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Silverton Mountain Ski Area and Avalanches, a panel discussion (From 2001)
Note: This story originally ran in the San Juan Mountain Journal in 2001. We are rerunning it here because it’s pretty damned interesting. Also because it provides historical background to the news that Silverton Mountain Ski Area has sold.
Controversy regarding Silverton's proposed ski areas has been mild thus far. The Silverton Mountain Ski Area, because of its small size and backcountry focus, has been immune to attacks by environmentalists. And Jim Jackson's Velocity Peak plan has yet to be brought to the public, so has escaped public scrutiny.
But questions of safety have come up. There are some people, including avalanche safety professionals, who are concerned about the ability of the Silverton Mountain Ski Area to adequately, safely, and economically mitigate avalanche hazard in the Storm Peak area.
Some have gone as far as predicting a skier death at the area within the first few years of operation. Others, such as avalanche professionals Denny Hogan and Don Bachman, worry that avalanche mitigation costs will be much higher than the little ski area could ever collect in lift tickets and that the area will go broke in a few years.
Hoping to expand our readers' view on the issue, the Silverton Mountain Journal invited a group of avalanche experts to openly discuss the San Juan snowpack and the challenges associated with "controlling" it. We also invited Silverton Mountain Ski Area's principal developer and snow safety crew.
The discussion was transcribed verbatim, minus tangents that had no relevance to the issue at hand. Although a familiarity with snow safety issues and the area are helpful, the basic issues should be understandable by all.
Scott Burch is the head snow safety person and general manager for the proposed Silverton Mountain Ski Area (a.k.a. Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center) north of Silverton. Burch has 15 years of ski area snow safety experience at The Canyons ski area (formerly Wolf Mountain and Park West) in Utah.
Rocco Altobelli is the assistant snow safety person for the Silverton Mountain Ski Area.
Jerry Roberts is one of Silverton's avalanche forecasters for Red Mountain, Coal Bank, and Molas Pass on Highway 550 as well as Lizard Head Pass. Roberts has been studying the snow in the San Juans (and in Chile) for decades.
Chris George is one of San Juan County's snow science pioneers and started the Colorado Institute for Snow Science Research. He owns St. Paul ski lodge near Red Mountain Pass.
Andy Gleason has been the head Silverton Avalanche Forecaster for Highway 550 since 1997 and was the assistant forecaster before that. He has worked in the snow safety field at Big Sky ski area in Montana and has studied snow around the world. He's no meteorologist, but he can read the snow with the best of them.
Aaron Brill is the primary developer of the Silverton Mountain Ski Area.
Don Bachman was not present for the discussion, but did contribute his thoughts via e-mail, some of which were included in this conversation.
Jonathan Thompson moderated the discussion.
Thompson: To start, can you guys describe the San Juan snowpack
Roberts: I learned a long time ago, from (Ed) LaChapelle, and Newcomb, and whoever else was down here at the beginning of the INSTAAR program that it's a conditionally unstable snowpack. It may not be the amount of new snow you're getting, but how weak the old layers are that cause the problems here. There's a lot of deep slab instability that you don't have in other climates. I've kind of hunkered down and skied a lot less steep things here than I have in other snow climates because it is such a fragile snowpack.
Gleason: It's colder than other areas with a shallower snowpack
George: We're a central Continental snowpack for one thing, which doesn't help, and we're at the southern end of the central Rocky Mountains. Temperature gradient is a big problem for us and bright blue sunny days. I come from a European snowpack, where we still have avalanches, but it's a lot tighter snowpack than we have here. Ed LaChapelle was always telling me about near surface recrystallization. That and long bright sunny days. Those two items preclude us from spending a lot of time in really steep terrain.
Gleason: Yeah, Ed LaChapelle's the one who said that the San Juans are a radiation snow climate. A lot of our instability is based on radiation on the snow and near surface faceting.
Roberts: One of the most important things I learned from LaChapelle was: You can never trust a slope with faceted grains on it.
Thompson: What is faceted or temperature gradient snow?
Gleason: It's simply a change of a snow grain due to vapor movement through the snowpack and typically results in a weaker layer within the snowpack due to the eroding of bonds between grains. Faceting in general is a weakening of snowpack due to vapor movement or temperature gradient.
George: That's a tough concept, people can't imagine vapor travelling through the snowpack. Another misconception is, people think that when the sun's out, the snow's warming up and it's getting wet. The sun is changing the micro layer right near the surface, but it is not turning it into a wet sponge.
Gleason: In general we have an unstable snowpack because we have persistent weak layers that can persist for months in our snowpack. Unlike a maritime snowpack, where you don't get this temperature gradient effect. You don't get a weak layer that just sits there.
Roberts: The only time I've seen faceted grains in a maritime climate is in drought conditions.
Thompson: So how do you control this?
Gleason: Control is a misnomer. Mitigation is a much better word. You can't control nature. They call it avalanche control, but that's a poor name. We mitigate it to a certain degree.
Burch: This snowpack takes a lot of special attention, you've got to constantly watch it. Skier compaction is by far the best way to prevent deep slab instability, but you've got to start that early and keep it up all year round. That's why ski areas in Colorado work, is because they have that.
Thompson: And will you have that?
Burch: Yes, we will.
Roberts: Even in the trees?
Burch: Our area's small enough that even with a small amount of skiers lapping through there, in most conditions we'll get skier compaction.
Roberts: I just don't believe in skier compaction unless it's hammered daily by skiers. If it's skied intermittantly, I don't believe in it. I've seen the bumps in Portillo run in July (midwinter) after it has been skied two and a half months, and that's a maritime climate. I don't believe it.
Burch: Even in a real ski area, you'll get faceted layers at the bottom and have the bumps slide down the hill.
Gleason: It's really a matter of getting it compacted from the beginning, because after you have a slab on top of a depth hoar layer then it's going to persist.
George: That happened in Alta a few seasons ago. The whole thing ran, moguls and everything.
Gleason: You just have to have enough skiers. Bridger had problems, avalanche-wise, until it got so popular and everything got so ski compacted, they just didn't have the problem they used to.
Burch: We had a similar problem at Park West. This one hike was closed for years, and we always got big slides out of it. But as soon as we got skiers up there, the problem dissipated.
Thompson: What if you had a rotten snowpack like we do now and there was a huge dump? How would you deal?
Burch: You're trying to throw in a million variables to get a definitive answer. It would all depend on where our skier compaction was, what the temperatures had been, etc. We would do like every ski area does, we would start with a core, compacted area, and work our way out. When we got to the uncompacted, peripheral areas we would be suspicious. You can't trust a faceted snowpack.
Thompson: So, would you close that area off?
Burch: We would close it, then use a trick that's used at other areas. We would use big bombs to test it, and still not trust it.
Gleason: I worked at Big Sky, and some areas would stay closed for a day or two until we did mitigation.
Burch: And then they require laps and laps, if not days of laps, and just bomb it hard.
Gleason: And sometimes you only let ski patrollers who are going to ski cut it constantly in there for the first day or so. It pisses off the public to no end, but it's dangerous because there have been so many post-control releases.
One thing I'd like to say about your ski area is, there's other places in the country that have larger and more avalanche paths. People are saying this is an incredible avalanche area, but...it's just that, it's ALL avalanche area. Big Sky has more avalanches, and steeper and bigger terrain. There's a lot of places that deal with that kind of terrain every year and they've been open for years, so it's really not unusual in the ski area world to mitigate an area like this. It's just a matter of the time and energy you want to spend.
Burch: Yeah, if you can't open any of the terrain in our ski area because of avalanche hazard, you can't go to any intermediate runs, so we're closed. That doesn't mean we're not working, it means we have the whole place to ourselves. Then we can do a more thorough job. That's all part of the brilliant business plan (laughing and looking at Brill).
Gleason: One thing that's going to help you guys is that every single place you are going to ski is an avalanche area. Other areas have their avalanche areas and then their intermediate terrain. They don't realize that their intermediate terrain is also hazardous even though it's only 25-30 degrees, and people get caught there...at least you're heads up on the whole thing.
Burch: That's common in the backcountry, also. Most accidents happen in the little slides, not the great big avalanche paths.
Thompson: I asked Don Bachman, via e-mail, what his thoughts are on this issue. Basically, his concern is financial. Avalanche control for you, as opposed to other ski areas, will take up a giant proportion of your budget. Other areas can close off avalanche hazard zones and still draw an income, you can't. He's worried that you may sacrifice safety for economic reasons. Or, that you'll spend all of your money on safety and being closed, go broke, and leave yourself open to a buyout to some big developer, like Jackson.
Burch: The explosives bill will be substantial. But you take out snow making, brand new six-packs (chairlifts), grooming, all those fancy amenities ...
Brill: … base lodge.
Burch: And your costs go way down.
Roberts: What Don's concern is: What's going to drive your avalanche control? Economics or hazard.
Burch: Well, hazard has to. It has to. That's a statement that's so obvious to me I feel silly saying it. It has to.
Brill: Of our 12 or 15 full-time employees, eight will be snow professionals and the avalanche explosives budget alone is close to what CDOT spends.
Roberts: Which I think is about $65,000.
Gleason: In a good year.
Brill: While at most areas, snow safety is the last concern, it's the opposite here. The whole job is snow safety. That's why Scott is here. We could have got some younger guy with less experience for a lot less money, but it wouldn't have made any sense because that's what the entire job is.
Burch: I think Don's suffering from what a lot of people are suffering from. You want to read everything you can about this project, unfortunately, most of what you read is hype — in the mainstream press. If you try to draw any conclusions from what you read there, you're lost.
George: What are you going to use for explosives delivery?
Burch: Avalaunchers, hand charges ...
Roberts: Will you use helicopters if you need it?
Brill: Very infrequently.
Roberts: But you would if you felt like you needed it?
Gleason: Where would you use helicopters?
Burch: In the cirque, just to protect the runout on the ridge that the lift is on. Just for runout protection.
Gleason: Up above the ridge?
Burch: Yeah, anything we can't hit with the avalaunchers.
Gleason: You mean down on the Billboard area?
Burch: Or higher. Up in the Storm Peak area if we want to ski something off the back side there and we're worried about other things running. Or if we can't get our avalauncher in because of some contingency. Closure is always an option.
Brill: Which will be used, probably, before a helicopter.
Burch: Realistically, yes.
Roberts: So you will have an avalauncher both at the top and the bottom?
George: You actually will ski into the south Billboard area?
Burch: Yep, but not all the time.
George: (While holding up the cover photo of this issue, which showed an avalanche roaring down the Billboard slide) This picture here is of the Billboard. I once got 17 avalanches from one shot in there. (George elaborates about the challenges of avalanche mitigation and safety for the Speed Skiing events that took place in Colorado--a.k.a. Velocity--Basin during the eighties and early nineties. The important point he made for this discussion, stated very basically, is that making that area safe is not easy. Although his stories were interesting, and kind of scary, we had to cut them because of space considerations.)
Thompson: How often will that area be open? The Velocity Basin area.
Brill: As conditions permit. As often as conditions permit.
Burch: Yeah, we'll treat that like the Ridge at Bridger or Alta's Devil's Castle. It's going to be a hiking area, the gravy that we hope for if conditions let us. Of course, our maintenance will focus on that through the year so we can somehow mitigate the conditions to allow us to get in to certain spots. We don't expect to ski all that stuff, all the time, every year. There's no way.
Antibelli: And it all depends on how the storms come in.
Gleason: I saw a real good season up there when the cabin got destroyed. Every single one of those paths put at least 30 to 50 feet of debris in the valley floor. It was really impressive. It's an incredibly avalanche prone area, but you can deal with it. There are ways to mitigate, you just have to be patient. If you don't have some crazy mountain manager--it sounds like Aaron is pretty savvy about avalanches--in most places there's some mountain manager who is saying: "Get it open by nine no matter what."
Antibelli: That is a critical difference about this place. The place is run by avalanches. If conditions are bad, we can't open.
Gleason: I'm a little worried about Jim Jackson, he seems less savvy — obviously he is if he's staying in that cabin. So I'm a little worried. His backers might have a real different approach. It could be scary. Without the right attitude it could be an incredibly dangerous area.
George: All of this begs the question: "How does the customer base deal with having it closed?" I did control work for six years for the Gold King mine. You know and I know, you shoot everything to the ground for a mine, and that's great. If you do that for a ski area, there's no skiing. So, there's going to be some skepticism based on that. We kept the road open to Lake Emma for a couple of years. In one week, we spent $18,000 on just the helicopter. (To Burch) You gotta lotta challenges, man.
Roberts: That's a big job up there. The big challenge for all of us working the snow down here, is the lack of it. You know as well as I do, these faceted grains dominate the snowpack almost every year.
Brill: You can learn a substantial amount about the snow from a snow study on a poor snow year. A heavy snow year might actually be easier to deal with.
George: That's the thing, we don't have 500-600 years of records...we have 125 years of history in Silverton and about 30 years of scientific background in this county, that's nothing.
Roberts: Every single year down here is a new experiment. The snowpack is not like last year or the year before, it's this year, and that's it.
George: Being a snow safety man...it's a 24/7 job.
Burch: And it takes a suspicious mind.