by Lu Snyder

Maybe you’ve heard the boom of avalanche bombs reverberate among the peaks on an otherwise calm and quiet winter morning as you ride the chairlift. You may know ski patrol uses explosives to keep steep terrain such as Spaulding Bowl safe for skiers and riders, but did you know it takes hundreds of pounds of explosives, combined with hours and hours of machine and man (and woman) power before Copper can safely open its steeper terrain?

Reed Ryan, Ski Patrol Lead, is in charge of early season compaction and avalanche terrain at Copper Mountain. In the 13 years he’s worked here, he’s seen big years and thin years, early snow and huge late season powder days. He knows snow inside and out – quite literally.

For avalanche professionals like Ryan, what is happening inside the snow is as important as what’s happening on top, especially here in Colorado, notorious for avalanches. Without geeking out on snow science, suffice it to say that a combination of Colorado’s high elevations, sun exposure, arid environment and other factors often combine to create weak layers of snow at the base of the snowpack. As the snow adds up over the winter, that weak layer can act like a layer of marbles, leading to dangerous and potentially fatal avalanches.

Long before Copper’s steep terrain has opened – perhaps months before there is even enough snow to cover the rocks and small trees – Ryan and his crew (including 25 to 50 volunteers) are already at work preparing the trails. They start by bootpacking the slope when the snow is less than 60 centimeters (just under two feet). As Ryan explains it, this churns up the snow to create a stronger base for successive layers of snow that will fall on top. Once the snow is too deep to safely navigate by foot, the group moves to what’s known as ski packing or band packing. They compact the snow by methodically side-stepping the slope with their skis on.

 

A view of the bootpacking being done by Copper Mountain ski patrol

The patterns created from bootpacking

 

Ryan also uses a remote-controlled winch roller, which can accomplish in just a few hours what it would take a group of 10 to 15 patrollers and volunteers two days to complete.

 

A Copper Mountain patroller using a remote-controlled winch roller to pack down snow

A patroller uses the remote controlled winch roller, helping pack down snow faster and more efficiently.

 

“It’s two different tools,” he explains. “We could be bootpacking in one area and winch rolling in another, and get twice as much done as we could without it.”

Winters like this one are Ryan’s favorite. The early snow allows patrollers and bootpackers to get the steep slopes prepared quickly and efficiently, before persistent weak layers can develop.

“The best thing for us is when we get a good early storm and we get our 60 cm of snow. We bootpack everything and then it snows again and we open everything. It doesn’t always happen that way, but that’s the perfect scenario.”

Some years it may take several months before there is enough snow to open steeper terrain, like Tucker Mountain, and Copper may go an entire season without opening 100 percent of its terrain. Last year was one of those years.

Tucker Mountain is typically one of the last areas to open each season. Each year, ski patrol spends countless hours studying snowpack and typically detonates approximately 500 pounds of explosives on Tucker Mountain before they open it for the season. Last winter, it didn’t open until February 8th. Thanks to this winter’s early snow (Copper Mountain and the surrounding area had approximately 130 percent of average by December), Ryan and his crew were able to drop the ropes on 100 percent of Copper’s terrain, including Tucker Mountain, by December 28.

 

A patroller throws explosives to trigger a slide at Copper Mountain

A patroller throws a explosives onto avalanche terrain in an effort to mitigate any avalanche danger. 

 

We’ll do the math for you: That’s 45 days earlier this year. In other words, your steep-skiing season is 45 days longer this year.

Next time, before you drop into Spaulding or Copper Bowls, Tucker Mountain or your favorite steep line, take a moment to send a mental thanks to Ryan, Copper ski patrol and all those volunteers for their hours of work and sweat. Or better yet, thank them in person.

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