More Beautiful Weather at the Lake

The sunny weather just keeps on coming at Lake Louise, as this weekend skiers once again enjoyed beautiful blue skies and warm temperatures. The snow we received recently has gone a long way toward improving ski conditions as well, and there’s nothing better than great visibility to make for some epic days.

Overall, snow stability inside the ski area boundary is good, allowing control teams to open avalanche terrain first thing in the morning. At the same time, anyone looking closely at the surface of undisturbed snow will have noticed the presence of surface hoar – those large, feathery snow crystals that develop in colder temperatures and during clear nights.  By itself, surface hoar isn’t an issue, and can even provide some nice soft turns, which is currently the case at Lake Louise. Hoar crystals, whether formed at the surface of the snow or deeper in the snowpack, are notoriously weak and unsupportive, and have been the culprit in countless avalanches, especially in the Rockies.

Surface hoar on Summit.

Surface hoar close-up.

Another significant development at Lake Louise this week was the completion of the cat road that accesses Boomerang from the top of the Summit Platter. Until now, the access across the top of Whitehorn II has been a ski traverse, and only this week was a cat finally able to make it all the way across. Building the road by cat is a long process, as the underlying terrain is steep and bouldery, and this work generally takes place in the dark.  Snow pushed by cats starts off quite soft, and may take days to firm up enough to support the weight of the cat. Baby steps is the name of the game, as the cat will advance five or ten feet at a time, then return a day or two later for the next push, eventually reaching the flats near the gate to Whitehorn II F,G, and H Gullies.

Nice new cat road into Boomerang.

The more snow there is to work with, the easier it is for the cats to fill in the side slope and create a flat and level skiing surface. The area around the Boomerang gate and the Platter lift hut usually collects a huge drift, and this snow is used to create the traverse. Usually on a steep side slope, lots of snow is lost as it slides downhill beyond the reach of the cat, so in order to prevent too much loss, the Trail Crew sets up a row or two of plastic fence to act as a snow catcher. Once the snow hardens, the fence can be removed and the road will retain its shape. In order to make room for the cat to work, patrollers at the end of the day must pull all signage and fencing in the area, then reset it all the following morning. Because this is all avalanche terrain, signs and fences must all be up early in the day, before any skiing public gets there.

Not only does the cat road allow for easier skier access to Boomerang, it also means that cats can travel the length of the run, laying down a few passes of corduroy in the process. In order for this to happen, though, another shorter cat road must be built across the bottom of Whitehorn III. Since this road can only be built from above, the traverse from the gate must be complete before work begins lower down. Only when both these roads are built can the run be groomed from top to bottom, which is when it truly becomes a blue run.

It isn’t uncommon for skiers entering Boomerang to see a black diamond sign at the entrance. This is in place whenever the lower traverse isn’t yet established or is closed due to avalanche hazard from Whitehorn III above. Because skiers are now forced to go around on ungroomed terrain, the blue run becomes a mostly blue run with a short section of black near the bottom.

For the lower traverse, snow doesn’t accumulate like it does at the top of Summit, so when conditions are right, cats will get a bit of help from the avalanche control team, who will blast as much snow as they can in Whitehorn III so it avalanches down onto the cat track and can be put to good use.

Another benefit of having cat access to Boomerang is the work that can be done in Windy Gap. As one of the consistently windiest spots at the resort, a big effort is always required in order to get snow to stay on the ground. Intensive snow fencing and constant maintenance is needed so that skiers can pass through the Gap without having to take their skis off – a reality in some lean years. Once a cat can get there, it can not only move around the snow collected by the fences, it can also move snow from a large wind lip, called Air Canada, that forms below the top entrance to West Bowl. This lip represents a huge stash of snow, but is too much and too far away to move by hand. That fact that Windy Gap lies between the two cat tracks means that it can’t get worked until both are in place.

In previous years, other plans have been developed in order to get a cat to Windy Gap before the roads were built. One plan involved leaving a cat in the Gap itself for the summer, so that once it snowed, it was already there and could begin work long before the cat tracks were in place. There were two challenges with this plan. The first was  that the battery in the cat lost its charge, and with no power supply even remotely close, a portable generator had to be brought to the site so the cat would start. The second challenge is that a cat is an important piece of machinery, and having it restricted to Windy Gap for the first part of the season means it cannot be used on other parts of the mountain, especially with big early season events like the World Cup needing all hands, and cats, on deck.

Another plan involved having the cat (and a very brave operator) travelling along the narrow ridge leading uphill from the top of the Summit Platter over to the top of Outer Limits (Peak) and down to the top entrance to West Bowl. This turned out to be a one-way trip, however, as it was steeper coming back, and the cat had difficulty making it up the grade.

Our efforts are now focused on how the snow fence is deployed, and while we met with some success this season in gathering snow, we’ve also seen our fair share of abnormal weather, so it may take a few years to see if this was a fluke or if it did indeed succeed because of the fence placement.

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