Portrait of a Ski Area – Trail Maps Reinvented (part 3)

Part 1

Part 2

With the revised comprehensive sketch for the back side now in my possession, I continued to find areas that required changing. Like the first round of edits, there was nothing major, but I thought that since we’re only doing this once, let’s do the best we can. With some of the items I thought I may have been a little nit-picky, and communicated this to James, who quickly assured me that nothing was too nit-picky. If anything, he was as interested as I in getting it right, down to the smallest detail. I sent James a second list of revisions, and he replied that he would incorporate them onto the final painting rather than do another sketch, which would add time to the process. Even on those paintings, changes could be made, even if we discovered something years after the fact!

I now waited eagerly for the front side sketch. As this view was going to show both the south face and Larch areas – a view we had not attempted before – I was keen to see how it was going to turn out. James’ first rough sketch (below) had used a perspective that viewed the resort from a more westerly aspect than previous maps, allowing the inclusion of Larch.

Of course, such a view in real life would still not allow one to see the north side of the Larch area. Runs like Lynx and Wolverine would be hidden from view. But, using his clever use of terrain warping, James planned to make these runs visible, as they are in the sketch above, even if it makes Larch look flatter than it is.

When the comprehensive sketch arrived in my inbox, James wrote that he had encountered more difficulty than expected in making this view as planned. As he put it, he had to think outside the box in order to render what would otherwise be an impossible view. He felt the angles were just too extreme, and he had to come up with a way to indicate that the views of the front side and of Larch were from different angles, while still showing how they related to one another.

One of Jim’s solutions was to show the south half of Larch on the front side map, and the north half on the back side map, but we felt it would make the Larch area seem too disjointed. Another solution involved adding ‘breaks’, or white lines, to indicate the change of angle, and these are shown in the comprehensive sketch below.

Even with the breaks, James was able to preserve the connection between Larch and the front side by lining up the Ski Out and road which join the two. Those familiar with the Lake Louise area mountains, however, will notice that most of Wolverine Ridge and parts of Mt. Redoubt behind it are gone, their places taken instead by the upper of the two breaks. Having not expected this twist, I was nonetheless impressed with James’ ability to solve the problem without reducing the map’s effectiveness.

Like the back side sketch, I used one of our current maps to ensure every named run was visible and in the right place with the right attributes. Again I made a list of required changes, marked them on a copy of the sketch, and sent it back to James for revision.

With revisions to both the front and back side sketches now underway, the only one that remained was that of the overhead view. The emphasis on this would be more of providing a ‘big picture’ view of the ski area, rather than a detailed navigational aid, so I wasn’t expecting the detailed revisions that existed for the first two sketches.

Coming soon: Part 4


Portrait of a Ski Area – Trail Maps Reinvented (part 2)

Link to part 1: Portrait of a Ski Area – Trail Maps Reinvented (part 1)

Now that the perspectives to be used for each view were confirmed, James got to work on the next step of the process – the comprehensive sketches. These would also be done in pencil, but with much more attention to detail. I was excited to see this next stage, as I felt this is where the real feel of Lake Louise would come through.

When going through countless aerial photos earlier in the process, I was continually reminded of how many places on the mountain look like they might be ski runs, but aren’t, such as old lift cut lines, summer roads, power lines, and abandoned runs. For example, on the front side alone, there are six old lift lines – Olympic, Glacier triple chair, Friendly Giant, Whitehorn gondola, Eagle chair, and Eagle Poma. I was curious to see if these red herrings would throw James off the scent of the current and active layout of the mountain. As it turns out, a veteran ski map artist doesn’t get distracted that easily.

The first sketch to arrive in my inbox was that of the back side. My first thought was that calling it a ‘sketch’ was a disservice, as I was looking at something that would happily find a place on my wall. Before diving into the details, I was struck by how the mountain was lit. James managed to capture a look that skiers get to see on those mornings where there’s a perfect mix of sun and cloud, and the mountain and all of its features are cast in a beautiful glow.

I was also happy with the perspective, as everything from Ptarmigan Chutes to Boundary Bowl was clearly displayed. I was particularly pleased to see that the North Cornice area, barely a lump in our current maps, finally had received its place in the sun (literally).

Eventually I got to work going over the fine points of the sketch. I opened one of our current paper trail maps, then went through every run in order to make sure it was present and in the right place, and with all the right attributes (steepness, width, etc). I made a list of changes as I went along, then made a copy of the sketch with my marks and notes on it and sent it back to James. The changes were all little things – shade this in here, add a cat track there, and so on. He had done a remarkable job of getting it right, especially since he had not come to the resort at the start of the process. James quickly made the edits, and shortly after I had the revised sketch. My marked-up version and the revised sketch are shown below so you can see what changes were needed, and how they were made.

Even though it lies outside our boundary, we both felt that showing the Hidden Bowl and Corral Creek areas accurately was important. I hadn’t thought to include photos of those areas at first, but did once I saw the first sketch and decided they should be done right, and James got them pretty much bang on.

Part 3

Portrait of a Ski Area – Trail Maps Reinvented (part 1)

Most summers, all it takes is the passing of the Labour Day weekend for thoughts (and efforts) to turn in earnest to preparing for the coming winter season. If that wasn’t enough, two consecutive days of snowflakes drifting past my window last week had me gazing wistfully at my dusty ski boots lurking in the corner of my office. The new snow that dusted the upper reaches of the mountain is now gone – September snow never stays – but the thoughts remain, and the mountain is buzzing with new activity.

When I say buzzing, I mean it – roving crews of brushers with their brush saws are out removing small bushes and trees that threaten to clog ski runs, and our tractor-mounted mower is adding golf-course stripes to the grass on the lower level runs (it still amazes me that every summer the stripes from the previous year are still evident, even after being buried under metres of packed snow for six months or more). This job is not done for aesthetic reasons – rather, shorter grass allows the snow to remain longer on the slope when things heat up in the spring. With long grass, air pockets form when the first few layers of snow hit the ground, and these pockets can accelerate melting in the spring. Melting snow is the disease, and the mower is the cure.

One project of mine that began earlier in the summer and is still in progress is the creation of new paintings of the Lake Louise Ski Area for use in new trail maps. I’d always felt that our current maps didn’t quite do our terrain justice, so of course I was happy to hear that our owner had been in contact with James Niehues, the renowned ski resort artist whose paintings grace hundreds of trail maps from all over the world. After a quick look at the gallery on his website I knew he would the be the one who could show this incredible landscape with all the detail and drama it deserved. It was only a short time later that an agreement was reached and it was confirmed that James would be painting Lake Louise.

Of course, before pencil touches paper, much research is required, and this usually involves James traveling to the resort and finding an airplane that will take him above and around the resort so that he can see it and get photographs from all angles and elevations. Fortunately, James was able to stay in Colorado for this project, as I had been able to gather quite a collection of aerial photos of the ski area from numerous helicopter trips over the years, and sent him a few hundred shots that covered the entire ski area from different elevations and from different times of year.

Based on these photos, James quickly got to work on the first of three stages – producing quick sketches that were meant to allow us to agree upon the perspectives that would be used for successive drafts. Even in rough sketches, James’ talent was obvious, and it was amazing to see someone capture the essence of Lake Louise so quickly and accurately. We weren’t concerned with accuracy of run and lift location – that would come once the perspective of each map was confirmed.

Our current trail maps use four separate views – one each for the front side, back side, and Larch, and one overview that provides a straight-down look at the whole area with the idea of giving our guests a better idea of not only the lay of the land, but the scope and size as well. James stated he could do the same thing in three views instead of four, and in the sketches below, you’ll see that he included Larch in both the front and back side views, giving us the option of one or the other.

With clever use of terrain “warping”, he was able to show views that would not be possible in real life, without sacrificing the realistic portrayal of the landscape. For example, unless one is looking straight down from above, it would not be possible to see all of the front side and all of the runs on Larch at the same time.

Once we had the maps, we decided that including Larch with the front side view would be our preference, for two reasons. First, it would show the lion’s share of our easy and intermediate runs in one view, and it would also allow the view of the backside to swing around to the east since Larch no longer needed to be included. I communicated this to James, and he quickly sketched an alternate view for the back side, as seen below. Upon seeing the revised sketch, it was immediately clear that it would do a better job of showcasing our expansive back bowls, and this is the view we chose.

With confirmation of perspective complete, James moved on to the comprehensive sketches, which would also be in pencil, but would pay close attention to accuracy of detail – topography, runs, lifts, etc. I sent him more photos based on the comments he included with the rough sketches so he could fill in the blanks. James felt that accuracy was paramount, even for terrain that lay outside the ski area boundary. Of course, we did not argue his approach!

Continue to Part 2

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lion

With March 2012’s position as the best March for snowfall ever at Lake Louise cemented in the books well over a week ago, things never really let up, and skiers yesterday (Friday) enjoyed what many are now calling the best day in years. There wasn’t a dry jacket in the house after a day of wiping snow from goggles and faces, and we’re still a little in awe at how fast it all happened.

For me, it was another morning of doing the daily snow report before leaving my home in Banff for the commute to the Lake, and another near heart-attack as I arrived at work to find conditions nothing like what I had reported. An earlier post described similar shock  a few weeks ago as our weather instruments had measured 21cm of overnight snow at our Pika weather plot, and I arrived at work to find maybe 1cm in the parking lot. That time it was temperature that resulted in such a discrepancy between base area and upper mountain snowfall amounts, and I need not have worried Рwe did indeed have lots of snow higher up.

This time it was the reverse – I reported 4cm of overnight snow at around 5:00am, and as I was speaking with Avalanche Forecaster Craig Sheppard as we got off the bus in Lake Louise at around 7:30am, he informed me that I had been way off, as our Pika plot was reporting close to 20cm. WHAT?!?¬† I couldn’t believe it – how did I make that mistake? Did I forget to carry the 1? I sat down at my computer shaking my head, wondering what had happened. Logging on to our weather plot site, I saw once again that I shouldn’t have worried, as almost all of that snow had fallen in the short few hours between when I did the report and when I arrived at work. 4cm was indeed correct at 5:00am, and we all ended up hardly believing what we were seeing.

To get 20cm or more in three hours means we were experiencing a snowfall rate of over 6cm per hour, which is about as hard as I’ve ever seen it snow here. Heck, we’re thrilled when it hits 2cm per hour! It didn’t let up, and as we made our way onto the mountain for a little avalanche control work, the grins just got wider and wider as it sunk in exactly how epic this day was going to be.

The snow was accompanied by wind, but the extent to which it affected loading and slope stability had yet to be determined. Our control team headed over to Flight Chutes via Home Run, and our first few ski cuts there made it clear that wind loading wasn’t an issue, so we quickly made our way back to the Summit Platter. There were three of us, so we split up to cover more ground. Two of us took care of the Headwall area, and the other went to the Wave at the bottom of Sunset/Skyline. Same story here – drifts as deep as 40cm, and little reaction to ski cuts. The avalanche forecaster than gave the word for the upper mountain lifts to open to the public for front side access.

Whitehorn 1 was next on the hit list, and we made our way down the skier’s right fenceline to control any cornice that had built up overnight. In these cases one patroller will travel along the very top of the cornice. taking care of any overhanging sections, while the other(s) travel in the same direction a few metres below, aiming to trigger avalanches in what are usually the deepest deposits of wind-blown snow (in what we call the “immediate lee”). In a few places some soft slab conditions had developed, and small pockets slid short distances, but otherwise there were no notable results. hat’s one of the beautiful things about good stability – teams can travel much faster through the terrain and get it open to the starving masses that much sooner.

Other areas of the mountain, such as Boomerang, stayed closed longer due to the fact that they are much bigger pieces of terrain that require a corresponding amount of control work. With the heavy snowfall, it’s harder to stay on top of control work in larger areas, and often teams will leave these alone and concentrate on smaller pieces and return to the larger ones once the snow lets up or all other control work is done. Despite the fact that teams generally weren’t seeing significant results in most areas, we still must visit all locations to ensure nothing gets missed.

And now for some numbers. Once the heavy snow let up around mid-day, we were counting well over 30cm at our Pika plot, and close to 40cm on the upper mountain. With this recent storm, we’ve now cracked 2m for the month, a feat not seen in any month since the season of 1955-56 – almost sixty years! When this March beat all others a few weeks ago, this season’s total snowfall to date had us tied in 5th place for all time season totals, with over a month still to go. With this past week’s snowfall approaching 50cm, we’re now solidly in 3rd place. Another 35cm or so will put us in 2nd, and another 70cm or so will put this season at the top of the list.

While it would be nice to have been here for a record-breaking season, either way we’re thrilled with what we’ve got this year, and there’s little doubt that we’re going to have solid skiing right up to closing day on May 6.

Kicking the Ant Hill


Well, we keep trying to come up for air here in Lake Louise, but it just keeps snowing and we’re just going to keep on holding our breath! All departments had their hands full on Sunday, and none more than the avalanche control teams, who were faced with lots of snow and lots of terrain to cover, with little visibility to allow them to see where they were going or the results of their control work.

Base area at 8:00am Monday, March 5.

Saturday night saw 21cm of snow fall at our Pika weather plot, and other than a few hours Sunday morning, it never let up. The avalanche control teams made their way onto the mountain, altering their plan of attack slightly since Top of the World (TOW) chair was not running. Once on the upper mountain, crews focused on the front side of Summit and TOW, then made their way around to Whitehorn I, Rodney’s Ridge, and the terrain off of the backside of Paradise chair. These are usually the first backside areas to receive control work, since once they’re done we can open Saddleback and give an option to those looking for a green run in the alpine.

With the main pieces of avalanche terrain opened, crews headed toward Whitehorn II. What they saw when they got there were accumulations in wind-loaded terrain of 35-40cm. This snow had been accompanied by winds that blew steadily in the moderate range (20-50km/h) and had gusts in the high range (50+km/h), so there was the expectation that slab conditions had developed and that avalanches would likely be easily triggered by ski cuts and explosives. With the snow still coming down and the wind still blowing, visibility was poor, and crews had to move slowly through the terrain to ensure their own safety.

One of the issues in Whitehorn II is that there are numerous micro-features. In other words, one must consider not only the main part of the slope when conducting control work, but also all the little areas that have their own loading characteristics due to terrain features (rock outcrops) and changes in aspect. This makes for nit-picky work, especially considering that wind-loading was ongoing, and tracks made on these slopes were quickly being filled back in. With all of these conditions making it difficult to make progress in controlling slopes, the decision was made to keep Whitehorn II, Boomerang, Brownshirt, and North Cornice closed for the day.

Which brings us to today, and another 17cm of new snow added by 6:00am this morning. A significant difference last night was that there was much less wind, so the result was lighter, non-wind-affected snow laying over top of slabbier, slightly heavier snow. We call lighter snow over heavier snow building “right side up”, which is what we want. The opposite is “upside-down”, where you have heavier snow laying over lighter, and avalanches are more likely in these cases. However, with all that terrain closed on Sunday, we did not get the skier compaction that we rely on so heavily for slope stability, so avalanche control teams this morning were faced with up to 55cm of new, uncompacted snow in many alpine leeward slopes. Visibility is no better, so teams are moving very carefully through the terrain trying to get it open. Whether those runs that remained closed yesterday open today remains to be seen. There’s a good chance that if this snow keeps up and we get what some forecasts are calling for another 20+cm, then any progress will be hard-fought and short-lived.

Either way, the next few days look like they’re going to provide no shortage of epic turns, and, by hook or by crook, the terrain will open eventually!

Snow Reports Revisited

With Lake Louise getting walloped by over 25cm of snow last night, the daily snow reports (fax, e-mail, Facebook, etc) had a lot of great news and likely made many skiers and riders happy when they checked their computers earlier this morning. I wrote an article earlier this year about how the Lake Louise Ski Area conducts its snow reports, and there’s lots involved in gathering the information and communicating it to our customers via a variety of media.

I do the reports on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, so when I awoke at 4:30am this morning I was greeted with the happy task of letting people know what an epic day we were about to be faced with. I’m able to access the precipitation gauge at our Pika weather plot via the internet from my home, which is handy since the weather in Banff, and snowfall in particular, is rarely indicative of what’s happening in Lake Louise.

A precipitation gauge does not measure snow – rather, it collects falling snow and melts it, then measures the amount of resulting water. We can then use a formula to convert water into snow equivalency, and it is this number that represents the number you see on our snow reports for mid-mountain snowfall.

As I approached Lake Louise this morning however, it was clear that the valley bottom received nowhere near the amount of snow we were seeing higher on the mountain. As I walked from my car to the office, I got a little nervous as I walked through maybe – maybe – 2cm on the ground. Had I been duped by our weather station? Had I sent out reports of huge snowfall when in fact we had anything but? As it turns out, I need not have worried, as our precipitation gauge did indeed tell the real story.

Why such a big difference between the base area and our plot near Pika corner? Warm temperatures, that’s why. With the base area temps lurking within a few degrees of 0C all night, there was a distinct line higher on the mountain where the heavy snowfall suddenly started. One of our lift maintenance staff drove his snowmobile from the base of Larch chair, which also had only a few cm’s of snow, to Paradise base, and he described it like driving into a wall of snow.

If I ever had doubts about the accuracy and reliability of our weather instrumentation, I don’t now (and I apologize sincerely to the precip gauge for the lack of faith)! We have powder, and lots of it. Now I can watch our guests enjoy what is surely to be a day for the books, rather than watch them wonder what the heck we were thinking reporting as much snow as we did. Enjoy everybody!