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Early-Season Terrain Management

12/09/2021

Winter

Opening runs in the early season is not as simple as getting a bunch of snow (or making bunch of snow), dropping a rope, and calling it good. Here, we give you a look behind the scenes at what it takes to prepare terrain in the early season. 


Ski and snowboard runs, whether groomed or not, require significant management by the professional men and women of both our mountain operations and snow safety teams, alongside our ski patrol. The work is all about retaining and maintaining early season snow, and significantly reducing avalanche dangers. 

At our extremely high elevation, the first significant snowfalls come early. Those early-season snowfalls can develop into weak base layers and lead to avalanches if allowed to persist. That’s why we work so hard to break up, or disrupt, those layers prior to more snow falling—and why we have to keep doing it throughout the early season.

Additionally, a more stable snowpack means we can open terrain earlier, especially in low snow years.

Below are just a few of the tools that we utilize to prepare the mountain and its runs for your enjoyment (and safety)--in addition to boot packing, directed skiing, explosives, and more. If you want to learn more about these activities and keep up with their real-time progress, follow Al’s Blog—written by our COO—where most of this information came from.


Ski Cutting

When you see zig-zag tracks on unopen runs, that is usually the result of patrollers “ski cutting.” They do this to beat up the snow, breaking propagation pathways. This prevents larger slabs from forming and weaker lower layers from collapsing. Done in conjunction with side stepping and explosives, ski cutting reduces the chance of avalanches and makes the skiing much better with subsequent snowfall.


Track Packing

“Track packing” is done with a snowcat on green and blue trails, especially those without snowmaking. The compacted snow is firmer and eventually leads to better skiing. The rough snow is better at catching and consolidating wind-blown new snow. Each time it snows a reasonable amount, we drive the cat over it again. Once there is enough snow, the cat will run its rear tiller over the snow, leave that sweet corduroy surface, and opening soon follows.


Disruption Rollers

A disruption roller is utilized in some of our steepest terrain, when the snow is relatively shallow, by parking a winch cat at the top of a steep pitch and lowering the roller down. Similar to track packing, a disruption roller packs down snow and helps set it up for skiing. It is also a very effective tool for breaking up the snow. It interrupts propagation pathways, breaking up slabs and reducing avalanche hazards. (You may be noticing a theme, by now.) While similar work can be done by people on skis, the roller has a bigger impact and reduces the need for human travel in rugged areas like our steep Pallavicini terrain.


Limited Openings

A limited opening of a run follows the work of ski patrol ski cutting, side-stepping, and foot-packing that run. Ski patrol will open and then station a person at a gate, and guests can go ski or ride on their own. If you’re lucky, these openings follow new snow and provide some nice powder turns.

The limited-opening runs will close after a few hours or a day to preserve the snow. We don’t want to ski terrain to the ground or fill it with moguls, which would make it harder for that terrain to heal. Patiently packing in the first few big snowfalls makes for a really good ski surface throughout the season. It is a delicate blending of putting the right pressure on the snow, not over-doing the pressure, and giving you great skiing.

So, it goes without saying that if you ever see ski patrol in a closed area that appears covered in powder, they’re not out there just having fun making turns. Appearances can be deceiving! If terrain isn’t open, it means there is still work to be done and it’s not safe for general public access—or there just isn’t enough snow no matter how enticing it looks.

Thanks for your patience as we work to open more terrain for you as quickly and safely as possible! 

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