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 – we 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!

Out-of-Bounds vs. Avalanche Areas – What’s the Scoop?

Every year the ski patrol are approached by people wondering whether we do any form of avalanche control in places like West Bowl or other areas outside the ski area boundary. The short answer is no, we do not, but there’s a bit of background information that people may find helpful in deciding whether to venture beyond the ropes. It’s also worth repeating what the difference is between out-of-bounds areas and avalanche  control zones, as both exist at Lake Louise and are subject to their own rules and policies. I’ve copied much of the following post from another article that appeared here in the very early days of the Lowdown, in a winter where avalanche involvements in western Canada were dominating the front pages of many newspapers.


At Lake Louise, out-of-bounds means just that – any area that lies outside our operational boundary, which is marked with orange rope and bamboo fencing, and is identified with orange signs stating “Ski Area Boundary – Not Patrolled”. Our entire boundary is open, meaning there is no restriction with regards to when or where someone can leave the resort area to enter the backcountry (as long as they don’t travel through an avalanche closure to do it). At the same time, anyone considering a backcountry trip needs to realise that there can be a whole new set of hazards and implications involved with their decision.

First and foremost is the fact that no avalanche control is performed outside the resort boundary (except in a few cases where out-of-bounds terrain has the potential to avalanche into in-bounds terrain). So, even though a piece of backcountry terrain has the same characteristics (slope angle, aspect, elevation, etc) as somethings in-bounds, it has not received any of the ongoing control work that makes terrain safe for skiing.

Related to avalanche control work is skier compaction. The more traffic a piece of terrain gets, the more the snowpack gets compacted and pounded into the mountain face, adding to stability. Within the boundary we have a very good idea of the amount of skier compaction that has occurred on any given run. This is not the case for terrain outside the boundary, meaning that the stabilising effects of skier traffic are mostly unknown.

Another thing to consider when traveling outside the boundary is that rescue can take much longer to perform. Within the resort, assistance is only minutes away. In the backcountry, the rescue effort can be much more involved, and rescuers must ensure their own safety when approaching the site, especially in avalanche terrain. A serious injury such as a broken femur can be life-threatening, and if it takes a few hours for the injury to get reported and the patrol to locate the site and perform a rescue, it could be hours the patient does not have.

When it comes to West Bowl, while it is officially considered a backcountry area, the fact that it gets skied so often means that it can be at times more like an in-bounds slope than one that seldom gets skied. West Bowl never receives avalanche control work, but the high amount of traffic does add snowpack compaction that would not exist on slopes further from the ski area and therefore harder to access. Compaction, however, is only one of many factors that contribute to slope stability, and by itself does not mean the slope is safe. All the same factors that contribute to avalanche hazard inside the area boundary exist in West Bowl (snow, wind, temperature, aspect, slope angle, etc), except it does not receive the control work that is so vital to slope stability inside the boundary.

Avalanche Area Closures

Within and separate from the resort boundary are areas identified as avalanche zones. These are areas, mostly in the alpine, that the avalanche forecaster has deemed to be unsafe for skiing. Like the boundary, these areas are marked with orange rope and bamboo fences, but have different signage. These signs are stop sign-shaped, and use mainly red and white markings with the text “Closed – Avalanche Danger”. Unlike the boundary, entry into these areas when closed is not negotiable nor open to interpretation. Not only could the terrain be unsafe, but the patrol may be performing avalanche control work with explosives.

Entry into avalanche closures can be dealt with in a few ways. Generally, we aim for an “education, not alienation” approach when talking with “poachers”. However, if a poacher appears to have a bad attitude or lack of appreciation for why the terrain is closed, or if they appear unwilling to learn from the experience, then pass removal is the usual outcome. Season or multi-day pass holders  must successfully complete an avalanche quiz at the end of their suspension in order to have their pass returned.

CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers - or those studying for a quiz)CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers – or those studying for a quiz)

Poachers almost never have any understanding of avalanche hazard and how it relates to weather or snowpack development, nor do we expect them to. We expect that people trust our experience and decision to keep terrain closed due to hazard, and that they obey all posted signage. A good example of poor knowledge came from one poacher who claimed “Well, it was open last year and it was okay then!”.

Anyone who rides Paradise chair already knows the most heavily poached spot on the mountain – the ER 4/5 fenceline (the fact that poachers are visible to a chair full of people never seems to occur to some of them). The common excuse we hear is “I was just inside the fence, how dangerous could it have been?”. We then explain that:

  • by placing tracks in a closed area, you send the message to others that the terrain is open to be skied (sucker tracks).
  • you endanger the lives of those who may be skiing below in open terrain.
  • you endanger the lives of those who would come to your rescue in the event you got into trouble.
  • you may have been by the fence, but the next person will go in further to get their fresh lines, and so on until people are skiing right in the heart of an avalanche slope.

Arguably one of the biggest impacts poaching has on everyone else is that dealing with folks who decide to ski in closed areas takes patrollers away from other important tasks, like trying to control and open more terrain.

Public Education

One of the things that makes public education a challenge is that there is no single universal policy in the ski industry when it comes to dealing with these areas. In some places, those leaving the resort boundary are subject to criminal prosecution. Others allow you to leave the resort, but make it clear that those requiring assistance or rescue will be responsible for the total cost. Given that many serious injuries require the use of a helicopter, patients could find themselves faced with a bill in the thousands of dollars.

Because Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park, the situation here is somewhat unique in the industry. Since those skiing at the Lake have entered the national park with a park pass, that pass covers any sort of rescue that may be required. This includes hikers who injure themselves far from the trailhead, and climbers who get stuck high on the mountain. (Having said that, those who make a habit of getting into enough trouble to require rescue may find themselves faced with the bill. This should prevent people from just assuming that a helicopter will come and whisk them off the mountain at the first sign of trouble).

Officially, the resort boundary dictates who will perform a rescue – inside is ski patrol, outside is Parks Canada’s Public Safety Specialists. Unofficially, the ski patrol will assist with backcountry issues close to the boundary, and the parks service will assist inside the boundary if their help is requested. This results in a great working relationship between the resort and the park’s public safety staff.

In the end, all we can hope is that people respect the closures in place within the resort boundary, and that those traveling outside the boundary be prepared. The Ski Patrol at Lake Louise is always available to answer your questions. If they can’t, they’ll point you in the right direction to find out all you need to know.

17cm Overnight!

Not the 20+cm one forecast was calling for, but I’m finding it hard to complain with another 17cm of new snow overnight at Lake Louise, bringing the weekly snowfall total to 55cm. And with the snow supposed to keep coming for a few days still, there’s going to be lots for everyone!

In addition to snowfall, last night also saw moderate winds blowing for most of the night, which means it’s reasonable to expect some delays in terrain openings. Moderate winds can move around a lot of snow, and with lots of snow available to be moved around (called fetch), we’re expecting slab conditions on leeward slopes. Slab avalanches are usually the largest and most destructive, so control teams will want to make sure they’ve taken care of any lingering avalanche potential before opening avalanche terrain to the public.

Enjoy the powder!

Big Snow for the Lake Tonight?

Don’t tell anyone, but the Lake Louise Ski Area Avalanche Control office subscribes to a weather service that provides detailed daily forecasts specifically for this area, and based on what that forecast has been saying the last few days, it looks promising that tonight may see the arrival of a significant snowfall. One estimate predicts over 15mm of moisture. The rule of thumb at Lake Louise is that 1mm of water equals around 1.5cm of snow, so 15mm of moisture therefore points to over 20cm of snow!

Of course, with any forecast there’s unpredictability, and there are other publicly available sources that call for somewhat more modest snowfall amounts. But we in the ski industry have selective hearing, and ignore those ones in favour of the forecasts that call for big dumps.

Today, the snow really started falling at around 1:00pm, when it was coming down at a rate of 2cm per hour. With this afternoon’s total at 4cm and counting before day’s end, we’re already off to a good start!

Our fingers are officially crossed.