As the old saying goes, there's no business like snow business. Someone said something like that, anyway. At Stevens Pass snow is our main product, and most years we get a lot of it. We believe in its ability to better our lives and yours, and that's why we've chosen to live and work in the snow; to surround ourselves in the joy and lightheartedness that it provides. The argument can be made that one group of people believes in this ethos more than any other; those who have chosen to ski every day regardless of conditions: the Stevens Pass Pro Patrol.
All Photos copyright Dr. Larry Maurer DPM unless otherwise marked.
Photo courtesy of Windy Leu
On any given snowy night, long before the first faint glow of the coming day appears over the mountains to the east, one of our two pro patrol avalanche forecasters heads out on a snowmobile to check the snow study plots and decide whether or not to call in the cavalry for avalanche control. It is, without question, one of the most important daily tasks that goes on up here. Earlier this winter, during a stretch of sub-zero degree nights, I asked our head avalanche forecaster how his pre-dawn ride had been. With a smirk he told me "Well, you know, I went up there pretty much just wearing what I'm wearing now like I always do because I knew I wouldn't be out too long. But when I got up there I thought to myself, boy if this snowmobile doesn't fire back up and I have to walk down, I might not make it!" It sounds grim, but the man lives for nights like that.
A lot of factors come into play when evaluating avalanche conditions. Books have been written on the subject, so I'll try to keep it simple. Every time it snows a new layer is added to the snowpack. Sometimes when things work out well with the temperature at which the snow falls and the surface of the old layer (between storms the surface can be coated in slick ice or frost depending on conditions), the new layer bonds well with the previous layer, and the risk of much snow sliding is relatively low. Other times slick burried layers, or "rotten" pockets deep in the snowpack can cause some of the layers to break away and slide, often picking up more and more snow as it travels down hill. Wind can form deep drifts of dense snow which are often poorly bonded to the layer below (these are called wind slabs) and can break easily under the weight of a skier. Rain or warm temperatures can make previously stable snow slide on its own as the new weight in the top layers put stress on deeper layers. These are just a few of the concerns that the avalanche forecasters are thinking about in the middle of the night, and really throughout the season. What the weather was doing months ago can have a huge affect on the stability of the snowpack as things change.
Former Pro Patrol avalanche forecaster Patty Morrison leads a morning avalache control meeting. These days Patty is in charge of our Mountain Education Center.
If the avalanche danger is a concern, a call goes out and up to 24 patrollers meet at 6:15am to discuss avalanche and weather conditions, and the plan for the morning. After that it's a matter of shouldering backpacks heavy with 2 pound explosive charges, stepping into their skis, and heading up the lift and into the storm. For hours they boot through the deep snow along the high ridges, meticulously tossing their charges at every point where avalanches could potentially begin, keeping track of what slides and what seems stable. Another common technique for controlling smaller areas is called ski cutting, which means traversing almost horizontally across the top of the slope to test the snowpack and in some cases "cut" the loose snow away to cause a controlled slide. It goes without saying that all of this work is done in teams, and everyone is equipped with backcountry safely gear including beacons, shovels, and probes.
Pre avalanche control stoke!
Ropes and cable trams are used to place charges in just the right spot.
What goes up must come down!
Patrollers must work in whatever weather they're given, which often means high winds, very cold temperatures, wind packed or rain crusted snow, and whiteout conditions. If the lifts aren't open right at 9am, know that it's not for a lack of trying. The goal is always to open as much terrain as they can safely because the ultimate tool for keeping the snowpack stable is "skier compaction," which essentially means letting skiers and boarders lay as many tracks as possible to pack down that soft snow in order to keep the layers uniform.
Skiing pow and tossing bombs is great, but it's just a small part of a patroller's job. Most mornings, they attend a meeting at 8am before heading out to put up control lines and slow fences around the mountain. Then it's a matter of spending the day sitting in upper mountain patrol stations, ready and waiting to respond to first aid and rescue calls. At the end of the day it's time to roll up fences and ropes to clear the way for the groomers, and "sweep" the mountain on their way down, which means spreading out over all of the main runs to make sure that all of our guests have made it down the mountain.
It's not all fun and games... Avalanche Dog shirts will be on sale soon; sales help fund expenses like a knee surgery for Neva, the dog on the left in this photo, who recently blew out her knee. Photo by Dan Hilden.
They've undergone extensive training (often paying out of their own pockets), and many have given up far more lucrative opportunities because they've decided to follow their passion for snow above all else. All of our patrollers are certified Wilderness First Responders or EMTs, and often on busy days there will be an on-call doctor skiing around the resort. Many are experts in high angle rope rescue, which can come in handy considering how incredibly steep some of our terrain is. Some own and train avalanche rescue dogs, and others have more advanced avalanche forecasting and mitigation training. They are a close knit team, and many who have been around for a while (some have been around for decades) will tell you that they are a family.
Photo courtesy of Windy Leu
Video Segment on Stevens Pass Pro Patrol:
On Sunday Febuary 9th, 2014, Pro Patroller Jason Luker caught a ski tip and fell on the run Double Diamond while working. He hit a tree and suffered multiple fractures in his spine. His spinal cord wasn't damaged, but it will be a long road to recovery. Jason has been patrolling at Stevens Pass since 2003. In the off season he's a fire line EMT for a Type II Incident Management Team, and he's a devoted father and loving husband. Our patrollers watch out for each other, and they ask that if you can donate to Jason and his family to please visit this website.