The avi crew testing snow and its various layers.
An avalanche is triggered in a few different ways by the team. Often a tripod is set up holding a 12.5 kg bag of explosives about a metre off the ground. There is a small detonator with a metre-long fuse on it. That is lit by an igniter, giving the team at least two and a half minutes to get clear of the area. The air blast caused by the explosion will hopefully release the snow. If there has been a heap of snow fall over night, a helicopter from Golden is called in.
“Big snow days, we bring in the helicopter to hit a lot of areas quickly and get the terrain open. A helicopter can do in 20 minutes what a crew would do in a day. But if there is no visibility, we still have to send the team out,” says Crowe. There are guns aimed at closed areas and wires hung across some slopes that are used to send explosives further down the slope before they ignite.
The terrain is opened in a sequence that caters to the most people first so that’s Crystal Bowl, Bowl Over and CPR Ridge. The avalanche control will move out from those prime locations trying to avoid pockets of closures. Some spots however, are permanently closed, because the runout potential into open areas is too great.
Crowe says they take care of the macro avalanches. The smaller pockets that could sluff are in chutes and slopes where people using it are usually capable of riding out a small avalanche.
Dealing with poachers
“People get mad when we are slow to open terrain, but we have to think of everyone’s safety. Yes, we are overly cautious – but we have to be. We put up as much rope with tons of signs as possible which either delineates the end of the resort property or a closure. If people duck the rope to go out of the resort area, that’s fine, hopefully they are prepared. But inbounds, a rope with signage means a slope is closed. If people (called poachers) choose to duck under, they know the slope is shut for a reason. We can’t protect people who don’t respect our efforts,” says Crowe. “If poachers are caught, we have zero tolerance. Their day pass is taken away or if they have a season's pass, it’s frozen for three weeks.”
As the avalanche forecaster, Crowe says the day starts in the office creating the initial plan of attack, but the rest of the day is out looking for spots and assessing the potential for avalanches. He’ll dig snow pits and check the snow characteristics always asking, “Did the forecast match what is going on.” As much as they rely on data and education, gut feeling is also a major component and that comes with experience.
The forecaster can’t just think about how yesterday’s storm is affecting today. There are so many layers of snow under that last dump that add to the story. Crowe says they have to think about how the weather has impacted the other layers. If snow came down warm on a broken surface, it bonds. If the surface has melted and froze, and fresh snow lands, there is a slippery slope waiting to release. It’s all about preventing that release from happening when the slope is open.
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