Ski patrol traverse a ridge at Moonlight Basin. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

Ski patrol head out to a ridge at Moonlight Basin. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

WORDS: Kim Kircher

I arrive early for the weather briefing, trudging through eight inches of new snow. Soon I will line my pack with explosives and head into the dark to start avalanches on the slopes of Crystal Mountain. I look around the room as Chet summarizes the snowpack. One patroller quietly buckles his boots. Another leans against her locker, her red jacket hanging on a hook beside her. Everyone listens intently. A rain crust lurks 15 inches deep; yesterday’s surface-hoar is now buried below our latest storm. Two boxes of explosives sit on the floor, the scent of cardboard mixing with a chemical tang.

“So what do you expect to see today?” Chet asks. In murmurs we agree the new snow could break down to the crust. The earlier powder-hungry smiles have given way to subdued nods. The weather briefing makes us careful. Like a magnifying lens, it clarifies the snowpack’s weaknesses. Instead of hurrying out to the powder—our headlamps illuminating the storm—we imagine the shape of the buried surface hoar, curious about the wind’s timing, hoping it came in first and obliterated the fragile crystals.

Ski patrol gather before dawn at Big Sky Resort. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

Ski patrol gather before dawn at Big Sky Resort. PHOTO: Ryan Turner

Later I stand on a ridge, the wind blowing hard pellets of snow against my cheek. My route partner, Andrew, hunkers against rime-coated firs scattered along the rim. Below lie three feet of wind-troweled storm snow. A flat cornice on our left, built out over the season, offers a tempting optical illusion. I stomp my tail in the snow; it’s as hard as Styrofoam. Andrew’s shot explodes, and I look over the ridge. No results.

I sigh. I’m supposed to place an air shot—a large explosive taped to bamboo—in the middle of the slope, but I’m not sure I trust Andrew’s “cover shot”. I remember Chet’s parting words: Be careful of wind slabs today.

“Eyes on?”

Andrew nods.

I ease myself onto the slope. The snow feels hollow underneath, and I cringe. I shouldn’t be here. I stop and place the shot in the snow. I’m high, but I’m not willing to go further. It’s too dangerous. I light the shot and return to the ridge. After ninety seconds, the shot explodes. The slab breaks cleanly, fracturing a three-foot crown across my tracks, surging down the slope, breaking tree limbs, and billowing fifty feet high. I back away and take a long, slow breath, glad I remembered the weather briefing.