Patrolling in powder
COPPER MOUNTAIN – The biggest snowstorm of the season (and in at least five years) closed the highway and meant many visitors would be cut off from ski areas, but that didn’t mean ski patrollers could sleep in.
Wednesday morning, Copper Mountain’s first patrol crew arrived at the resort at 5:30 a.m. to begin preparing charges for avalanche blasting. Big snow means an early start and a different sort of workload for patrollers who’ve spent most days dealing with signs, patches of terrain without enough snow and accidents.
With 15 inches of snow Monday night and another 7 inches the next night, patrollers started out two hours earlier than on a typical day. Following the charge-preparing crew, another crew set out for the resort’s farthest reaches at 6:30 a.m. to begin blasting and checking the safety of terrain. By 7:45 a.m., the rest of the day’s patrollers – about 30 – were gathered at patrol headquarters for the morning briefing.
“Some people will be delayed getting here because of the roads,” supervisor Tim Shinn told the group. “And we’ll need to wait to see how grooming turned out this morning. But we’re not expecting a lot of Front Range skiers.”
The patrollers hit the lifts once the meeting broke and made their way to patrol outposts. Patroller Cindy Ebbert rode the American Eagle lift with Sandy, a Copper Mountain avalanche rescue dog.
Ebbert has patrolled at Copper for five years, so she’s seen decent dumps before. The snow changes work priorities, she said.
“There’s not so many head injuries – you see a lot of lower extremity injuries instead,” Ebbert said. “And instead of hurrying to put banners and trail signs up, we’ll start by checking terrain.”
At the patrol hut overlooking Spaulding Bowl near the top of the Excelerator lift, there was another task created by the heavy snow – digging out. Litters – medical toboggans – were buried overnight, and patrollers worked to clear them and line them up. Inside, patrol foreman Dan Moroz briefed Ebbert and other patrollers before they headed out to blast, dig and stomp on snowpack.
Moroz began patrolling 26 years ago – a tenure that provides a historical perspective on big storms, avalanche danger and what patrollers can expect from a day on the slopes. Moroz explained that an unusual wind pattern was creating snow loading. He identified areas that were already closed and assigned patrollers to various western exposures that needed to be checked. A few patrol members remained behind for emergency calls.
Patrick Brannan stayed behind. Many patrollers love the deep snow and blasting work, but Brannan comes to the field for other excitement.
“I’m kind of small, so I get cold pretty fast sitting on a ridge in the wind,” Brannan said. “I like doing the trail work.”
Brannan also is an expert climber. He lives for lift evacuation work, and wet snow in large amounts can precipitate accidents that require his skills. Two years ago, heavy snowfall caused a tree to fall on lift lines, throwing them out of alignment. Brannan and other climbers had to scale towers and help stranded lift riders get down.
As patrollers reported back to Moroz, they brought surprises. Moroz said avalanche activity was prevalent where he’d never seen it. Moroz forwarded information to the rest of the resort’s departments, as well as agencies such as the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
By 9:30 a.m., some patrollers start on more usual work – medical calls, taking down bamboo poles that mark obstacles or bare spots (the poles aren’t needed after a foot of snow) and digging out lift towers and pads. More crews head out for additional blasting.
“The day goes faster because there’s more diversity to the work,” said patroller Cullen Lyle after blasting out of bounds beyond Spaulding Bowl, just in case anyone would cut a rope that day. “It makes for long days, but this is what we live for.”
Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or email@example.com.
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