Park City Blog

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A Little Snow Science

willys_8jan12_1 (willys_8jan12_1)Sunday morning controlled avalanche on Willy's. p. Bryan Thompson

We’ve been getting a little bit of snow lately. No huge storms to get excited about, but a few inches a week have certainly helped freshen things up. 

With such a weak snowpack on the ground in the backcountry and in closed terrain, those of us in the snow geek world have been wondering just what it will take to "set things off" so to speak. We've had a little taste of that with these last couple storms as even just a relatively small load has certainly started to tip the scale. Last week's 3 inches was wind loaded onto lee slopes over a rime and rain crust. A week ago today 3 significant slides were released along the Park City Ridgeline of the Wasatch. All three it appears were remote triggered; in other words, a traveler was on the ridge when the snowpack failed and collapsed, crushing the weak layers below and releasing the bowls in question. One of these was in our own Scott's Bowl (still closed) and you can still see the slide while riding Silverlode chair. I am happy to say that nobody was caught or injured in any of these slides.

scotts-bowl-controlled-slide (scotts-bowl-controlled-slide)
Scott's bowl slide. p. Bryan Thompson

Over this last weekend we had another little (3 inch) storm with some moderate to strong winds. Again the scale was potentially tipped towards an increasing avalanche hazard. Indeed the Utah Avalanche Center posted an Avalanche Warning on Saturday morning. The UAC certainly is not the type of organization to cry wolf and the warning certainly seemed justified. If nothing else it helped to heighten the awareness of prospective backcountry travelers. This may have worked as we made it through the weekend without any avalanche incidents or accidents. That's not to say there wasn't avalanche activity. Some of the resorts (including PCMR) were able to release avalanches with control work.

willys_8jan12_2 (willys_8jan12_2)Avalanche path and snowmaking gun on Willy's run. p. Bryan Thompson

In our case, we had an opportunity to see what will happen when a massive load is put on our weak snow. Thanks to the colder temps, our snowmakers have done an amazing job covering the old Ski Team Road and Willy's Run. In fact by Saturday morning the snow piles had grown large enough that the resort was concerned for their safety. The top of Willy's above the Silver King split is a perfect avalanche path; steep (near 40 degrees) and smooth. And of course it was covered with our weak natural snow. Many folks around town (and at our neighboring resorts) have been wondering why we've been blasting so much over the last 3 mornings when we only had 3 inches of snow. Well, now you (and they) know that we were shooting the snowmaking slabs before they overloaded the slope and failed on their own. Those of you here Sunday morning may have seen our results; a full depth slide up to 6 feet deep and 150 feet wide.  One of our senior patrollers, Bryan Thompson was with Colin, Dave, and I and took some great pictures. Notice the snowmaking guns near and tangled in the debris. For size reference, the sign bank in the picture near the toe of the debris is 10 feet tall. Slides of this size involving snow this dense and massive are what we generally describe as unsurvivable. As I mentioned, you could say this was a bit of a real-world simulation of what we could expect all over the Wasatch when it does start to snow.

On the subject of our snowmakers, holy crap they have a tough job. I worked snowmaking for a few months when I first moved back to town the fall of 1990, but time has erased those memories. Our time spent under the guns over this weekend has reminded me how loud, wet, cold and risky that job can be. On a year like this, those guys are the only reason we're working and you're enjoying our resort on your skis and boards. When you see them walking to or from the mountain at shift change, covered in snow and ice on a seemingly sunny day, be sure to say hello and thank them.

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