The morning after a February storm had shut down the ski resort for two days, the Sun Valley Ski Patrol started yet another day of work to open the mountain to the public. Early morning on the mountain was calm, quiet, and beautiful. As the day's first rays lit up undisturbed snow—the first sunlight seen in several days—the red jackets filed into the patrol building on top of the mountain. Inside was warm, loud, and merry as patrollers got ready for work. The coffee pot was empty. Locker doors plastered with stickers swung open, revealing scotch-taped photos of kids, wives, and powder days.
"We're doing more work this year than we have in the last six without a doubt. Which is good, you know. This is what we're here to do. If we're doing more work, we're getting more snow." —Dave Richards, Alta Ski Area
The meeting started with announcements: race schedules, grooming reports, mountain closures, fallen trees from the storm. Then came the weather and avalanche mitigation report: Eight days, 60 inches of snow, quite a bit of wind, and one hell of a storm cycle.
This winter has already set records for Sun Valley, currently standing at the fourth largest snowpack since 1968. The ski area is currently 181 percent of average for snowfall in the month of February. Skiers in Sun Valley have been raving about unlimited powder refills. Which means ski patrol has been logging a lot of overtime.
Sun Valley is not alone. California dominated headlines all of January with an incessant pounding, leaving Mammoth Mountain with 430 inches of snowfall so far. Meanwhile, Jackson Hole has kept pace with 434 inches, Alta stands at 340 inches, and Crested Butte boasts 279 inches this season. According to the Denver Post, 90 of those inches came in 10 days during one of Crested Butte’s biggest storms in recent history.
"It's been a lot this year," says Dave Richards, Alta's avalanche program director. "We're doing more work this year than we have in the last six without a doubt. Which is good, you know. This is what we're here to do. If we're doing more work, we're getting more snow."
Alta patrollers conduct snow safety with several tools. The majority of control work—85 percent—is done with hand-delivered two-pound explosives, says Richards, though sometimes they use a helicopter to deliver explosives. An ava-launcher projects two-pound explosives to remote start zones. And patrollers use an M101 A1 Howitzer to blast hazard areas that hang above Highway 210 as well as Mount Baldy and the Baldy Chutes—a zone Richards says is "an avalanche factory."
The season has been a blur, with workdays stacking on each other since the New Year. But here's an idea of one storm run at Alta: It started on January 19, and seven days later, left the mountain with 88.5 inches of snow. The work wasn't affected so much by the quantity of snow as it was the consistent day-after-day of aggressive avalanche mitigation. Richards read notes from his logbook: "We did mitigation on the 20th, the 21st, the 22nd, the 23rd, the 24th, the 25th—so yeah, we did mitigation every day during that storm cycle." For Richards, a 16-year patroller at Alta whose father also made a career of ski patrolling, each of those days started at 3:30 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m.
"It's just a matter of putting your head down and loving what you do and continuing to do it," says Richards. "Because there is nothing more fun than skiing powder and the only way to let people ski powder at Alta is to do the avalanche work."
Most, or virtually all, ski patrol teams in the country have decades of combined experience, if not more, and the work routines and safety protocols are well reinforced. But their job is still one of risk. Last month, a Squaw Valley ski patroller died while conducting avalanche control at the top of a ridge inbounds. The fatality was caused by the detonation of an explosive hand charge, and the incident is still under investigation by local authorities. Joe Zuiches was 42 years old and is survived by his wife and daughter. He had more than a decade of experience as a ski patroller and mountain guide. His death rattled the Tahoe-Truckee ski community, and the ski patrol world at large. (Squaw Valley ski patrol declined to be interviewed for this article because of the ongoing investigation.)
But the storms kept coming, and ski patrol units across the country continued to do their work.
January at Crested Butte went from 20 inches on the ground to 90 inches on the snow stake at the height of the storm cycle. The resort’s 52 patrollers spread out to control the mountain's couple hundred zones—including every avalanche path and shot location; though routes vary depending on storm conditions. "If it's a big day, and we got a bunch of snow with wind… we can throw upwards of 100, 150, even 200 charges in a day," says Bill Dowell, Crested Butte's director of ski patrol. Routes are broken into small segments, Dowell continued, describing CB's regiment. Teams of two are responsible for assigned avalanche zones, and they methodically make ski cuts from safety island to safety island, placing charges at specific points, always in visual contact with their partner. "We have to be so neurotically thorough and look at every pocket of snow, because when you open it up, people ski every square inch [of terrain]," says Dowell. "We don't have the luxury of making a mistake."
All of this comes with the goal of opening terrain by 9 a.m. sharp, and appeasing the powder-hungry skiers waiting in the lift line. As one of those skiers standing in the lift line on many mornings, I know how easy it is to take ski patrol's avalanche mitigation work for granted. To ski safely without any thought of wind slabs and weak layers is a gift.
So the next time you're standing in line, waiting for ski patrol to finish their work so you can ski pow, give one of those guys and gals in the red jackets a big thank you. Certainly they deserve it, especially this year.
PHOTO: Jim Harris