A behind-the-scenes look at avalanche mitigation for Arapahoe Basin
Beacon Bowl 2016
What: The 14th edition of a public avalanche safety and awareness event, including beacon retrieval contests, avy dog demonstrations and more with divisions for adults, youth and industry professionals
When: Saturday, Feb. 6 at 8 a.m.
Where: Arapahoe Basin
The all-day event includes competitions, demonstrations and a demo village at the base of the mountain. Entry fee includes the competition, a raffle ticket, a drink and a slice of pizza at the post-bowl party, and all proceeds go to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. On-site registration for the competition begins at 8 a.m. at the A-frame lodge, followed at 9:15 a.m. by prelims and 1 p.m. by finals at the base of Lenawee Mountain lift. On-mountain beacon demonstrations run from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the avy dog demonstration begins at 10:30 a.m. For more info, see www.arapahoebasin.com.
It was about 1 p.m. when the bombs went off.
On a crisp February day at Arapahoe Basin, I was standing a few hundred yards above the lower terminal to Lenawee Mountain lift with ski patroller Louis Skowyra. He’s busy scanning the ridgeline on the far north end of the East Wall, a section of steep, gladed chutes known (fittingly enough) as the Tree Chutes. The 10-year patrol veteran continued scanning when a call came over the radio. I could hardly make out the garbled static, but something was happening, and it was most likely coming from two teams of patrollers still hidden on the ridge.
“Ok, we’ve got about two minutes,” Skowyra told me, then continued scanning the ridge while explaining the intricacies of daily avalanche mitigation at A-Basin. We have another two minutes because the five-pound hand charges are attached to a safety fuse. It’s made to burn for two-and-a-half minutes before detonation, which gives patrollers enough time to scan the terrain, activate the charge, place or throw the explosive (yes, throw) and return to a safe distance, away from the blast and the ensuing slide. Patrollers keep track of every detonation with paper maps, known as route sheets, kept in Patrol Headquarters overlooking the Basin’s nastiest terrain at the top of Lenawee. There are 12 maps for every portion of the mountain: North Glades, North Pole, North Side Alleys, Pali, East Wall and hidden chute, and so on.
A minute passes. Time to wait.
Extreme and iconic
“One of the first things that strikes you about this ski area is the iconic feel, those faces and that terrain,” director of ski patrol Tony Cammarata told me an hour earlier at the base of the mountain. “If you’re driving I-70 eastbound and come over Loveland Pass and see the basin, that is what you expect of the Rocky Mountains. I know that’s what I expected.”
Cammarata, a Boston native with 18 years on A-Basin patrol, met me around lunchtime with Ryan Evanczyk, his director of snow safety since 2013 and another veteran with 15 years experience. We were trying to pin down exactly when everyone took over their current roles and kept coming back to Leif Borgeson, the area’s longtime snow safety director who died while hiking a ridge at Aspen Highlands in 2011.
“Huh,” Cammarata said. “It’s funny how we use that as the benchmark.”
There’s history on patrol — Borgeson was known for his work with “wet slab avalanches,” a unique danger at a resort with a nine-month season — and there’s history on just about every run, every glade, every line. Tree Chutes and the entire East Wall are two of A-Basin’s most iconic (and historically demanding) routes. They’re also incredibly prone to avalanches. At this ski area, where the majority of un-groomed terrain is above 12,500 feet on grades higher than 30 degrees, avy mitigation is serious business.
Patrol doesn’t only keep an eye on obvious dangers like the East Wall. From opening day in October to closing day in June (or July), a team of about seven patrollers led by Evanczky assesses and maintains every inch of A-Basin’s 960 acres, plus another 100 or so on the East Wall. They look at snowfall, wind direction and other variables (think temperature changes and water content) to decide what needs grooming, what needs hands-on mitigation like ski cutting, and what needs the heavy machinery: hand explosives and two “Avalaunchers,” mitigation guns fired with compressed nitrogen.
“So much of it depends on snow conditions, how the season rolls,” said Evanczyk, who started mitigation work on the East Wall in mid-December — right on schedule. “The East Wall has always been considered extreme, that iconic terrain. But we just don’t get to it every year. We get to it as far as work and preparation goes, doing some avy mitigation, but again, (skiing there) all depends on weather and snowfall and wind.”
Up on the ridge overlooking Tree Chutes, Skowyra has finally spotted the two teams of two patrollers each preparing for the blast. They had skinned up from the north earlier in the day — access from the south leads straight to avy territory on the wall — and were now small, red-speckled dots weaving between trees and over cornices.
“About 30 seconds now,” he said. “You see them? The blasts should go off at the same time.”
I ready the camera one more time, sighting the patrollers on their perch and snapping a few to make sure everything is lined up. Another beat and it hits: first the blast — a plume of black smoke and white snow — followed a second later by the report. Behind us, someone in a group of skiers shouts and points.
“There it is,” Skowyra said as two small and contained piles slid down the face, slowly picking up snow as they churned to a stop near the base of the chutes. “That’s what we’re looking for: two tight slides, just enough to manage that area.”
More than bombs
Bombs get all the attention, Evanczyk said, but they’re just one of several tools ski patrol uses to manage (not control) avalanche risk. There’s ski cutting — careful traverses across wide-open, avalanche-prone terrain, like southern portions of the East Wall — and other techniques, such as kicking cornices or closures. Ski cutting helps disrupt weak layers, break up slabs and minimize slab volumes.
Then there’s “snow farming,” a term Cammarata uses to explain why there are so many fences strewn across the slopes. These fences catch and hold snow when wind whips over the divide. When it calms down, cats come through and farm the snow to bare patches, which combats avy danger and protects exposed terrain at the same time.
“This place is unique from the patrol aspect,” Cammarata said. “When you’re above tree line, it’s a bit like high-alpine ranching. We do a lot of snow farming, creating some of the product with hand labor, and our staff takes pride in that.”
It’s a mentality shared by just about everyone at A-Basin. It’s why Cammarata and Evanczyk haven’t left since they arrived, and it’s why department heads sit on national avalanche advisory boards. They love this mountain, all 900 iconic acres, and they do what it takes to make sure faithful skiers can enjoy it safely deep into summer.
“I like to ski,” Cammarata said with a laugh back at the base. “I guess that’s it.”
“So do I,” Evanczyk agreed. “I get tired, but I get over it.”
“To make it to June is an accolade that says, ‘Hey, we’ve had a long season — great season,’” his boss continues.
“It’s a celebration.”
Now they’re on a roll.
“I think of it not as a job, but as a lifestyle,” Cammarata said. “This is all part of it.”
“You feel blessed you can have this type of lifestyle,” Evanczyk said. A pause. Come early March, he expects the East Wall to be open for business, a gift from Mother Nature and her caretakers on ski patrol.
“As our friend Leif said,” Cammarata continued, “‘It all depends how you measure your riches.’”
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