Updated Uphill Travel Policy

Crystal Mountain is implementing an updated uphill travel policy. Uphill traffic has increased, and while we do not wish to restrict all access, we are concerned for the safety off all users at Crystal.

UPHILL TRAVEL POLICY

  1. DANGER! No uphill travel when light is flashing.
  2. When the lights are not flashing, all uphill travelers within the ski area boundary must check in with patrol. No exceptions. 360-663-3061. Those traveling outside of the ski area boundary may check with patrol for conditions updates, but it is not required.
  3. When the ski area is open, all uphill travel into Southback is prohibited.
  4. Uphill travel within “closed” terrain is not permitted. This includes areas marked with “No Hiking Above This Point” signs. Avalanche control work—including explosives use—may occur at any time.
  5. Uphill traffic must keep to the side of ski trails and well out of the way of downhill skier traffic.
  6. When traveling uphill after hours, use extreme caution with unmarked hazards and heavy equipment including but not limited to snowmobiles, snowmaking, winch cats and cables.
  7. For more information contact Ski Patrol during operating hours: 360-663-3061.
  8. Anyone found in violation of these rules will be subject to prosecution under Washington State Law RCW 79A.45.070

Why the Change?

While doing Avalanche Control (AC) in Southback this season, I came across a guy skinning alone. My route partner and I had just detonated our last explosive in Threeway Exit Chute, when we noticed the lone skier skinning right up into the runout. I asked the gentleman if he knew that Southback was closed and that we were doing AC. He responded that he “heard the bombs,” but he didn’t think there was a problem. He honestly did not realize that he was in any danger.

uphill-travel-in-silver-basin
Photo by Christy Pelland

Needless to say, I quickly turned him towards the Party Knoll and away from Southback. I took a few turns and saw another group headed up into Southback. Again, the same story. Heard the explosions; didn’t think it was a problem. I asked if they’d checked in with patrol or had seen the flashing lights and read the signs. They explained that they thought that even during AC, they thought Southback was always open. Partway across the “airstrip,” I ran into another group. Same story. Heard the bombs, didn’t check in with patrol, thought Southback was always open. As I continued down, I spoke to nearly thirty tourers. To be fair, one group had checked with patrol. Another group said they planned to check in with patrol when they got to the top of “old 4.” Another explained that they left the parking lot in the dark, and did not see any lights or signs. Several of them were under the impression that it was fine to skin into Southback whether it was open, closed or we were doing active avalanche control. All of these groups should have checked in with patrol and would have been told to stay away from Southback.

A few years ago only a handful of people would skin up into Southback. We might see a skin track or two every once in a while. Now, it’s become like a highway.

In 2014  we implemented an Uphill Travel Policy. The flashing lights–both in the plaza and at the bottom of Chinook–are intended to catch the attention of uphill travelers and alert them not to go anywhere near our Avalanche Control points. Now, we need to be a little more specific, hence the update to our Uphill Travel Policy.

skinning-in-the-trees
Photo by Christy Pelland

What Has Changed?

In the interest of everyone’s safety, we have implemented a revised Uphill Travel Policy, with three major changes from the previous iteration. 1) Uphill travel in Southback is prohibited at any time during the regular ski season. 2) When we are doing AC, uphill travel is not permitted anywhere within the ski area boundary. 3) When traveling uphill within our boundary, you must check in with patrol.

The Ski Area Boundary

Crystal Mountain’s Special Use Permit extends from Goat Chutes in the far North all the way around to Norse Peak on the other side of the valley. Crystal sits on Forest Service land, and our mandate allows us to control access within our Special Use Permit area. However, we do not want to restrict access within the entire Special Use Permit. We only wish to control access within our ski area boundary. The ski area boundary is mainly marked by a ropeline that extends around our perimeter (except for a few open portions along the Southback Traverse). Further, the ski area boundary includes everywhere we do Avalanche Control. Below is a screenshot from FATMAP of Silver Basin. The red arrow is the top of Threeway Exit Chute. Everything to the right of the red line is Southback. The red star indicates the last point of uphill travel into Southback. Here, you will need to veer left if traveling uphill.

southback_fatmap

Southback vs. Silver Basin

Southback sits within Silver Basin, but does not take up the entire basin. It is still okay to skin up into the section of Silver Basin that is not within our ski area boundary. Before getting to the “airstrip”–the long flat section at the base of Southback–turn left as you travel uphill (marked above with the red star), and skin along the climber’s left flank of the airstrip, heading towards the base of Chicken Head and Triple F. Joe’s Badass Shoulder and the climber’s left flank of Threeway are outside of our ski area boundary. It’s still okay to tour into these areas.

How You Can Help

Help us spread the word by discussing the new Uphill Travel Policy with your friends and in your socials. Check in with patrol any time you’re touring within our ski area boundary. Understand that the true backcountry near Crystal offers a much better experience than skinning into Southback. For more information, check the Crystal Mountain Uphill Policy.

 

The New Arrow in our Avalanche Control Quiver: Gazex

You may have noticed our three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl. They are hard to miss. After a full season under our belt (2014/15 doesn’t count), it’s time to ask ourselves how effective these bad boys truly are.

exploders_powder bowl
Exploder #1 in the foreground, with #2 and #3 to the left

Just the other day someone on the chairlift asked me if they were winch cat anchors. While we do some serious high-angle grooming here at Crystal Mountain, that would be a bit extreme even for us. Nope. These are Gazex Exploders and they spit out a fiery boom to create avalanches.

These exploders work by mixing oxygen and propane and then lighting it on fire. The igniter is essentially a glorified BBQ lighter. You know that tick, tick, ticking sound that happens when you press the red button on the side of your Weber and then it ignites? Imagine that but about a gazillion times bigger. Let’s just say that the whoomph sound in Powder Bowl can be heard all the way down in A Lot.

Chet Mowbray, the Snow Safety Director at Crystal, calls Gazex “a very effective tool.” It allows us to fire the exploders remotely. This means we don’t have to be at the top of Powder Bowl to start avalanches. We can be in patrol dispatch. We have also fired Gazex at night, when the snowcat operators need to drive under Powder Bowl to get to the top of the mountain. During a heavy snowstorm or when the avalanche hazard is high, this allows our cat operators a safe way to move around the mountain.

Gazex is also fast. The current speed record at Crystal from start to finish is ten minutes. Any opportunity to shave off a few minutes on a powder morning so we can get the lifts spinning asap is a good thing.

gazex_powder bowl
Powder Bowl with Gazex Exploders

One Gazex explosion is the equivalent of 25 pounds of explosive in the air. Most of the explosives we use for avalanche control are 2 pounds. When an explosive is “in the air” that means it is hanging above rather than thrown onto the slope. By hanging a shot in the air, it affects a much larger area.

We hope to add to our quiver of exploders in the future. A few more in Powder Bowl would eliminate an entire Avalanche Control route, allowing us to open that much faster. Another location we are currently looking at is Rock Face–a permanently closed route with several trams and a cat track below it.

Gazex won’t eliminate hand routes, however. We will still need ski patrollers for AC here at Crystal. I, for one, am happy about that fact.

Gazex saves time, creates a bigger boom, makes it safer for our cat crew and shoots balls of fiery awesomeness onto the slope. What’s not to love?

The Life and Times of Wiley Patroller

We admit it. We’ve been neglecting the blog. Due to some technical glitches and then a platform upgrade, we’ve been unable to post anything recently. That’s all about to change. For the next few weeks, I will be posting original Bill Steel cartoons**. If you’ve ever read the Auger Poster in the Snorting Elk, then you’re familiar with Bill’s work. Bill also spent time in the Korea Combat Artists Program, where he was a soldier and artist. He also served in Vietnam.

A Greenwater local, Bill has performed nearly every job at Crystal Mountain. From ski patroller to Planning Director, Bill has been with Crystal since the beginning. He’s also our local historian. His cartoons depict the daily life of Wiley A. Valanche, a fictionalized, and often hapless, ski patroller. Mostly created in the mid-70s, Bill’s cartoons depict a golden era of patrolling, when the snowpack was heavy, the avalanche control was constant and the crew was as tight-knit as a Wapiti Woolies sweater.

Enjoy. Bill_Steel_cartoon_cornice

**Use or reproduction by permission only

Backcountry Research Project Wants To Track Your Ski Tours

Research

The Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State University wants to track your ski tours. While not all readers here are heading into the backcountry, many of you like to spice it up by earning your turns on occasion. If so, you could be a part of some exciting research simply by using an app on your phone.

Led by MSU faculty Dr. Jordy Hendrikx, the project aims to collect GPS location information and survey responses from backcountry skiers and riders to better understand what types of terrain decision we make. Their focus is on backcountry skiers and riders of all abilities and experience. You need not be an expert backcountry skier to participate in this research.

Every track submitted will go into the draw for some great prizes kindly donated by Black Diamond Equipment. The more tracks you submit the more chances you have at winning a prize!

Participation

At the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Seattle this weekend, Jordy presented the data gleaned from last season. He had tracks from Utah to Norway with information about the steepness of terrain travelled, the avalanche conditions and the dynamics of the group.

Surprisingly, however, there wasn’t a single track from the state of Washington. Jordy mused that perhaps skiers and riders in Washington just don’t venture out into the backcountry. Or perhaps, and this seems more likely to me, folks around here like to keep their stashes a secret.

Why They Need Your Help

Whatever the case, you need not worry. Jordy isn’t sharing your goods with the world. Instead, he and his team of snow science graduate students are looking for decision making patterns in the backcountry.

He’s already drawn some interesting conclusions from last season. One that I found particularly illuminating was the effect that women have on decision making. Groups of all-guy backcountry users tend to get into riskier situations. Jordy and his team can track this by comparing the steepness of the terrain entered with the avalanche hazard rating for that time and location. Add one gal to the mix and the riskiness stays about the same. But add two or three ladies to the group and the levels of risk-taking start to go down. All-women groups are the most risk-averse of backcountry users.

The Three Shivas were also in attendance at NSAW on Sunday, giving our version of the Chair 6 Avalanche story. I’m here to tell you, if you want to be sure to have a safe backcountry experience, just bring one of us along. Once you’ve seen a slope go big, you never forget it.

How to Sign Up

Click on the image below to sign up. Jordy needs some Washington backcountry users to broaden his study. Just think of it as your way of “giving back.”

 

Snow Guardians: Documentary on Ski Patrolling

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a professional ski patroller? Perhaps you have wondered about the lives of avalanche forecasters, or you have considered joining a Search and Rescue group.

The film Snow Guardians documents the lives and work of patrollers and rescuers. Based in Montana and focusing on Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol, with footage from Yellowstone Club and Big Sky Resort, Snow Guardians depicts an accurate portrait of patrol life.

This is no small feat.

A documentary on ski patrolling seems like a no brainer. Of course viewers would find explosive control and snow-related emergencies interesting. Saving lives and throwing bombs? Why wouldn’t today’s viewers lap that up? Well, of course there’s more to it than that.

Camera crews often clamber for access to our lives. At Crystal a few years ago, reality television crews followed some of us around, hoping to capture the daily ups and downs of the job. Their task proved difficult. Few members of that camera crew were strong enough skiers and riders to truly “shadow” us. Plus, they were carrying an extra hundred pounds in camera gear.

Most ski patrols aren’t too keen on having a camera crew join them on their avalanche control missions. The use of explosives in the mountains is tightly regulated, and adding in anything extraneous would seem unnecessary and maybe dangerous. By the looks of it, the makers of Snow Guardians do an excellent job of showcasing avalanche control without getting in the way. No doubt the videographers were highly skilled themselves and able to get great footage without endangering anyone. As a ski patroller, I have a keen appreciation for how hard it must have been to film this documentary.

Add to that the nature of the job, when emergencies happen at the most inopportune moments, and you can begin to see how challenging a task this is. Furthermore, ski patrollers tend not to be attention-seekers. We aren’t the sharing type, by nature. It helps that the producers of this film had friends on the Bridger Patrol, which no doubt opened some doors.

What makes Snow Guardians so good is the level of access they had to the inner workings of the Bridger Bowl Patrol. Billed as a documentary that teaches the importance of backcountry knowledge and skills, I see it as a clear glimpse into our world. Snow Guardians is for sale. It’s about the price of a hard cover book, and it’s worth the money. Check out the trailer below.

Why Crystal Mountain Needs Gazex

First a Little History

One of the perks of managing a ski area is that it gives my husband and I an excuse to go on ski vacations. Why? To check out the competition, of course! (Because what’s better than seeing someone else’s sagging rope lines and knowing that it’s not your job to stop and fix it?) If you’ve ever worked as a ski patroller than you know what I’m talking about.

Gazex 2 and 3 in Powder Bowl

A few years ago, John and I visited the Les 3 Vallées in France. One of the largest skiing complexes in the world consisting of eight interconnecting resorts, Les 3 Vallées has no less than 258 Gazex Exploders. Skiing and riding in Europe is a little different than in the States. The Piste Services, which includes the ski patrol (Sécurite dé Pistes) and the cat crew, only manage the actual “pistes.” In Europe a piste is equivalent to a named (and often groomed) run. So imagine if at Crystal we only did avalanche control on named runs or the slopes that overhung named runs. Also picture if we only put out hazard markings and tower pads and caution signs on the groomed runs. Furthermore, imagine that the ski patrol only provided free first aid to those injured on the groomers. Elsewhere, you have to call for your own helicopter and/or pay extra for assistance.

In Les 3 Vallées, Piste Services focus their efforts on the pistes. However, since so much of these slopes are threatened from above by avalanche terrain, skiers also benefit from their extensive use of Gazex exploders. The off-piste in Les 3 Vallées is steep and challenging and very often blasted for avalanche mitigation.

When John and I visited Les 3 Vallées a former Crystal exchange patroller Klébert Silvestre ran the Piste Services in Val Thorens, one of the interconnected resorts there. Klébert was kind enough to show us around. John was most impressed by the Gazex exploders. Gazex is certainly expensive and a little obtrusive, and I wasn’t convinced these would work at Crystal.

The Problem of Powder Bowl

Crystal Local Nala Checks out Gazex 2

Powder Bowl is a steep bowl that overhangs a groomed run at Crystal. Snowcats use that run to access the upper mountain at night. Skiers and riders use the cat track below to access some of Crystal’s best terrain, including Lucky Shot and Bear Pits. After our trip to Les 3 Vallées John wanted to implement Gazex in Powder Bowl. Triggered remotely, exploders can mitigate avalanches even when the winds are too high to run the chairlift. Once I looked at Powder Bowl through his eyes, I understood his concern.

On a powder day at Crystal, we pride ourselves on opening the upper mountain (what we call our “in-area” terrain) by 9 am. While that’s not always possible, most mornings skiers and riders are enjoying fresh turns as soon as the lifts begin to spin. Many ski resorts with similar avalanche terrain suffer from chronic late openings of the best terrain. In the PNW, when a slight warmup can worsen the avalanche hazard, we want to get folks skiing and riding (and putting tracks in) that terrain ASAP. Even a slight delay can cause problems. The longer a slope sits unridden after we’ve thrown our explosives, the frownier we patrollers become.

Enter Gazex

This summer crews are installing three Gazex exploders (no, they are not called “boomers” or “pipes” or even really big “jibs”), in Powder Bowl. They will be called Gazex 1, 2, and 3. How’s that for originality? The first one is located in the Summit Chute and the other two are located to the skier’s left. In placing these exploders, we considered many factors. Most importantly, we placed them in the most effective avalanche starting zones. Since these exploders cannot be moved, we want to get the most “bang for the buck.” Also, we considered the traverse path to the left most chutes. These exploder locations are below that traverse, so they shouldn’t get in the way.

But Can I Jump off of it?

Funny thing how you build a big curving metal structure on a ski slope and the first question you get is, “can I jump it?” I suppose that’s possible. Just like jibbing off a chairlift tower is theoretically possible. The top of the structure isn’t exactly smooth. It contains ribs and tubes and various attachment points. So a clean rail slide probably isn’t going to happen. And then there’s the problem of the landing. These exploders are pretty far off the ground. With a little snow on the slope, they might feel a bit lower, but off course these exploders are there to blast the snow off the slope, so not sure how much snow will accumulate right below them. In short, I wouldn’t set my sites on jumping off these bad boys. It might be exciting to think about, but the logistics are pretty daunting.

Pretty Sketchy Landing on Gazex 2

What Next?

If Gazex in Powder Bowl works as well as we anticipate, our next exploder location will be Rock Face. Since Rock Face is permanently closed, it never gets any skier compaction. In the spring, the entire slope has ripped to the ground. Rock Face also hangs over a cat track. Skiers and riders might have noticed in the past few years seeing the “No stopping beyond this point” signs. That’s pretty sage advice.

Gazex will never replace explosive hand routes at Crystal (phew!). We have too many small pockets. Our mandate in the States is to manage all the terrain, not just the pistes. Therefore we will always need ski patrollers to help mitigate the slopes. But Gazex has it’s place, and I’m looking forward to seeing how well it works this season.

Now let’s all pray to Ullr that we get enough snow to really put our Gazex to the test.