One Week to Go!

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.

Ski Patrol begins lift evacuation practice on Ptarmigan chair.

Patroller prepares to attach rescue rope to com line on Ptarmigan chair.

*****

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.

Drifts visible on Summit.

Drifting in snow fences on the Patroller Pitch, above the old Eagle chair.

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!

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