Wednesday, January 12, 2005

It came, it parked, it dumped

Powder-packed storm delights skiers, challenges mountain patrol

Express Staff Writer

Acrobatic jumps were common sights Saturday on Bald Mountain, with scores of skiers launching off cat tracks before landing in a soft bed of powder. Photo by Willy Cook

It might not have been the storm of the century, but don't bother telling that to thousands of skiers and snowboarders who found their way to Bald Mountain last weekend.

A moisture-laden storm billed as a once-in-a-generation event by meteorologists dropped 38 inches of snow on Baldy last Friday through Monday, forcing a delayed opening of the ski mountain Saturday before some 3,000 wide-eyed skiers descended upon the slopes.

The storm brought a whopping 24 inches of fresh powder between late Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning, delivering one of the most memorable deep-snow days in decades.

Rich Bingham, assistant director and 38-year veteran of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, said the snowfall Friday night and Saturday morning was not unprecedented, but did rate as one of the most-substantial accumulations he could recall.

"It's been quite a long time since we've seen that," Bingham said. "A two-foot storm overnight is few and far between."

Touted as a blessing for Sun Valley Resort—which has been trying diligently in recent weeks to counter perceptions that all Idaho ski areas lack snow—the storm did not come without complications.

Sun Valley mountain crews did not open the Bald Mountain lifts Saturday until approximately 10:15 a.m., more than one hour after the scheduled 9 a.m. opening. Simply put, so much snow had fallen on the mountain that the ski patrol did not have ample time to complete its avalanche-control work before 9 a.m.

"It was pretty tough going out there," Bingham said. "You have to be safe with all that new snow at once."

As the patrol did its work, huge crowds of skiers gathered at the River Run and Warm Springs base areas. At River Run, a serpentine lift line stretched hundreds of yards north of the lift loading station.

All told, the ski patrol on Saturday and Sunday launched 550 pounds of explosives into the slopes of Baldy, trying to ensure that none would slide when the eager skiers were unleashed.

Riding one of the first chairs up the mountain Saturday, one visitor from Boise uttered: "I feel like a kid in a candy store."

Because of the large amount of avalanche-control work to be done, the Seattle Ridge area and its surrounding bowls were not opened for skiing Saturday. On Sunday, the entire mountain was opened.

Bingham, the patrol's snow-safety supervisor, said a south wind during the storm was "favorable" for reducing avalanche danger on Baldy. After the brunt of the storm passed, only surface slides occurred, with no major releases of snow.

Nonetheless, a "rabid dog" mentality of many skiers did manage to get some into minor trouble, Bingham said.

"There were a lot of people getting stuck all over the place, a lot of lost skis and stuff like that," he said. "Overall, we were pretty lucky."

At least one major injury occurred when a skier hit a rock and suffered a compression fracture in one of his legs, Bingham noted.

Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley director of marketing and public relations, said 3,217 skiers and snowboarders were tallied at the resort Saturday, followed by 3,356 on Sunday. The numbers, he said, were typical for a January weekend.

The storm delayed the arrival and departure of some Sun Valley guests, Sibbach said, but certainly delighted those who came for deep-powder skiing.

"We're getting the word out that we have snow," Sibbach said.

Warning of the storm came Thursday from the National Weather Service, which said 16 to 30 inches of wet snow could wallop parts of southern Idaho over the weekend.

For several Idaho ski areas, the storm did not live up to its billing. Brundage Mountain, near McCall, reported receiving approximately 10 inches of new snow by Saturday afternoon. Bogus Basin, north of Boise, recorded less than three inches.

In fact, a cursory review Sunday of snow accumulations throughout the West indicated that Sun Valley received significantly more snow than most of its regional competitors. Ski areas in the Lake Tahoe region of Northern California received the greatest accumulations.

By the time the storm completely subsided Monday, Sun Valley reported having a 106-inch snow base at the summit of Baldy. The mountain has received approximately 161 inches of natural snow this season, with approximately 61 inches coming this month.

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