Sunny Days at the LakePosted: March 28, 2010
The eternal spring just seems to go on and on at Lake Louise, as we’ve lost count of the number of weeks that skiers have been enjoying sunny skies and warm temperatures. At the same time, despite the slushy conditions that appear every day after a few hours of blazing sun, the back side is still skiing like winter, thanks to a combination of north-facing slopes and dribs and drabs of new snow. Whitehorn II in particular is in wonderful shape, and skiers are enjoying lap after lap of great turns.
We at the resort consider the sun to be a bit of a mixed blessing, as melting snow presents a few challenges that are difficult to overcome without the help of Mother Nature. When snowmaking shuts down in February, it does so without knowing what the weather will hold for the remainder of the season, and there’s nothing like long hot spells to undermine the hard work of all the snowmakers who spent months in the deepest, darkest part of winter doing their best to ensure the runs, particularly on the lower mountain, would have enough snow to last until closing day in May.
In anticipation of this, many runs have “secret stashes” of snow, where snowmaking whales are only partly flattened, and then rounded off to look like they’re just a natural part of the underlying terrain. As thin spots get thinner, these stashes are slowly scraped off and the snow redistributed to fill in where needed. While not obvious in the winter to the untrained eye, walking the runs in summer it becomes plain to see that the large, low mound you skied over all winter was just snow, and the ground underneath completely flat.
As for the groomers, their jobs become a little more involved, as more thought is needed when thinking about routine things like where to turn around on a run that’s being groomed, and how to approach a dirt patch that has recently sprung up. Dirt is a cat’s worst enemy, not only because of the challenge in covering it up, but because dirt can get caught in the cat’s tracks and then dropped of in otherwise clean snow. Dirt, pebbles, and rocks act as heat magnets, and once in the snow, accelerate the rate at which snow melts. Cat drivers must always be conscious of how much they’re disturbing the snow underneath them.
Up until a few years ago, cats would always start their shift by fuelling up in the paddock at one end of the Operations building, then driving down the ramp next to Whisky Patrol. As spring progresses, this ramp quickly disappeared, and the cats would daily be adding more dirt to places where it wasn’t welcome. Then we started making snow in the paddock itself and the road leading into to it from above, off of the lowest reaches of Juniper Jungle. The paddock gets built up to the point where there’s a platform of snow seven or eight feet tall that can park the entire fleet. Barring a weather catastrophe, this ensures that the cats are kept off the dirt until well after closing.
Once the hill closes for the ski season, the cats still have a few weeks of work clearing the mountain roads of most of their snow so that they melt sooner, and lift maintenance crews can access the lifts and begin their summer maintenance regimes. The roads are plotted by GPS, and the cats will get as close to ground as they can without actually disturbing it. the main reason for leaving a thin layer of snow on top is that all of the roads are riddled with water bars that are essential to proper drainage of melt water. A careless pass in a cat may damage these water bars, and if water is allowed to run down a road, it could spell disaster and mean weeks of repair work to get the road back into shape. Often, this damage can remain hidden under the snow, and it’s not until it all melts that we see the damage that could have been going on unchecked for weeks. Every year, though, we get better, and like everything else, experience goes a long way in improving systems.
There’s also something else that could result from the warm weather, something that usually stays far from the minds of skiers and staff. Readers of the local Banff and Canmore papers have already seen photos of both black and grizzly bears who have woken early from their winter slumber and are out on the hunt for food. I can remember a few occasions at Lake Louise where a bear was spotted on an open run, but in all cases made only a brief appearance before discovering they didn’t have the runs to themselves. For obvious reasons, a bear on an open run could cause some concern, and we have to whip into action to close the run to prevent any bear/human encounters. While keeping our distance, as we always should, it’s also important to monitor the bears as they travel, and this can pose a problem if they’re moving quickly through the woods or uphill. As rare as bear sightings on the hill are during ski season, we still have to plan for them.
As for the Lowdown, I’ll be taking a few weeks off, but will be back to post through the end of the season and right into summer. This’ll be the longest I’ve been off skis since last summer, and I’m looking forward to enjoying the last few weeks of the season when I get back. See you then…