Mitigating Mother Nature: How does Bluebird Backcountry’s new patrol director approach snow safety at the ski area?
In October, Bluebird Backcountry introduced Ski Patrol and Snow Safety Director Tim Walsh to its patrol team to continue its established practices of snow safety and further the community’s excitement and knowledge of backcountry skiing.
Coming with nearly a decade of experience, Walsh grew an interest in snow science in 2013 when he went to National Avalanche School in Alta, Utah. He followed that with a Level 3 avalanche training class and learned under some of the greatest minds in avalanche safety.
Working with a team of eight patrollers and his avalanche dog-in-training, Penny, Walsh was first allowed to explore Bluebird Backcountry in mid-November when the ski area began to lease the land for the winter season.
At that point, Walsh says the snow was only about “a boot top” thick but avalanche prevention operations were able to begin shortly after.
There are two primary methods for controlling avalanche terrain. The first is early-season compaction, which is simply stomping on the layers of snow to pack them in and keep them stable.
The second is ski cutting after every storm to chop up any avalanche paths and close down any paths that may be potentially unstable. Ski cutting is essentially a controlled avalanche created by the patrol to get rid of the weak layers of snow. The point is to take energy out of the existing snowpack.
“Every time we get a new bit of snow, what we would do is strategic ski cutting to break up the future slab and the future propagation pathways,” Walsh said. “Ideally, when that stuff gets buried in the future, we can feel good about the weak layers having been cut up in such a way that if something was to fail and break, it would be in a really small piece and could be managed easily.”
Some areas on the mountain, like the Pucker Chutes, are more difficult for patrollers to get to and control. In this case, they will utilize their high angle roping skills inside the couloir and stomp over the area until a result such as an avalanche or cracking is triggered.
In some of those advanced areas however, avalanches are possible because the snow has already piled deep enough that weak layers cannot be affected through mitigation efforts. This is why the patrol uses ropes, closing the areas off to guests until they are stable enough for public use.
No natural avalanches have yet been caused this season thanks to mitigation efforts. However, the patrol team did intentionally trigger a small avalanche in the Grizzly Falls area to clear out the weak layers. It was a successful trigger, which Walsh says was a relief because the patrol can now get back to compacting the area and not worry about unstable activity.
“When you don’t get a nice result, you know the recipe still sits there,” Walsh says. “It’s just how much compaction and how much mitigation you have done to affect those propagation pathways to keep whatever instability there may be from propagating or spreading wider.”
To always stay on top of things, Walsh tells his team to maintain a consistent routine each day and go through its snow safety checks at all times regardless of the avalanche threat level.
One major key to this is checking on beacons to ensure they are working correctly and will be able to accurately locate a potential victim buried beneath an avalanche. Bluebird requires all guests to wear a beacon as well as carry a probe and shovel. The ski area rents that equipment to those who don’t have their own.
“We’re in the habit of doing the same type of safety routines and doing those every day no matter what the hazard level is,” Walsh said. “It facilitates good habits and facilitates a safety-oriented environment.”
Offering insight to Bluebird guests on how these routines work and the protocols the patrollers undergo, there are directional ski programs available where patrollers take a group of visitors and show how beacon checks are done, how they safely move through the snow and how they go about basic daily protocols.
Having worked in the ski industry at different capacities since he was 16, Walsh says he has enjoyed sharing his knowledge of snow science and enjoys meeting people who are genuinely interested in backcountry skiing and the science behind snow safety.
It is a priority for Walsh to keep people safe and ensure they feel safe when skiing the backcountry. He is confident in the way things run in the area and encourages locals and visitors to come check things out.
“As soon as people show up, I think they get a glimpse of the place and they get a glimpse of what we’re doing,” Walsh said. “Once they get into our base area, I think concerns are alleviated pretty quick. I’d also say the small staff we have is very friendly and outgoing.”
To reach Tom Skulski, call 970-871-4240, email tskulski@SteamboatPilot.com.
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