Reading Between The Signs

Say hello to guest-blogger Blaine Horner. He’s posting under my name, since, as a second-year patroller, he hasn’t quite been offered the Roy Rogers Deputy Sheriff Ski Patrol Blogger Badge yet. But he’s getting there. Keep aiming high Blaine, and thanks for offering up this succinct explanation of northway signage. –Kim KIrcher


The regular season has started slowing sliding away. Teachable moments however, should never be wasted. I wanted to take this opportunity I have in Dispatch to explain some of the signage used by Patrol at Crystal and the messages they convey: both subtle and blunt.


Signs are our most consistent way of communicating with our guests. Somethimes we talk to people about certain concerns, such as Southback or Powder Bowl avalanche conditions. But always the signs are there. They are Ski Patrol’s way of notifying guests of closures or special hazards that exist in the area being marked. Our most sign riddled area at Crystal is the Northway Line. This rope line extends from Gate 1, near the top of Snorting Elk Bowl, across Paradise and through Horseshoe Cliffs all the way to the top of O-Meadows on Gun Tower Ridge. This rope line allows access to Northway and Niagras at 11 places, each marked with a gate and a sign.


It is important to understand that access to Northway is allowed only through these gates because it forces every person to see a sign. One reason for this is that we often do avalanche control in Northway after the normal mountain is open. By allowing access only through gates, we can close those gates and eliminate access until we are finished with control work. It is also guarantees that guests unfamiliar with our terrain will not be surprised. When gates are open, they are forced past a sign that describes the terrain. Northway is a unique area that we all treasure but that must be treated differently then normal areas.


The Northway signs can read one of four ways:


“Open: Expert Terrain: Cliffs and Unmarked Hazards Exist.” When the signs read this way, they indicate that the Northway Chair is running and the terrain is open. Due to the vastness and terrain variety in Northway Bowl, these signs are designed to be intimidating. We want people to know that the hazards accessible through the Northway gates are very different then the hazards one can expect on Queens Run or Lucky Shot.


“Northway Chairlift Closed: Return to Base Via I-5.” When the conditions of the I-5 trail are favorable for returning to base, this allows us to open the ‘Short North’ Terrain (Paradise Bowl to O-Meadows) while leaving the chair lift closed. We mostly employ this method at the end of the day to allow people one more Northway lap. Gates 4-10 are the only gates that will ever read this way. Guests can ski anywhere from Paradise to O-Meadows, but then stay right once in the drainage, joining I-5 and returning to base. The issues with this system is that people either do not read the writing when this sign is posted, or do not respect the closure. Either way they end up at the bottom of a closed chair. This is unfortunate because it makes it difficult for us to utilize this ‘closure’ technique and leave he terrain open longer. Please read the signs and respect the closures so we can all ski Northway later in the day.


“Area Closed: Avalanche Danger.” Blunt and crystal clear, this sign leaves no room for argument. The subtle message conveyed if you see this sign at the end of the day is that we are expecting snow or some other weather event. I personally find I can predict weather trends by how we position our signs at the end of the day. Between the lines of this sign one can read, “Take tomorrow off, we are expecting snow.” This is also a sign to be respected, as it indicates that either avalanche hazards exist that we have not yet mitigated or that we are currently out doing control work.


“Stop Closed.” Simple yet bold. The terrain is no less closed than with an avalanche closure, but this sign tells the reader that the terrain is closed for a reason other than expected snowfall; for example, end of the day or chairlift maintenance closures. If these signs are up at the end of the day, unless Northway is down the next day for some outside reason, the gates should open quickly the next morning.


Many of these signs can be found on other parts of the mountains. At a bare minimum, we ask people to read our signs for their safety. Hopefully now you will be able to glean some inside knowledge from them as well.

5 thoughts on “Reading Between The Signs

  1. Corey

    Excellent! Thanks for taking time to do that, Blaine! Hopefully people will heed the signs and keep themselves out of harm’s way!


  2. Thanks, all those signs seem straightforward and clear. However, the new lighted signs are another matter. We’ve grown not to trust them as we’ve loaded chairs and the Gondola right next to the signs snowing the lifts closed. Or, headed to C6 or Northway when the light said open, only to find it had closed an hour earlier due to wind or breakdown. Specifically, what does it mean when the Northway chair light says open and the Northback light says closed? I’ve seen that occasionally, does it mean something or is it just a light/signage goof?


  3. Ken–
    The electronic signs had a few bugs to be worked out earlier this season, but all that is behind us now. There may be a short delay now as the computer in dispatch processes all the openings and then sends them out to the various kiosks, but that shouldn’t take too long. If you are loading first, or even tenth, chair I imagine that the computer hasn’t yet caught up and indeed you could see it still closed.
    In response to your query about Northback vs Northway, that’s a great question. Blaine discusses that above. Sometimes “short north” is open, but the chair is closed. After 3pm on weekends it’s possible to ski gates 4-10 and return on I-5. However, I’ve never seen it the other way around, that the chair is open but the terrain is closed. Did you have that right, or did you mean to say the chair closed and the terrain open?


  4. The “lights” said Northway lift open, and we were ready to head that direction till we noticed the Northback light said closed. Confused (we figured what the other way round would mean), and with lots of good snow the other direction, we didn’t venture north to check the situation. Sounds like a lightboard goof.
    Good to hear the delay issues have been worked out.


  5. Corey

    Hey Ken,
    I’ll add my 2-cents worth of explanation because I’ve got a hurt knee, so I’ve been working in Patrol Dispatch a lot lately, where the computer is that controls the maps. The program seems to work off of “modem” technology.
    Side note: I saw a guy fixing a similar sign at Whistler once, and I stopped to ask how they communicate with such far-flung signs. He said they operated wirelessly, but he was actually changing that because people were skiing by talking on cell phones and changing the signs. It sounded fishy to me, but he’s Canadian so you gotta believe him.
    Anyway, OUR computer program has a little box on the screen where you can watch what’s going on if you look real close and speed read. It essentially places a phone call to each sign and works like a dial-up modem. You can see it placing the call and waiting for an “answer”, then sending out a tone to establish a connection, then telling each light how to read and waiting for each light to confirm it has changed, then canceling the tone and disconnecting that call, then calling the next map…for all 6 of them. It beats doing knee exercises.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s