Gearing Up for Winter at Lake Louise

After a long break (and a not so summery summer), the Lowdown is back to bring you all the news and inside scoop of the preparations that are now in full swing as we approach the 2010-11 season at Lake Louise.

While the weather this summer may not have been what most people had hoped it would be, it was a very busy season for wildlife viewing, and guests riding the sightseeing lift were not disappointed as wolves, lynx, elk, deer, and especially bears were spotted throughout most of the summer. Most of these animals make regular appearances here over the summer, but the big exception this year were the wolves that were spotted by guests and staff. Starting in June, there were days when up to six grizzly bears could be spotted from one lap of the summer lift. Making regular appearances were one mother griz with two first-year cubs (cubs of the year), and another with one cub. A few solo grizzlies also made the rounds, and staff were kept busy through July, August and early September ensuring bears were able to go about their business without any interruption from our summer operation.

Around the base area of the resort is a 3km-long electric fence, installed to keep bears and other animals away from this area. At the top of the summer lift (Glacier chair in winter, Grizzly in summer) there is no electric fence, so instead a zone is established and marked 90m away from the top of the lift,  Whitehorn Lodge, and the short road connecting the two. If a bear approaches or comes inside this area, then certain procedures are enacted to make sure we don’t have people outside and exposed to a possible bear encounter. Depending on what the bear is doing and in what direction it’s traveling, these procedures could include restricting travel to vehicle-only, or even stopping all travel until the bear(s) have moved on. As staff became familiar with each bear’s behaviour, it became easier to predict what it would do, since they generally appeared around the same place and time and traveled in the same direction each time. Of course, there were exceptions, so staff at the top of the lift and at Whitehorn Lodge had to maintain a sharp eye on the area to avoid any surprises.

Both of the photos below were taken from the lift:

Grizzly with cubs on Upper Juniper, June 19, 2010.

Grizzly nursing two cubs, July 5, 2010. (photo: Jan Mrskos)

Now, as the temperatures fall and snowflakes begin to appear (as they have numerous times since the end of August), thoughts have turned to winter, and the huge machine that is a large ski resort has come to life. For the Mountain Operations department, the switch to winter usually occurs around the Labour Day long weekend, even though the summer sightseeing lift runs until September 26. Most of the winter-related action revolves around snow farming and brushing.

Brushing takes two forms and serves two main purposes. This year we’ve had two small tractors with cutting implements mounted on the front traveling as many runs as possible, cutting whatever plant growth has sprung up over the summer. While long grass and other plants don’t really cause problems when it comes to building ski runs early season, it’s the tail-end of the season when this work really pays off. If summer growth is allowed to remain in place when snowmaking begins and natural snow begins to fall, air pockets can form close to the ground that can accelerate the melting of snow in the spring, shortening the life of the run. “Mowing the lawn” reduces these air pockets and allows the runs to last longer into the spring and in better condition.

Mowing the lawn on Easy St, Sept 2010.

Because of the potential to encounter ground-nesting birds, this work cannot begin until after September 1st, which is when these birds have moved on from their nests In places where the tractor can’t go (too steep or too many trees), we have crews on foot using brush saws, which are weed whackers on steroids, with gas-powered engines and blades resembling those of a circular saw. These crews are versatile, and can travel on both cleared runs and in gladed or thinly treed areas.  When it comes to trees, we’re only permitted to cut where cutting has occurred before. In other words, we can’t go out and make new runs were none existed before. At the same time, if some places are left too long without brushing, skiing lines slowly disappear, and we need to send in crews to clear the way.

Progress with the brush saws varies depending on the number and thickness of trees. Heavier growth means slower progress, and given the relatively short window of opportunity for brushing, it’s impossible to get to all the places we’d like in one season. Each year, the brushing lists consists of heavily travelled runs that are visited annually, and other places that get visits only every couple of years.

Higher up on the mountain, the trail crew is busy preparing for another season of snow farming. Also starting in early September, crews begin by pounding in the t-steel that will eventually hold up the snow fence. This fence is installed in places that either have difficulty gathering snow due to constant exposure to strong winds, or in places we need snow early in order to open (i.e. Summit lift line). People often wonder why the trail crew doesn’t pound the steel into the ground and tie the fence in the same visit, rather than make two trips to each location as they do now. T-steel pounding is much easier when done into soft, unfrozen ground. When you consider that thousands of t-steel are placed all over the mountain, this makes all the difference. Pounding steel is difficult work – hard on the body and the equipment. And while soft ground is ideal for pounding, crews must wait for the ground to freeze before installing the actual fence. This is because the fence is meant to slow the wind down, and unfrozen ground is too soft to support the loads placed on the fence by the wind. Frozen ground is a different story, however, and once the temperatures cool enough for a long enough period of time, fence installation begins.

T-steel at the entrance to Saddleback, Sept. 2010. (photo: Gus Wyeth)

T-steel at the entrance of Home Run, Sept. 2010. (photo: Gus Wyeth)

In addition to the work that goes on each fall at Lake Louise, there are a few projects underway that are specific to this year. Those will be discussed in an upcoming post.


2 Comments on “Gearing Up for Winter at Lake Louise”

  1. Brendon says:

    Glad to see the Lowdown’s back, can’t wait – one more month to go!

  2. Lake Louise Lowdown is back online…

    I wish more ski areas would do this. The Lake Louise Lowdown is a blog updated by the head of mountain operations at Lake Louise ski area in the Banff National Park. The site is full of inside information on how a major ski resort operates and is a fas…

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