Arapahoe Basin Ski Area director of snow safety recalls last week’s effort to open amid avalanche concerns (podcast)
Just what does it take to close Arapahoe Basin Ski Area?
That’s the question many Summit County locals, transient visitors and online commenters had this time last week after the ski area near the Continental Divide remained closed for two consecutive days.
A-Basin closing early? Though that’s also rare, it’s happened before due to rare instances of dangerous avalanche conditions along US-6. But to be closed for more than 48 hours? It was truly unprecedented.
“Snow is a good thing” said Ryan Evanczyk, A-Basin’s director of snow safety. “However, you can get into situations where too much snow influences your ability to open. And I think it’s inherent as to our location on the Contintenal Divide here that we could run into these scenarios. But, again, it’s still really rare.”
“Really rare” — as in last week was only the second time in Evanczyk’s near two-decade tenure at A-Basin he can remember the “Widowmaker” path 1 mile west and down the road from the ski area covering the highway with avalanche debris. The Widowmaker is an extremely dangerous south-facing gully that also covered Highway 9 with avalanche debris once prior, to Evanczyk’s recollection: in February 2014.
The Widowmaker and a path that descends directly across the highway from A-Basin, the Little Professor, were the two primary culprits behind the ski area’s two-day closure.
Three days before the closure though, on Monday, March 4, was when Evanczyk saw the first data point of measurement that suggested to him it could be a week of high avalanche danger. Just about 2 inches of water had descended on the ski area over the weekend, an alarmingly high amount of moisture within the snowfall for just a few days.
“That’s where we have to start to look at what kind of a load we are dealing with on our snowpack,” he said. “And there is a totally different snowpack in terms of what we are dealing with in the ski area and what’s out in the backcountry or out along the highways.”
Fully alert to the potential dangers that lurked in the ski area’s boundaries and directly out of bounds, Evanczyk and A-Basin’s crew of snow safety and ski patrol personnel undertook their typical mitigation work over the next few days. They assessed where within A-Basin’s operational boundaries avalanche danger was highest due to the wind-loading of the wet snow, among other factors.
Which leads to Thursday morning. Another wet, overnight storm dumped even more potentially unstable snow at the ski area. A-Basin’s forecaster was the first to arrive at 5 a.m., like any other day, developing a weather and avalanche report for the ski area. And boy was Thursday morning a big morning.
“We had a lot more explosives that were being prepared that morning based on the amount of snow that we received,” Evanczyk said. “Larger quantities of explosives, larger pay load of explosives and, as well, more teams, more people, more resources were being planned for so that we could run routes all over the hill and attempt to open up on time.”
That was the premise Evanczyk and A-Basin worked under until the ski area got word that the Colorado Department of Transportation was going to be “shooting” the Widowmaker and Little Professor that day as part of their avalanche mitigation work. At that juncture, the ski area and CDOT coordinated efforts.
“It’s not every day that they do mitigation on the highway,” Evanczyk said.
From there, in a wait-and-see situation due to CDOT’s plans, the ski area focused on transporting essential employees up to the Basin where they’d quarantine inside the A-frame at the base area. Any and all employees on the lower mountain were transported to the A-frame because of its eastern-most location within the base area. That far east, the A-frame was deemed out of the way of a potential debris field due to a Little Professor slide. For comparison, A-Basin’s Early Riser parking lot and the bottom of the Pallavicini lift were deemed to potentially be in the slide’s path.
While that was going on at the bottom of the mountain, at the ski area’s Snow Plume Refuge near the top of the Lenawee Mountain lift, Evanczyk had an all-hands-on-deck group of ski patrollers ready to run avalanche mitigation routes from the top of the ski area. That was despite the fact that A-Basin wouldn’t be able to use the Pallavicini lift or the Montezuma lift due to the day’s inclement conditions. The team also couldn’t egress through the base area due to the avalanche danger from across the road.
“We came out and we did trigger some avalanches with explosives and ski-cutting,” Evanczyk said. “However, they were relatively small. We didn’t have any big activity inbounds that day.”
In the middle of ski patrol’s morning mitigation work inbounds on Thursday, CDOT shot the Little Professor as part of its mitigation work. But nothing slid. It was at this point CDOT and A-Basin decided it was best not to open the ski area on Thursday due to continuing concerns with the Little Professor. With the mountain officially closed down to guests for the day, A-Basin shuttled employees in caravans down the mountain at 2:15, 3:15 and 4:15 p.m. The shifts, Evanczyk said, were to limit exposure to a potential slide on the Little Professor or the Widowmaker, as the stormy conditions were forecast to continue into the night. Evanczyk considered staying put overnight at the A-Frame along with A-Basin’s boss of bosses, chief operating officer Alan Henceroth. But Evanczyk headed down to Keystone to rest before a Friday morning that he knew would be loaded with mitigation work.
When Friday morning came around, there was an atypical objective for Evanczyk and his crew. Along with mitigating avalanche terrain inbounds, A-Basin sent a crew of six ski patrollers along with Evanczyk to the top of Loveland Pass to conduct mitigation work at the Widowmaker and Little Professor. Working with CDOT, the group skinned in to the start zones of those two slides around noon to deploy even larger explosives within the paths.
With visibility opening up, Widowmaker slid but the Little Professor did not. Evanczyk said it was determined after the mitigation effort that the Little Professor did not continue to pose an avalanche risk. This was partially because of the mitigation work CDOT conducted in the path earlier in the season.
Then, observing the debris littered in the highway from the Widowmaker, Evanczyk and the rest of A-Basin’s personnel realized it was going to take more time than expected to dig the highway out from what Evanczyk estimated was a 30–40-foot deep snow mound.
“It took one of our snowcats to help push the snow around,” Evanczyk said. “We had our loaders, CDOT had their loaders. It took the rest of the day.”
After all that work, come Saturday morning, A-Basin opened up vast portions of deep, untracked powder to the public. It was terrain that Henceroth described as “as incredible as you could ever want.”
For Evanczyk and A-Basin, it was worth the wait.
“Hands down it was one of the greater events that gave us great skiing,” Evanczyk said. “… This is one of the greater Marches I’ve seen, for sure. When you look at our historical records, it’s not the most snow we’ve ever received in March, but our average in March is typically around 50 inches and we’ve well exceeded that. We’re at 7 feet of snow by now.”
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