I mentioned in the last post that control teams were about 30cm of snow away from being able to travel in the alpine on skis. Well, that wasn’t quite correct – it was more like 20cm, and that’s exactly what fell at Lake Louise over the last 24 hrs or so on higher parts of the mountain. The snow was dense, providing the support that teams needed to make travel on skis efficient and faster than walking. In fact, large enough drifts had formed along the snow fences that some honest powder turns were had.
The photos below were taken by control team member Dave Petch as crews covered the front side of Summit on Monday. With snow falling all the way to the base of the mountain, avalanche crews were able to ski from the top of Summit all the way to the base. Granted, it was sporty, but to be able to that before we eve open is certainly worth mentioning!
Of course, the snowfall bodes well for the start of the season at Lake Louise. Having denser snow near or at the bottom of the snowpack is a good start, as it’s more likely to form a more stable base. We talk about the season’s snowpack building right side up or upside down, and it’s the density of the layers that make up the snowpack to which this refers. Right side up – lighter density snow on top of heavier snow – is what we want, a firm base with less of a load on top. Upside down is not what we want, as heavier snow on top of lighter snow means a heavier load on top of a layer or layers that are less able to handle a heavy load.
It’s still early, and lots can happen over the next few months that will determine the fate of the snowpack for the winter. The worst things that could happen are a crust, from either rain or a melt-freeze cycle, or a long cold period with little or no snowfall, which would cause a deterioration in the snow crystals and a corresponding weakening of the snowpack. These are not uncommon events in the Rockies, and the best we can do is cross our fingers and hope that one good weather event leads to another, and another, and so on until things are in good enough shape that control teams feel confident in the stability of the snowpack and open the runs we’ve been waiting all summer to ski.
Preparations for the imminent winter season have reached a fever pitch at Lake Louise, and all departments are going full steam ahead training new staff and setting up their areas. With one week to go before opening day, there’s lots to do before skiers and snowboarders make their first runs of the season and quickly discover which muscles have lain dormant over the summer!).
With the completion of the main water supply line replacement, the snowmaking department was ready to jump into action, and the finger was on the trigger waiting for the thermometer to show that temperatures were dropping below the freezing point. And soon enough, drop they did, and now large snowmaking whales dot the mountainside.
The Ski Patrol has been going through their pre-season training since Monday, and this weekend they’re joined by the large group of volunteer patrollers who augment the numbers on holidays and weekends throughout the season. The main focus of the week-long training is lift evacuation, with other sessions centred around all aspects of the daily routine of a ski patroller – first aid, guest service, paperwork, run checks, and policy enforcement, among others.
Lift evacuation training receives so much attention for a few reasons. The main one is that this week is the only time all season when all patrollers are in the same place at the same time. Also, with different types of lifts using different methods, access is much easier than it would be if we were already open and lifts and lift staff were unavailable. We occasionally use the time after the lifts close for training, but with the days getting shorter, the window of opportunity gets shorter as well, and any training must happen with small groups and focus only on a specific part of the process.
Detachable chair lifts, fixed-grip chair lifts, and the gondola all have distinct evacuation methods. The gondola requires patrollers to climb the lift towers and descend to the individual cabins along the haul cable. The patroller is belayed from the lift tower for the first cabin, and then from the ground for the remaining ones in the span. Once the evacuation of a span is complete, the team ascends the next tower and starts the process again. As can probably be imagined, this system uses a lot of specialized equipment, and patrollers must be comfortable and confident in their ability to use it properly and efficiently.
Evacuation for detachable and fixed-grip chairlifts varies slightly. The method of lowering those in the chair to the ground is the same – a rescue seat is at one end of a rope that is placed over a large hook that’s attached to the stem of the chair (between the seat and the grip), and belayers on the ground lower evacuees one by one. Getting the rescue seat and rope to the chair is where the methods differ. On a fixed-grip chair, the grip is generally low-profile, and once a chair is emptied the rope can be flicked over the grip and moved down the line to the next chair. Detachable chairs have grips that have large springs that stick out above the cable, so flicking is not an option. Instead, a feeder rope is connected to the com line, which is the communications cable that runs along the centre of the towers and between the cables. This feeder line is used to place the rescue rope in the hook of the chair, negating the need to get the rope over the bulky grip. All lifts have com lines, so even if a fixed-grip chair has grips that are too bulky, the com-line method is always an option.
Meanwhile, the Trail Crew continues the huge task of tying fence to the thousands of t-steel that have been pounded into the ground, mostly in the alpine. With recent snowfalls and wind, drifts have already begun forming on the leeward sides of these fences. In the photo below, a drift can clearly be seen along the lift line of the Summit Platter, which means crews will be able to ride the lift shortly on skis. There’s no point doing that at the moment as there still isn’t enough snow on the terrain for crews to travel on skis, but the avalanche crew states that another 30cm or so of snow on the upper mountain ad crews can put away their hiking boots for the winter.
Along with the Trail Crew, a team from avalanche control has been spending time on the mountain. They spend the entire winter with their fingers on the pulse of how the snowpack is behaving, and this observation begins as soon as the first flake hits the ground. Knowing how snow changes over the course of a winter is one of the most important pieces of information that anyone in snow safety could have. Almost as important is knowing how this ever-changing snowpack interacts with the terrain upon which it sits. While a patroller having a late start to their season can get caught up by looking at records and previous observations, they miss a crucial chance to have that intuitive sense of the snowpack that is so necessary when managing risk in avalanche areas.
One of the usual early season control jobs is actually on a run that usually otherwise doesn’t receive any control work all season long – Men’s Downhill. This run doesn’t typically jump out as an issue in the avalanche control world, but these days, with the push on to build the World Cup course, giant whales are forming on one of the steepest pitches on the lower mountain. In the interest of worker safety, control teams will detonate hand charges in these whales to make sure they’re stable, or to make them avalanche and remove the hazard. This makes for an exciting day for the snowmakers who get to watch!
The final few projects in preparation for the coming winter season are underway at Lake Louise, with all eyes on the target date of October 15, which is the day we are permitted to begin snowmaking. These projects are taking place alongside the usual preparations for winter, which include placing snowmaking guns at their various locations on the mountain, cutting of grass and brush on ski runs, and making sure everything is ready for the influx on hundreds of new staff who will arrive over a period beginning this week and stretching to Christmas.
The first and arguably most important project underway is the replacement of the water supply line that links the ski area to the primary pumphouse, located a few metres from the Pipestone River in the valley below. This line supplies the ski area with all of its water, and must be ready in time for the snowmaking season to begin. The new line will replace the existing one, which is getting old and is becoming more prone to breaks and therefore leaks. The old line leaves the base area and heads downhill close to the old road that accessed the original gondola. About halfway down it veers off and runs parallel to the Pipestone River until it reaches the pumphouse. Shortly after this juncture, the pipe sits in ground a few hundred feet above the river, at the top of a sheer bank. The new line will take a different course, so that it is more easily accessible in the event staff need to expose the pipe for repairs or maintenance. The line also takes a smoother route, which means there are no sudden turns or corners that would have a negative affect on the flow of water through the pipe, and that would also require stronger pipe to deal with the increased forces that result from sudden changes in direction.
The new route required that a section of a few hundred metres had trees removed and a new ditch dug. Part of this line uses a section of the old (up to the 1950’s) ski out that brought skiers all the way to the original gondola base (even after all these years, it’s still visible in the forest). The photo below shows part of this section, with the topsoil and organic layer separated and covered with tarp along the side so that it can be replaced back on top of the ditch once it’s filled in. Much of the material that was cut for this section has been saved and will be also be placed on top once the project is complete.
Related to this project is the replacement of the section of buried pipe that feeds water to the snowmaking system on Deer Run. This is also an older section that has experienced breaks in increasing numbers over the last couple of years. Fixing breaks in the summer, while still a big job, is nothing compared to doing it in the winter, when snow, skiers, and frozen ground make it much more difficult to make repairs quickly. This project does not need to be completed by start of snowmaking, since the section in question can be isolated and repair work conducted without any ill effect in the rest of the system. Still, it’s always an advantage to get the work done while the weather cooperates and access roads remain dry.
Finally, a section of the buried power cable that feeds Paradise chair is being replaced following a lightning strike that ran through the ground and completely obliterated a section of it. The cause of the break in the line was only realised once the damaged section had been located and exposed. This is specialized work, and required that we find a company with the training and equipment to be able to find the break without having to dig up the entire line. Once exposed, it was obvious that lightning was the culprit, as the surrounding ground was charred black and the date of the damage (i.e. when power was lost) coincided with a rather severe thunderstorm that rolled through the Lake Louise area.
These projects, like all others in the national park, are subject to a lengthy process of environmental assessment, public and parks review, and the creation of construction agreements that acknowledge best practices with regards to the project and the rehabilitation that follows, and takes into account site guidelines, which dictate how work can and cannot proceed in various ecological zones. In the end, the goal is to restore disturbed areas back to their original state in as short a time as possible. This happens quickly given our short growing season and variable weather. There are some previous pipeline replacement projects on the mountain that are becoming difficult to see after only a few short years.