Driving to work in Lake Louise this week from Banff, I wondered if the years of twinning construction on the Trans Canada Highway had actually ever happened. Now that the last orange pylon has been removed and most obvious signs of recent work covered by the season’s first big snowfall, it almost looks as though that’s the way it’s always been. In any case, the Trans Canada Highway to Lake Louise is now a glorious 4 lanes, and even on snow-covered roads the drive has become a lot less terrifying without the oncoming traffic (and their associated windshield-cracking boulders) to worry about.
I had a chance to fly over most of the new section of highway earlier this week in a helicopter to get some video footage of the completed work and a few of the larger wildlife crossing structures, and it was great to get a rare perspective on the project. While not obvious from a car, seeing the crossing structures from the air made it clear that they linked or continued what appeared to be obvious travel routes for animals – small valleys, clearings, etc.
No matter what your perspective, it’s clear that travelling to Lake Louise from points east just became a whole lot better.
Things are looking (and feeling) a lot more wintry at Lake Louise after the first big storm of the season paid a visit for a few days this week. At the same time, while the new snow may have given the upper mountain the appearance of being ready to open, reality has proven to be a different story. Colder temperatures and little wind helped contribute to low density snow that offers little in the way of support to those traveling over it on skis or snowboards. So, even though things look nice and powdery, a few more things – namely wind and more snow – need to happen before we open upper mountain lifts or runs.
Over two days or so Lake Louise received around 20cm of snow. The first day saw strong sustained winds from the north east buffet north-facing slopes, usually the ones to benefit from loading from the wind’s usual south west direction. North winds result in loading in other than the usual places, and can also scour the north sides of ridges, as they did at Rodney’s Ridge. Avalanche control teams traveling there would arrive at ridge-top, then would have to scurry over a band of rock in order to get onto the slope.
The second day of snow fell with little wind, and ended up as an even coating of light powder over the whole mountain. More than a day later, that snow is still powdery and uncompacted, and is therefore still available to be transported by wind. Until then, avalanche control teams are ski cutting and packing slopes in order to break up the layers of concern, and trail crew teams are packing down the drifts that already exist.
Meanwhile, over on the eastern front side, snowmaking and grooming crews were hard at work preparing for the opening of the Grizzly Gondola on Saturday morning. As elsewhere on the mountain, the recent storm provided lots of snow, but it was low-density and didn’t offer the required support for skiers and riders. We then needed to rely on man-made snow to open that area, and with water levels behaving in the Pipestone river, and temperatures hovering around the ideal for making snow (-15C), crews did a great job of making huge piles of snow in a short time, allowing the cats to spread it all out and have the run from the top of the Gondola ready to go for opening Saturday morning.
Could this be the moment we’ve all been waiting for? It could very well be…
Forecasts have been calling for snow early this coming week for a few days now, and as Monday approaches, chances still look good for our first good dump of the season (other than the ones we had in August!). If Lake Louise gets the 20-30cm of snow that some are expecting, then things will get a whole lot better in a big hurry, especially if the snow is followed by one of our greatest friends – the wind. New terrain openings may still be another snowfall or two away, but there’s no question we can do a lot with one big dump. Avalanche control teams will work hard to get into as much terrain as they can, and the Trail Crew will be visiting all of their fences to make sure newly formed drifts get stomped down, reducing the likelihood of that snow blowing somewhere else. Crews can travel more and more on skis, making travel around the mountain that much quicker.
As in previous years, a snow cat was parked up in the Saddle, near the top of the Top of the World chair. This is done because cats cannot travel on the delicate alpine terrain unless there is the equivalent of 40mm of snow cover on the ground (about 40cm of snow) to protect fragile plants and ground cover from potential damage. We usually reach that amount of snow up in the Saddle before we do lower down, and since the cat would have to travel over the lower mountain runs in order to get higher up, parking it up top allows us to begin track-packing much sooner (track-packing is just what it sounds like – a cat travels over every available square foot of snow in order to pack down into what will become the dense, base layer of snow). If the forecasts produce, the cat will be starting up in a matter of days.
Monday will also see a big increase in the level of activity surrounding the World Cup, which is just two weeks away. With most of the snow in place on lower sections of the course, a large Bell 212 helicopter will spend most of Monday flying snow guns, generators, and fuel to the uppermost section. We’ll have crews spread out along the course to receive the loads, and if all goes well, the guns should roar to life Monday evening.
Those skiing at Lake Louise early last season may remember that we experienced a widespread avalanche cycle in much of our alpine terrain, losing much of the snow that had fallen to date in places like Brownshirt and Whitehorn II. This was in part attributable to heavier-than-average November snowfalls, which made it difficult for avalanche control teams to get into every piece of terrain before everything slid.
With lower snowfall so far this year, control teams, with the help of other patrollers and the trail crew, have done a great job of getting to where the snow is and using a combination of ski packing and bootpacking to break up the weak layers and temperature crust that exist. All of this work contributes to stability of the slope, and helps ensure the snowpack builds the way we want it to, giving it the best chance to survive the season. With more snow forecasted to fall early this coming week, crews will be constantly working these areas to make sure all new layers of snow are packed in as much as possible. It’s a big job, with huge amounts of terrain to cover, but also with equally huge rewards for all.
Boomerang is a perennial early season performer, as it is a flat, shale-covered surface that receives near-constant wind-loading. It’s usually the first alpine run to be skiable, and therefore often receives the bulk of attention from control teams. On the way to Boomerang is Windy Gap, which can be a vexing place to get snow to stick. I’ve lost count of the number of different ways teams have come up with to get wind-blown snow to stay put. The challenge comes from the wind, which usually blows strongly and can come from any direction (this is why early season skiers may have noticed that the snow fence there sometimes lays in a bunch of zig-zag patterns, rather than in long straight lines like everywhere else on the mountain). In any case, we can’t miss any opportunities to pack down any snow that gathers there, or else run the risk of having it all blow away again. Every flake counts!
In Brownshirt, there’s enough snow for control teams to have begun ski-cutting, which is another slope-stabilization technique. Patrollers travel the run on skis, making big zig-zag tracks down the length of the run. This disrupts the continuity of layers, and breaks up what may be one big slab of snow on the slope into smaller pieces, reducing the likelihood and consequence of an avalanche. You’ll see these ski cuts in all of our avalanche terrain all season long, as it is the preferred method of avalanche control used by patrollers. In sketchier terrain, or when there’s more snow, patrollers will switch to the use of safer (and more expensive) explosives. Generally, frequent smaller dumps are easier to manage than occasional big dumps, which can slow things down as patrollers need to travel more slowly through hazardous terrain. Not that we ever complain about big dumps…
Despite efforts by a little rain to dampen the spirits of skiers and snowboarders at the Lake this weekend, everyone seemed to have fun getting the rust out and discovering dormant muscles as they got their first turns of the season this weekend. Even after almost a week of weather too warm for snowmaking, crews did a great job af taking advantage of colder temperatures at the end of October, and were able to make enough snow for the cats to spread into a complete run. Warmest temperatures were seen on the lowest part of the run, so the first order of business once the cold arrives will be to add width to the part of the run visible from the base area. Farther up, the run is side to side, and additional snow will go toward increasing depth, rather than width.
If forecasts are right, this week should see daytime highs not getting above freezing, which means we can make snow twenty-four hours a day, and therefore make good progress in increasing the amount of available runs. Water levels in the Pipestone river are still quite high, so shortage of water is not expected to be an issue. The snowmaking system is also working well, so currently it’s only the freezing temperatures we need to move ahead.
At this time of year, rain on the lower mountain usually means snow on the upper mountain. Accumulated amounts have so far been minimal, since the freezing level was around tree line. The alpine areas look white, but we’re not quite at the point where avalanche control and trail crew teams can move around on skis. As can be the case early season, teams were starting to see faceting around ground level in the existing pockets of snow, and left unchecked these weak crystals can be a concern well into the winter season, and cannot be ignored as further snowfall accumulates on top.
Happily, warm weather has the effect of moderating these crystals and stabilizing the snowpack in general. At the same time, like many things, we have to take the bad with the good. Warm and/or wet weather can moisten the snow surface and result in a crust once the colder temperatures arrive, and this can also be a concern down the road. A crust is not a good bonding surface for snow that gathers on top, and can also provide a smooth bed surface upon which avalanches can run, as opposed to rough, rocky ground which generally provides good anchoring. This is where avalanche control and bootpacking can play such a vital role in building a run in steep terrain. This work interrupts the weaker layers in the snowpack, and breaks up the otherwise smooth surface of the crust, providing the rougher surface that helps to ensure that any snow that falls on a slope stays there.
Right now it’s snowing higher up, and snow is expected over the next few days. Later today (Sunday) temperatures are expected to begin their descent into the sub-zero range, and thoughts can once again return to expanding available terrain.
Despite warm daytime temperatures slowing snowmaking efforts at Lake Louise this week, we’ve still had cold nights, and this year’s crop of snowmakers have done a great job of building giant snow whales along the length of Bald Eagle, Wiwaxy, and Easy St., which will combine to make the run available from the top of Glacier chair on opening day (tomorrow!).
Once the whales have been made and have had a chance to drain their excess moisture, the snow cats head out onto the mountain to spread it all out and “connect the dots” to make the run. If the whales don’t have a chance to drain (which usually takes a day or two depending on whale size), the snow will be more difficult to push, and will result in a choppy surface that will be more prone to icing up as the season progresses.
As the cats start spreading the snow, they still do not have their “whale tails” which are the rear implements that till and lay the snow out in the familiar corduroy texture that people love. The focus is on covering the run as much as possible, and then the snow gets to sit for a while as it settles. This is another key step, since it hardens the snow surface and also results in a firmer, more consistent snow surface. As excited as folks are the strap on the skis for a new season, we need to practise a little patience in allowing the whales to drain and the newly-spread snow to settle. Jumping the gun on either of these may produce a run sooner, but it will be an inferior product and could affect the quality of the run later into the season.
On the upper mountain, we don’t yet have quite enough snow to travel on skis, but we’re getting close. Thanks to the fence put in place by the Trail Crew, the Summit platter can be ridden with skis on to the top, but there’s nowhere to go from there unless by foot. Another 10-20cm’s of snow and we’ll be in business.
With less than a week to go before Lake Louise opens for the 2010-11 season, all hands are on deck preparing for the big day and the winter to come. Mountain roads are closing down as snow accumulates, and winter clothes are becoming more apparent as temperatures dip and the ground gets covered in snow.
This past week saw the first gathering of this year’s edition of the Ski Patrol, as their week of pre-season training kicked off last Monday. They’ve just completed five days of lift evacuation training, with another thirty members of the volunteer patrol joining them for the weekend. Staff from most other departments are also arriving, and daily orientation sessions are getting another crop of winter staff excited for the season.
With the installation of the Grizzly Gondola a few years ago, lift evacuation training for ski patrol has grown from two days of chairlift practice over the weekend to five days, with the three extra days focusing exclusively on the gondola. This is due to the fact that evacuation of the gondola is much more involved than that of a chair lift. There’s a long list of required equipment, along with the knowledge and confidence to use it. Patrollers are also working at height much more so than for a chair evacuation, so confidence and comfort with the equipment is crucial.
Most of a chairlift evacuation happens from the ground. For a gondola, on the other hand, patrollers must ascend each tower and ride a single-wheel “roll cab” down to each cabin. For the uppermost cabin in a span (space between two towers), the rescuer is belayed from the top of the tower. For the remaining cabins in the same span, the belay happens from the ground. The belayer(s) stands below the cabin the rescuer is currently on, and the belay rope goes up to and around the stem of the cabin (long arm attaching cabin to haul line), allowing the rescuer to continue downhill to the next cabin. The process is repeated for each span.
Upon arrival at the cabin, the patroller unlocks the doors, then descends and enters the cabin itself. Using the cabin stem as an anchor point, the patroller lowers the cabin occupants one by one to the ground using an additional set of ropes and friction belay devices. Once the cabin is empty, all gear is collected and the patroller prepares to move down to the next one.
In addition to being familiar with this process, patrollers must also know how to “self-evac”. Since a gondola evacuation requires all hands on deck, a patroller is useless if they’re stuck on the lift being evacuated. So, every time they ride the lift, they pick up a self-evac bag at the base of the lift and bring it along for the ride. Inside the bag is a special key that enables the patroller to unlock the cabin doors from inside. (If you’ve ever wondered why patrollers don’t ride in the same cabin as other passengers, it’s because if they need to get out, the doors can’t be closed from the outside without going up onto the roof of the cabin, and we cannot leave passengers in a cabin with the doors hanging open). To reduce the impact this policy may have on a line-up of people waiting to ride the lift, patrollers always make a call before loading to see if there are other patrollers who can join them for the ride. One evac bag can be used for one or more patrollers, so there’s never a danger of all bags being on the lift at the same time, and therefore unavailable to others.
With training coming to close, thoughts are turning towards preparing the mountain for opening day. Avalanche control teams are getting their first glimpses of the snow that has already fallen on the upper mountain, and bundles of bamboo and signs, and coils of orange rope are making their way up the mountain so everything that needs to be marked can be marked. Temperatures have warmed a bit this week, but snowmakers are still making use of every minute of freezing temperatures so we can have as much snow on the ground as possible for opening day.