While many locals are still digging through dusty gear sheds in search of long-lost rock skis or preparing to rummage for new booty at the KOTO ski swap this Saturday, members of the Telluride Ski Patrol have already embarked on the first leg of their ski season journey. As always, mountain and snow safety hold the top spots on the patrol’s pre-season “To Do” list. The crew has already logged two weeks of on-mountain preparation and in-classroom training.
Gary Richard, Ski Patrol Director, reports that – despite recent warm temperatures – earlier autumn snowstorms have helped create a wintry atmosphere in the high reaches of the ski resort.
“This is as good as we’ve seen it in the early season for quite some time,” says Richard. “Usually, we have 18 inches of dust on crust in early November. Right now, we’re looking at a pretty compacted base of l7 inches near the top of the mountain.”
Compacting the snow is indeed important this time of year, as Craig Sterbenz, the Snow Safety Director for Ski Patrol, can attest. The process of manually compacting snow helps reduce the risk of avalanches later in the season by minimizing or completely eliminating the “weak” snow layer – or a layer that does not bond well to other layers. A weak layer in the bottom of the snowpack could potentially lead to avalanches later in the winter.
“Snow compaction is one of the best tools we have for reducing the potential of avalanche activity over the course of the winter,” Sterbenz explains. Patrol will be paying especially close attention to weak layers located in high, northerly areas where snow from a late September storm is still present.
Last week, a select crew of ski patrollers spent five days compacting snow in the lift 9, lift 6 and Gold Hill areas, using the methods of “boot packing” (hiking down the slope with ski boots on) and “ski packing” (sidestepping down the slope with skis on). The winch roller, a device originally devised by Telluride Ski Resort employees to compact large areas of snow, was also used on slopes in the Gold Hill area.
Two small avalanches were triggered during avalanche control work last week, one on Little Rose and one on Dynamo.
“We would much rather see an avalanche with a six-inch crown early in the season than one with a four-foot crown later in the season,” Richard explains. “We want to send our workers out there in the mid-season with the confidence that the risk of a catastrophic avalanche incident is as low as possible.”
This week, all members of the Ski Patrol participated in their annual refresher course, a five-day intensive training during which members are re-certified in medical and explosives training. On Wednesday, the Ski Patrol joined forces with the Telluride Fire District, EMS and Marshal’s Department members to participate in a Mass Casualty Incident training scenario designed to prepare members of each sector in the event of a large-scale accident.
Next week, patrollers will return to the slopes to further prepare the mountain for its upcoming onslaught of skiers and riders. More compaction and explosives-assisted avalanche control work are slated for the Prospect Ridge and Bald Mountain areas.
“We really want our staff to have their legs under them for the start of the season,” Richard says. “This is the group of workers that are going to be the ones responding to the first accidents on the mountain, and we want them prepared for anything that could arise.”
According to Sterbenz’s sources at the Grand Junction Weather Service, the Telluride region could see a moderate El Niño effect this winter; in other words, significant accumulations of early and late-season snow are expected with a dry November, December and January. Telluride’s next chance of snow comes this weekend and carries through the beginning of next week.