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.

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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.

 

What’s opening tomorrow?

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With 12 inches of new snow on the upper mountain over the past five days we came in today to do avalanche control work.

Lifts running will be the Gondola, Green Valley and Rainier Express.   Terrain open will be Snorting Elk, Green Valley and Middle Ferk’s and the rest of the frontside over to (and including) Lucky Shot.  The lift-served terrain is all “blue square” More Difficult terrain, and above.

Kelly’s Gap will remain closed, as is the rest of the lower area below the bottom of Rainier Express.

We hope you’ll come join us!

Our Curious Closures of Southback & Powder Bowl

A few people have noticed that our closure of Powder Bowl–and of Southback from Queen’s Run–don’t really make sense in terms of our normal logic of opening and closing terrain.   Unusual circumstances call for unusual measures.  Allow me to explain…

First, for this to make sense you have to remember that in addition to being a beautiful expanse of nature, Crystal Mountain is also a business.  A business with a permit to operate in its own best interest by the Forest Service.  So while there may be sketchy backcountry gnar that I choose to teeter across on my day off to get to something good, that’s a lot different than a company such as ours offering its customers skiing in those same sketchy areas as part of their lift ticket purchase.  (That’s why lots of ski resorts have Permanently Closed Areas—You don’t necessarily die the moment you set foot in there, but the hazards are so extreme that closing the area to everyone is warranted!)  And we communicate the extent of responsibility our company is willing to assume by indicating which areas are “open” and which areas are “closed”, with signs.

Also for this to make sense, you need to know (if somehow you haven’t heard) that Chair 6 (High Campbell) got destroyed by an avalanche on March 10th.  So, we’re not doing avalanche control work in Southback anymore, and with the reduction in compaction created by less skier traffic, it’s even MORE “avalanche prone” than usual–similar to true backcountry. 

For the remainder of this season, Southback is CLOSED to lift-accessed skiing.  We’re treating it like the true backcountry, and ski-tourers are allowed to travel there under their own power from the Quicksilver trail.  (Not to be confused with the Quicksilver lift, which is closed for at least the rest of the season, and probably forever, if it gets replaced!)  But we’re PROHIBITING access from the Lake Elizabeth outrun onto Queen’s Run–and similar areas–to reduce “sucker tracks” that lure guests who might not be fully aware of the increased avalanche danger there, into short hikes into avalanche start & runout zones.

Powder Bowl is a little different.  We’ll evaluate the skiing, and open it when we think the skiing conditions and visibility will appeal to the average kind of customer who’s likely to hike up there, taking into account any avalanche danger Powder Bowl skiers might create for Lucky Shot skiers passing below.  There will probably be times that it will look pretty but the skiing sucks, and you won’t understand why it’s closed.  I hope you’ll trust that we’ll open it anytime it doesn’t seem unwise.  We put a lot of thought and discussion into these kinds of decisions, and prefer to have terrain open whenever operational concerns allow.

What Does it Feel Like to Demolish a Lift?

“What were your immediate thoughts when you realized the avalanche was so big?”

That’s a question I heard a lot yesterday.

A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.
A 25 lb explosive charge set off this avalanche on the Throne and demolished Chair 6 at Crystal.

On Monday I was on the avalanche control team that demolished the High Campbell Chairlift (aka Chair 6). We knew there was a potential for a big slide. Other slopes had slid to the ground in the past 24 hours. The skier’s right side of Powder Bowl had produced a full-depth avalanche and left a 10 foot crown. The Employee Housing slide path produced another big one. The snowpack was saturated with over 3 inches of rain. A weak depth hoar layer still lurked at the ground.

The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.
The right skid of Powder Bowl slid to the ground Monday morning before the slopes opened.

But we didn’t know it was going to go this big.

Sure, we made sure no one was below. We lowered our 25 lb. explosive well after hours. We worried that our results could be big. But I never thought we’d destroy the lift.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.
The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

The bottom terminal was knocked off the bull wheel. The lift shack was demolished.

Talking to the old time patrollers who managed these slopes decades ago, nothing of this size has ever slid before. Maybe back in the pre-Crystal, pre-skier-compacted days this kind of thing happened. But not since Crystal has operated at a ski area.

So what did it feel like to let loose such a big slide?

Scary.

Seeing a big avalanche up close is an awesome thing. There’s nothing like it. As soon as the shot went off, my route partners and I ( we were a team of three women that my husband now calls the Three Shivas) knew it was big. We approached the ridge and looked down. The avalanche was just separating from the slope and noisily tearing down the mountain. At first all I heard was a low whoosh. Then a deep rumble. Next I heard the terrible sound of trees snapping. Finally I heard the sound of twisting metal.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.
Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it

The visibility was poor so we only had the noise to go on. And it was horrifying.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.
The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Outside of our boundaries large natural avalanches have been happening. When we decided to use explosives on The Throne, we all knew the consequences. But it was much better to destroy a lift when it was closed than to risk an avalanche when it was opened and occupied. We didn’t have a choice. Upper management knew the risk too, and my husband was all in. We had to do this thing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, watching an avalanche is awesome, in the sense of massive and awe-inspiring. Seeing the aftermath yesterday with our first clear skies in weeks was horrifying.

Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli
Throne Avalanche seen from the Heli

All day yesterday we continued to test the slopes with large explosives. We dropped charges from a helicopter and hung them on trams. But we got virtually no results. Does that mean the slopes are now safe?

It means I slept better last night. The snowpack is adjusting to its load. We aren’t out of the woods yet. If we get a big rain event, this could happen again.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.
Throne Avalanche aerial view

We are contracting our terrain at Crystal. What is open has been deemed safe. Don’t duck any ropes and respect all closures. Now isn’t the time for backcountry skiing either. Let’s remember who’s calling the shots here, it’s Mother Nature.

Here’s some footage of the Throne avalanche and it’s aftermath. This video is courtesy of patroller Andy Harrington.

 

Ah, Snow!

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The early morning call came this morning, we were out the door early for control work. Eight inches of new snow on the upper mountain made good skiing for those that came. Bull run and Exterminator are open for the first time this year and South is scheduled to open on Friday morning sometime. Northway lift is looking to open Sunday. Subject to weather and conditions.

Closures & Pass Pulling

I got asked to write a thing explaining why we Patrollers pull lift passes when people ski past our “closed”  signs and leave the open areas—areas that are currently quite limited due to early season low snow conditions.   Here goes:

 

With all the steep, multiple-path avalanche terrain we have a Crystal Mountain, we need to avoid creating any kind of double-standard when it comes to our signage.  A ropeline or “closed” signs means an area is CLOSED.  It may be because we’re blasting with explosives in the middle of the day.  It may be because natural landslides/rockfall/icefall/avalanches are imminent in that  area .  It may be because we know we won’t be able to get help to someone who gets injured in time to prevent a tragic outcome.

In any case, we don’t want our guests to get in the habit of second-guessing us.  So we choose to be VERY CONSISTENT.  If you violate a closure you lose skiing privileges, and possibly get a $1,000 fine.  It’s that simple.  And in big, steep terrain that’s how it’s gotta be.

Currently, all we’re offering is skiing in parts of Green Valley and Snorting Elk, with downloading the Gondola required to return to base.    If you try going past our “closed” markings to ski/hike to base, then you’ll be in closed areas and will lose skiing privileges here, and possibly at other Northwest ski areas.

So then a few people ask “Why can’t I ski Silver Basin?”, the answer is:  You can!  (Woo-hoo!)  If you hike up from your car, you’re not acting as a customer of the company that owns/runs/maintains the ski lifts.  You’re ascending under your own power (getting what I’m guessing might be a much-needed bit of exercise in the process–am I right?) and fully responsible for your own safety and route-finding.  If someone in your party gets lost or injured we’ll likely try to come help  if we can.  And if we don’t have the resources (for instance, because we’re in limited operations and have a smaller staff, like now) then the Sheriff’s Office & Tacoma Search and Rescue will probably help out, though it may be the following day.  (Being out all night?   That’ll suck!  Just remember to keep those cell phones charged!)

 

Then there are a few people who say “Well I want to get the goods, but I don’t want to have to work so hard for it”.  (Or buy the right gear for it, or whatever.)  Essentially they’re saying:  “I want your business to offer me services that it currently doesn’t offer, and I don’t want to have to pay anything additional for it!”

Here’s the best analogy I can think of:

There’s this restaurant.  You like the location because it has a pretty view and it’s 1/2-way between your house and your school or work.  Every August, most of the staff goes on a yoga retreat for a week, so the skeleton crew that’s left cooks a limited, vegetarian menu.  But you want a burger.  You could eat at home.  You could walk a couple blocks down to a place that has burgers.  Or you could order the Hummus and pita.  But dangit! you want a burger and you want it at THAT restaurant, even though they aren’t selling any that week.  So you want to be able to go into that restaurant and light your own little campfire right there at your table, and grill yourself up  a tasty burger.   But OF COURSE the restaurant can’t allow that!  There are fire codes and air-quality standards.  There are safety concerns and food handling permits.  There are all sorts of businessy details that you never have to think about when you’re bitin’ down on a  juicy burger.

So for that short period of time–until the regular staff gets back all loosey-goosey from their yoga retreat–you may just have to be happy with the Hummus & pita.   And recognize that taking it upon yourself to start that campfire is only going to make things way worse for your favorite restaurant–which in the long run will probably make things way worse for you!  Make sense?

 

I should mention:  those of us who work at, live at, and love Crystal Mountain are pretty sure our Hummus is still way better than most other places ‘Royale with Cheese’ (for meat eaters) so please don’t screw things up!   Thanks!

Count Down

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One week of the winter season left. Skiing conditions are surprisingly good especially in the afternoon’s. Short North will be open returning back to the base area via I-5. All chairs except Quicksilver and Gold Hills will be open as will South conditions permitting. If you have enjoyed the season as much as we have take a minute and make our day, thank an employee.