice bridge to the Post hotel.

With no groomed slopes, low stumps on the runs, bushes, and narrow trails it was   challenging skiing in leather single boots, with wooden skies and long-thong bindings with no release features. We wore woolen knickers, cotton undergarments, woolen mittens and Egyptian cotton anoraks. Still it was fun and I look back on the experience with fondness over half a century later.

Peter Spear


In addition to patrolling at Lake Louise, Peter also spent a season doing the same at Pigeon Mountain, the remains of which can still be seen from the Trans-Canada Highway as you drive eastbound by Dead Man’s Flats. I’d always assumed it was a ski hill which had never finished being built. In fact, it operated as a ski area from the 1960’s to 1974, and then again from 1981-83.

Even with some of the earliest snowmaking in this area, the ski season at Pigeon ran only from mid-January to mid-March. If a skier had to be taken to Calgary due to injury, they would be driven to the city in the back of the company station wagon belonging to the Rothman’s cigarette salesman.

In the 1980’s, a new electric motor was installed to drive the snowmaking system. The wiring was reversed, and it blew and damaged the Bow Valley power grid. It was rewired for the following season, and when it again blew and damaged the grid, that was it for Pigeon Mountain, and it never recovered. The lifts were scavenged for parts, most of which ended up at the Canyon Ski Area in Red Deer.

New Aerial Photos of Lake Louise

As I mentioned in a recent post, I had the chance to go for a long helicopter flight last weekend just after the World Cup men’s downhill race had ended. The flight was to allow a CBC cameraman to get some high-definition footage of the ski area and surrounding mountains for the TV broadcast, and since there was an empty seat up front, I was able to tag along. It was a beautiful day – sunny with enough clouds to add some drama and provide nice light. I always love getting to see the resort from a new perspective, and this flight was long enough to allow me to get a lot of good shots, a sampling of which are below (click on photos for larger versions).

Peering at the Lake Louise Ski Area from around the shoulder of Mt. Temple.

Ptarmigan side, from over the top of Purple Bowl.

Looking towards Larch from behind OOB Peak.

Outer Limits.

Heli-Bombing December 2009

After one of the best Novembers we’ve had for snowfall, much of Lake Louise’s terrain is now open, with further expansions poised to continue. Along with improved ski conditions, lots of snow also usually means a heightened avalanche hazard, especially this season with a crust from October lurking low in the snowpack. The rapid expansion of out terrain in the last month has meant that avalanche control teams have been concentrating on getting these areas open, and they haven’t been able to spend as much time as they would hope in others.

Avalanche control can be a very time -intensive excercise, as teams must make countless laps in avalanche terrain using explosives and ski-cutting in order to ensure the stability of the slope. However, when there’s a helicopter parked right outside the ski patrol building during World Cup, it makes perfect sense to use it and accomplish what could be weeks of avalanche control work in about thirty minutes. And that’s exactly what we did on Thursday.

After clearing the helicopter use with the World Cup race organizers (it must be available for the duration of the race once it starts), the explosives were assembled, and a plan of attack was created. The plan was to use 23 shots of various sizes and composition to hit targets in Whitehorn II, Brownshirt, Boundary Bowl, Richardson’s Ridge, and Skoki Slides. With blue skies and the sun about to rise, I decided to get up on the mountain early and head toward the top of ‘F’ Gully of Whitehorn II with my video camera, since I thought it would be the perfect spot to be close enough to get good footage. While I’m still a few days from having the video ready to post here, there were some great photos taken from the helicopter by Avalanche Forecaster Rocket Miller, and are shown below (click on photo for larger version). Sitting up front, he directed the pilot and the shot placements, while in the back two patrollers took care of igniting and throwing the bombs.

Another day at the office.

Helicopter approaches Whitehorn II (with me filming at the top).

One gully slides, while a shot goes off in the next.

Shot goes off in UNC (Upper North Cornice) with widespread fracturing.

UNC slides into bottom of Brownshirt.

A good result in Boundary Bowl (aka OOB).