Keeping the resorts as safe as possible
Mark Abendroth of the Copper Mountain ski patrol has seen unique things in his tenure at the mountain.
He’s seen the entire Spaulding Bowl avalanche as he walked across the ridge above the bowl. He’s seen Union Bowl break free and leave behind a crown, the upper wall left behind by a slab avalanche, taller than any member of the patrol.
He’s even seen the snow beneath the Sierra chair slide because of the vibrations of the chair’s seventh tower.
Abendroth is one of Copper Mountain’s snow safety coordinators. These are just a handful of the things Abendroth has experienced in his six years at the position.
Abendroth shares the responsibility with a handful of snow-safety specialists who direct the entire ski patrol in matters of avalanche mitigation.
Ask first-year patroller Darrell Dingerson what it’s like, and he provides a list of equally amazing stories.
Earlier this season, he watched a bomb detonate on top of Copper’s West Ridge and bounce the cornice like a basketball.
Dingerson also once watched an avalanche crown recoil several feet as a large slab fell away.
But it’s all part of the job of keeping resorts as safe as possible for the thousands of guests who come to Summit County each season.
Snow maintenance begins when the snow starts falling in October. It doesn’t end until the resorts close in April or, for Arapahoe Basin, May, June or July.
The basic early season theme at all four of Summit County’s resorts is to get the mountains open as fast as possible while reducing risks to the customers.
According to Arapahoe Basin patrol director Tim Finnigan, the goal is to pack in snow across the mountain to form an early base.
“When we feel we have enough snow we try to open as soon as possible,” he said.
At the same time, shorter and colder days in December and January can mean lighter snow and more avalanche potential.
“More avalanches occur early season,” Jeff Ferragi, a snow safety coordinator at Breckenridge, said.
Early on, small avalanches are also used as a tool to cover terrain such as catwalks and gates, as well as stabilizing the compression zones at the bottom of large bowls.
Ski cutting and bootpacking
As soon as snow conditions permit, other techniques like ski cutting and bootpacking are used.
“Our avalanche concerns change as the season progresses,” Ferragi said.
The idea behind ski cutting, commonly seen on the open faces of Summit County’s high terrain, is to break up any potential slabs before they have a chance to slide.
A ski-cut slope can be recognized by zig-zag lines across a face, sometimes in parallel patterns.
“We call them Argyles,” said Abendroth, due to its resemblance with the diamond-patterned sweaters common in skiing’s past.
Ferragi added: “We start high in the starting zone and then basically do a Zorro down the slope. Then you’ve broken up the slab, therefore taking the energy out of the whole slab.”
Bootpacking is performed as the snow stabilizes. This packs the snow before it has a chance to form dangerous, faceted layers.
The practice is performed by ski patrollers who side step down a ski slope with or without skis. Occasionally, trained volunteers will assist with the project, as groups of people can bootpack an entire slope in one day.
Part of Finnigan’s challenge is controlling the slide potential of some of the steepest lift-served terrain in the county – the runs found underneath the Pallavicini Lift on the Arapahoe Basin’s west side.
“We’ll do a couple of control routes and take groups of 20 to 30 people without skis, bootpacking the starting zones,” Finnigan said.
“Palli is such a big area. Historically, it can run all the way to the creek,” he said, referring to a slide path that ends at the North Fork of the Snake River at the bottom of the run.
As soon as a resort opens, daily snow maintenance begins. From the beginning of each day, weather reports and any new snowfall totals are part of a giant equation in the minds of snow safety specialists.
“There are over 100 active avalanche paths in Breckenridge,” Ferragi said.
On-mountain weather stations provide the coordinators specific details about the previous 24-hour weather patterns, including the specific direction of the wind each hour, as well as average wind speed and wind spikes or gusts.
This information can be used to determine where wind-loading may have occurred. The more new snow that fell the day before, the more wind-loading is likely.
“We look at where it is stripping and where it is loading,” Ferragi said.
The ski patrols regularly dig pits to determine how the snowpack is changing over the season. This is important in determining the effects of early season weather patterns later in the season.
Twice in the last 10 years, local resorts have had to fend off the effects of rain storms, which formed ice crusts early in the ski season.
Without proper attention and maintenance, the crusts can come back to haunt resorts in March and even April as snow densities change.
Basic maintenance also includes daily cornice kicking, such as on Copper’s West Ridge in Copper Bowl and in Keystone’s South Bowl in the Outback.
“The South Bowl can get significant cornice buildup,” said C.B. Thomas with the Keystone ski patrol.
Techniques can go as far as a patroller hanging on another’s ski pole to kick off large wind-formations found on the side of steep ridges, Thomas said.
Playing with bombs
Explosives remain a powerful tool throughout the season. Many times bombs are used to settle the snow rather than create an avalanche which could potentially strip a slope bare, rendering it unrideable.
Another issue facing ski resorts is a rotten layer of snow forming deep in the pack, which is common in Colorado when early season snowfalls are subjected to warm temperatures late in the fall or early in the winter.
A well-placed explosion can cause the weak layer to settle down without causing a slide.
Abendroth added that different types of explosives can be used in different conditions.
According to Finnigan, every patroller handling explosives must earn a blaster’s permit, which is issued by the Colorado Division of Labor
There are many ways to deploy explosives, as well. Usually, they will be lowered into terrain via a rope. At other times, they may be shot into the terrain from well out of harm’s way using a specifically designed gun known as an avalauncher.
Other times a patroller may strategically place an explosive. This technique is most used to suspend a bomb on bamboo above the snow so the shock waves can penetrate a greater area.
Richard Chittick can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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