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Safety is Job #1 for avalanche crews

Sherry Mays

It looks like a cool job – skiing everyday, occasionally helping an injured skier or snowboarder and getting the glory.

However, being a ski patroller in this day and age is more about protecting lives from potential disasters, like avalanches.

With more terrain becoming accessible to winter enthusiasts willing to take the challenge in the off-piste, avalanche forecasters and ski patrollers are being taken to the task to unite Mother Nature with controlled recreational environments. It’s not easy.

Avalanche forecasters like Bob Moore of the U.S. Forest Service in Truckee say the only way to learn about the nature of the avalanche beast is through experience.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” he said. “Every year I learn something new and it’s only by seeing new terrain and new conditions.”

Moore oversees the special use permits issued to local resorts which conduct business on forest service lands. In this area there are 10 areas with permits, two without facilities directly on forest service land. Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, Heavenly, Donner Ski Ranch Boreal, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Ski Incline and Deer Park, which is now used as a parking lot for Alpine, are closely monitored by the forest service for safety issues.

Safety issues

Safety includes ski patrol safety and first aid certification, slope safety, lift operations and maintenance, accident investigation and especially, avalanche safety. Being able to forecast avalanches early and get out the information are the two ingredients needed for slope success.

“Bob is getting better at forecasting,” Squaw Valley ski patrol’s Russ Johnson said. “Warnings are getting to us earlier and are staying in place longer.”

This was not always the case. Moore said the forest service recently added the “Considerable Avalanche Hazard” to the list of warning categories. It bridges the gap between moderate and high, which forecasters said are highly variable, and is used often to warn backcountry enthusiasts.

Each day Moore posts warnings, which are used in mitigating the potential for damage and injuries. Moore said it is a cyclical process, involving observation and information sharing.

“I listen to what the ski patrols are seeing and use their information to help formulate an area-wide forecast,” he said. “That forecast is then relayed to the National Weather Service and more than 80 other (organizations).”

The local avalanche program began in 1972. Moore said administering the program was slow at first but by the seventh year, it was operating at full speed. He added that no year has been the worst or the best – there have been different natural occurrences throughout the years.

“The whole purpose of the program is to get out the information so people can make educated decisions about where they are going and how they are going to get there,” Moore said. This philosophy is important to the local ski areas and ski patrollers said they are grateful for the effort Moore has put into the program.

Shannon DeLong, Sugar Bowl’s ski patrol supervisor, said he and Moore work together to try to keep the ski area safe and said the mutual relationship between ski patrol and USFS is important to get this done.

“We are glad to have Bob’s expertise and experience as a resource,” DeLong said. “The ski patrol enjoys working with him.”

DeLong said Sugar Bowl recently went online with the area’s avalanche and snow conditions. He added that using information from around the country helps to forecast their avalanche potential.

“It’s interesting to see what’s happening around the area and the nation,” he said. “We learn a lot from what others are experiencing.”

As with most area ski resorts, Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl’s ski patrols begin their working days early when avalanche dangers are present. DeLong said he calls the mountain’s groomers to find out about conditions at about 4 a.m. If their prior day’s plans for avalanche control are confirmed he said he calls his crews as early as possible to give them time to dig out their vehicles.

“We can get a lot of snow up here on the summit,” he said. “Some of our patrollers live way back in Serene Lakes, which makes it difficult for them.”

Ski patrols that deal with high avalanche hazards are familiar with the use of explosives and patrollers are regularly called upon to pack “bombs” big enough to shake unstable snow layers loose. DeLong said the days of nitroglycerin are slowly coming to a close as new, less toxic chemicals are being used.

“We used to call the room where we packed explosives the ‘headache room,'” he said. “We are using new emulsions that don’t have the same effects.”

This doesn’t mean the bombs are any less powerful. They still pack a punch.

Squaw Valley begins its avalanche control days with morning meetings at 5:45. Patrollers are issued beacons to wear. They are used like metal detectors, but are used to locate people trapped under snow.

Explosives are issued and patrollers are assigned areas to monitor and are sent on their way – either by snowmobiles, skis or tram car.

This is after full weather forecasts, including wind and precipitation, are delivered by Johnson, who spends the time before the meeting looking at weather maps and reading coastal forecasts. He is Squaw’s weatherman, monitoring Squaw’s weather stations.

Before the patrollers reach the mountain, they are informed of precipitation and temperature conditions that have evolved during the prior 24-hour period.

“We make sure the patrollers are aware of the changing conditions and can decide on how to manage the danger on the mountain,” Johnson said.

Having experience and knowing how to use natural signs of danger are important keys in forecasting avalanche hazards. Knowing ice crystal dynamics, being able to see natural occurrences like wind drifts and old avalanche markings, knowing the terrain and listening to others’ information make for a successful combination.

A website built just for sharing avalanche information keeps patrollers, forecasters and winter sports enthusiasts linked to a world of information. The Westwide Avalanche Network can be accessed at http://www.avalanche.org. The USFS is one sponsor of the site that patrols use frequently to exchange information and post their area’s avalanche activity.

The site also offers statistics, which in the case of avalanche-caused death, are grimmer this year than last. In 1997, there were 35 deaths attributed to avalanches compared to the 31 deaths to date in 1998. This year is far from over. Topping the list of the groups most vulnerable to the wrath of lurching snow are snowmobilers.

“A site like this could prove to be a snowmobiler’s best tool in deciding a path to take,” Moore said. “Again, this is all we are about – giving enough information to let people make educated decisions.”

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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