“Prepping a shot, Freemont Three,” a voice crackles over the radio. On the deck of Copper Mountain Resort’s “Motel 6” ski patrol station on Union Peak, patroller Kevin Carlberg grabs his binoculars to scan the face of the opposing slope below Tucker Ridge.
With the naked eye it’s hard to tell the difference between trees and the four pairs of patrollers strategically placed on the distant hillside. Carlberg discribes the chute where the call came from.
“Fire in the hole, Freemont Three — two minutes.”
Even through a telephoto lens it’s difficult to differentiate the black dots on the slope. The bang reaches us before the cloud of smoke rises.
“Nothing,” Carlberg says.
The voice on the radio confirms, “No release.”
Carlberg points out a large crack in the snow on the slope, and the patrollers discuss dropping another charge.
Shortly after, a call comes over the radio from another pair of patrollers.
“Fire in the hole, Freemont Four,”
Carlberg points to a much larger chute to the right.
Two minutes later, a louder bang.
“There it goes,” Carlberg says, as a slide starts to move. First the right side of the chute gives way, then the left, quickly doubling the size of the slide.
“Wow, good shooting.”
The teams of patrollers continue to blast but fail to match the scope of the slide in chute four. In pairs, the teams make their way back to the patrol station, one group at a time.
assessing their work
Later, Copper ski patrol terrain management foreman Toby Cruse sipped coffee and assessed the morning’s avalanche-mitigation work. “That was a pretty big one,” he said of the slide in chute four. “Up higher there were detached blocks of snow that were the size of couches and half the size of cars.”
Cruse said the avalanche created a crown 4 to 6 feet deep, and by the time it stopped it had created debris that he and his team estimated to be 25 feet deep.
“There were blocks of snow in the debris pile that were huge,” Cruse said. “Those blocks of snow can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and if one of those runs over you it’s going to mush you like a bug.”
With all the recent snowfall, avalanche danger remains high in Summit County. It has already led to two backcountry fatalities elsewhere in Colorado. “It’s shaping up to be a particularly dangerous season,” Cruse said, explaining that heavy snows and wind-loaded slopes over weak layers in the snowpack have greatly increased the risk. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) continues to rate the avalanche danger as “considerable” — a three on the center’s five-point scale. A CAIC spokesperson told the Daily that wind loading has added pressure to slopes that had previously been stable, making the potential for slides to release deeper layers in the snowpack, much like Cruse described.
banner year for skiing
While avalanches remain a concern in the backcountry, area resorts with the resources to mitigate the danger say it’s starting to look like a banner year for skiing. An estimated 63 inches of snow have fallen this month alone. All seven nearby ski areas are reporting that 75 percent or more of their terrain is open.
“We’re having that same kind of January that we had a couple years ago,” Copper Mountain ski patrol supervisor Janie Merickel said, referring to three seasons ago.
For Copper that means snowcat skiing operations are likely to be underway in the near future. Keystone reportedly has its cat service running.
“We look forward to running the cat as soon as we are able,” Merickel said. “I hope it’s next week.”
Cruse added that Copper is likely to expand its hike-to terrain along the West Ridge of Copper Bowl as soon as this weekend.
As for Tucker Ridge, Cruse said it still needs more mitigation work and a good snowfall to cover exposed terrain.
“We don’t have the whole picture,” he said, explaining that the resort’s teams need to continue blasting in the Freemont Glades area. “It’s going to take a little while for it to refill and actually be good skiing.”
Both Copper Mountain and Breckenridge Ski Resort are celebrating National Ski Area Slope Safety Month this weekend with a number of events, including avalanche dog demonstrations and visits from the Flight for Life rescue helicopter. More information is available at coppercolorado.com and breckenridge.com
“There were blocks of snow in the debris pile that were huge. Those blocks of snow can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds and if one of those runs over you it’s going to mush you like a bug.”
Copper Mountain Resort terrain management foreman