January 24 was a beautiful in day in the Sierra Nevada. More than eight feet of snow had accumulated at the crest of the California mountain range over the previous week. The first clear day in a long time, at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, ski traffic backed up early on the access roads and anxious skiers filed in the lift lines, while ski patrollers spread out across 52 snow-safety routes on both mountains to mitigate the avalanche hazard.
Locals remember January 24, however, not for blissful powder turns.
At 8:35 a.m., Joseph Zuiches, a 42-year-old Squaw Valley ski patroller, husband, and father, was killed on slope after he set off an explosive for avalanche control.
The tragedy set off alarms and an emergency response. The community grieved. More than $242,000 was crowdsourced to support Zuiches' wife and infant son. Ski patrollers from across the country traveled to attend Zuiches memorial in solidarity. And officials launched an investigation to determine what caused Zuiches' death.
Now, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are gearing up for a new season, and they opened last weekend with $4 million worth of investments and upgrades to their snow safety infrastructure. Squaw Alpine officials claimed their investment in snow safety was the biggest in the country, including an A-Star 350 B3 helicopter on call, 13 new Gazex pipes, and four new avalaunchers. A helicopter will help patrol get on the mountain earlier and faster, and the latter two use gas and explosives, respectively, to release avalanches.
"We have been investing in this technology for years, and this year is the next logical step," says Squaw Alpine spokesperson Liesl Hepburn, who said the investments have no direct correlation to the circumstances of Zuiches' death. "Environmentally we want our patrollers to feel and know and be prepared and understand that they have access to every tool that is available."
Last winter, 728 inches inches of snow fell at Squaw Alpine—most of that snowfall coming in January and February. The ski patrol teams at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows performed 56 and 45 days of snow safety, respectively, across the entire season. Will Paden, Squaw Valley ski patrol director, said he personally worked 22 days of snow safety in a row. Many of those days ran up to 12 or 14 hours, after which, he had to come home to shovel his driveway.
"Last year was really remarkable because of the sheer amount of snow in the short amount of time," says Paden. "When avalanches take out trees that are 20 to 30 years old, that's how we gauge a 20- to 30-year avalanche cycle. Considering that we have these well-identified avalanche paths that we've been working on for well over 60 years, to see those trees get broken was a remarkable experience."
Squaw Valley patrollers were not alone in the demand for stamina. Dave Richards, Alta Ski Area's director of snow safety, said his team did more control work last year than the previous six.
"These guys are hired for their judgment and their skills," Richards said. "There's no room for error, either with avalanche work or the explosives that go along with it. The consequences of a mistake are incredibly dire."
Crested Butte's Ski Patrol Director Bill Dowell shared similar views. "Something that people don't have a full understanding of is what it takes for ski patrol to feel confident in opening avalanche terrain," he told me in February. "We have to be so neurotically thorough and look at every pocket of snow, because when you open it up, people go to every square inch."
The results of the investigation into Zuiches' death were published in August and did not yield "any firm conclusions as to exactly what went wrong," according to Cal/OSHA, the state department that protects workers against health and safety hazards. There were no witnesses. The report, however, did illuminate the following important details of the scene that day on Gold Coast Ridge, where Zuiches and his partner were working in tandem with another crew:
Each team was blasting by hand, using the hang cord deployment method. The 1.8-pound cap-and-fuse explosives have a 90-second burn rate.
The slope is 9,000 feet high, and the winds were 20-30 mph gusting up to 40 mph. Visibility was limited due to these conditions, according to Cal/OSHA. The crews had been working for about 2.5 hours when Zuiches instructed his partner to join the other team and told him he would meet up with them as soon as he performed the hanging cord blast.
The partner and the two other blasters subsequently heard two explosions and radioed Zuiches but got no response. They skied to his last known location and found him dead.
Cal/OSHA did not cite the ski resort for anything directly related to Zuiches’ death. However, while investigating, they found the ski resort in violation of two other hazards. The first involved workplace conditions, and failing to implement a procedure "against hang cord entanglement during blasting operations." The second cited a failure to ensure crew members "maintained visual contact or awareness of physical location at all times during avalanche control." The citations levied penalties of more than $20,000 against the ski resort. Squaw Valley has filed appeals to both citations.
Paden, the 10th ski patrol director in Squaw's 68 years, would not comment on Zuiches' death. The $4 million investment to snow safety, he said, is the result of an ongoing effort and is not related to the Cal/OSHA fines. "It's important to understand that no two avalanche control days are the same," says Paden. "We are taking a hard look at our program as a team to try to identify ways to make it safer and more efficient."
With an expanded network of Gazex pipes, which push an oxygen/propane gas mixture toward the snowpack and create shockwaves to release unstable layers, ski patrol can keep up with snow accumulation in big storms, even overnight, by simply pushing a button on a keyboard that will release a blast of air to trigger an avalanche. It's a system used across the world in avalanche-prone areas. Eight of those Gazex pipes have been installed above the access road to Alpine Meadows, which will reduce the strength of avalanches that are released onto the road and into homeowners' driveways during and after storms.
Four avalaunchers—two at Squaw and two at Alpine—are compressed nitrogen cannons that fire explosives at a projectile range, so ski patrol can trigger avalanches in the distance from a safe platform. Squaw Valley, which has not used avalaunchers for many years, will have one fixed location at the bottom of Cornice Two, where several popular slopes converge, and another mobile unit to drive across the mountain on a snowcat. Alpine Meadows, which has traditionally used avalaunchers, has two more added to its arsenal.
Since the summer, leaders from ski patrol, lift-ops and maitenance, grooming, terrain parks, and snowmaking have been training with the Karakoram Group, former special ops agents that used their elite military training to help the departments collaborate and develop better culture.
Finally, the ski resort has arranged for a helicopter to be parked on the mountain on standby to fly patrollers on clear mornings after a storm. All of this investment, training, and technology does not eliminate the need to dispatch ski patrollers on the ground. Hand charges are still an important step in the ski resort's snow safety regimen, Paden said. It only makes opening ski slopes safer and more efficient.
"We go into these major storm cycles and get 6 to 10 feet of snow and we're not able to physically get on-site to do control work. The problem that then happens—we go out there after a few days and this big slab of snow is sitting there that could be 6 or 8 feet deep," says Paden. "That's just too hazardous to put our patrollers on. So now we can continuously do patrol work from the office on some of those big slopes to allow our patrollers to get on-site in safer conditions."
Squaw Valley opened with two feet of snow last weekend. I took a few laps on Saturday and the snow was surprisingly chalky and cold—conditions that gave everyone in the lift line hope that the coming winter would deliver like the last one did. The mention of last winter, however, prompted more than a few side comments from fellow chairlift passengers about how slowly the resort took to open terrain after big storms last year. For good reason, the onslaught of atmospheric rivers literally buried chairlifts and took days for ski patrol and lift ops to dig out. But on Saturday, at the beginning of a new season, I looked up at the top of Gold Coast Ridge, above the chairlift, the general area where Zuiches had been working the day he was killed, and saw the heads of two new Gazex pipes poking above a cliffband, a sure sign that positive, productive changes to snow safety were underway.