Wednesday, January 25, 2012

After ‘snowpocalypse’

Sudden snowfall sends agencies scrambling

Express Staff Writer

A truck blazes along Warm Springs Road shortly after it was reopened on Saturday. An avalanche above Penny Lake sent debris into the road, shown to the right, blocking it until county road crews could plow it out. Photo by Willy Cook

Last week's storm was a boon for skiers who had been suffering through another almost-one-month dry spell, but the sudden dump sent groomers, ski patrol and avalanche forecasters scrambling to keep up.

The storm was made possible by the breakdown of a high-pressure ridge that had been blocking most precipitation from the Wood River Valley since mid-November. The ridge weakened and broke on Jan. 15, allowing a moisture-laden flow from the Pacific Coast to blast the region for four days beginning Jan. 17, dumping 38 inches of powder on Baldy and even more on Galena Summit, north of Ketchum.

"It's everything we've been praying for," said Blaine County Recreation District Executive Director Jim Keating. "But it's game on right now."

The district manages more than 220 kilometers of Nordic and snowshoeing trails around the Wood River Valley, trails that were quickly snowed under as a result of the storm.

Eric Rector, the district's director of trails operations and facilities, said the district immediately launched its six groomers and 10 employees to prepare the trails for skiing and snowshoe trekking.

"[The snow] is great," he said. "We put in a lot of long, hard hours, but that's what we do."

Thanks to the storm, Rector said, all of the district's trails are open to the public—with the exception of the Titus Ridge trail, which has been groomed but as of press time was closed due to avalanche danger. Rector said it took between 16 and 24 hours of cumulative manpower to open all the Nordic trails.

"We basically touched everything every day if there was enough snow," he said. "These Nordic groomers are definitely unsung heroes. Everyone takes for granted what it's like until you go out with them on a day like [Monday]."

Before Wednesday, Jan. 18, there was almost no accumulation at the Quigley Nordic Center or on parts of the Wood River Trail from south of Bellevue to Hulen Meadows north of Ketchum. Rector said that situation has been remedied.

"The trails are all good," he said. "They really are. We're in a really good spot."

Rector said that earlier this season crews worked to form almost a patchwork of snow cover on trails like the Harriman Trail, doing what they could to make roughly 6 inches of snow work for grooming.

"Early in the season, we'll start with snowmobiles and shovel in bare spots just to get something open," he said.

Rector said the district has sold roughly 2,500 Nordic season passes, and that the district's trails were crowded with people all weekend.

"The buzz is out and catching on," he said. "Even with [Fly Sun Valley Alliance's Community Ski Day on Sunday], most of our parking lots were full both days."

Rector said he and his crews would spend the week grooming the trails for the Boulder Mountain Tour and other ski races for the upcoming Sun Valley Nordic Festival. He's hoping for more snow, he said, maybe a storm like last week's.

"It's a lot more work, but I'm never going to complain about snow," he said.


Groomers were also busy on Bald Mountain, according to Sun Valley Ski Patrol Snow Safety Director Rich Bingham, who reported that the storm brought more than 3 feet of new snow to the ski area.

"It was a good one!" he said, adding that skier numbers got a significant boost thanks to the weather.

"The powder fever was strong, and people were charging it hard," he said. "It was a lot of people having a good time for sure."

Those skiers were having a blast on almost twice the terrain they could have enjoyed last week. Bingham said that while some ski runs were technically open before the storm, only parts of them were actually skiable due to lack of snow.

Now, he said, all of the mid and lower bowls are open, along with the south slopes of College and Frenchman's and the southern exposures of other popular runs.

"Right now, we have everything on Baldy open except the River Run Lower Slopes," he said. "We opened all of the southern exposures. Before, we were just skiing part of them. Now, we're skiing wall to wall."

But with the snow comes more danger, and Bingham said the patrol needed to do a significant amount of avalanche mitigation to make the runs safe for skiing.

"We worked hard for three days and had a pretty active slide cycle, with numerous slides around the lower slopes," he said "With the new snow load on the old faceted layer, the weak snowpack made it difficult."

Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Chris Lundy said there were a number of slides in the Baldy sidecountry on Saturday and Sunday.

"There were a lot of slides triggered on Baldy," he said, adding this was concerning because some skiers may not know the risks of out-of-bounds skiing.

Lundy said most skiers on the mountain were careful, but not all.

"It's always a mix of behavior in these situations," he said. "We've seen a lot of people making the right decisions, but we had a couple of forecasters on Baldy, and they saw a few people going underneath the rope without backpacks or avalanche gear."

Lundy said the "minimum" avalanche gear that backcountry or sidecountry skiers should carry is a shovel, an avalanche beacon and a probe.

Avalanche danger affected not only skiers but drivers as well, as a number of slides out Warm Springs prompted the road's closure. The road was closed to all except residential traffic on Saturday due to avalanche danger, and a significant slide off the Penny Lake chute just above the lake blocked the road.

"That was one of the larger, more dramatic slides that happened around here," Lundy said.

Lundy reported that Blaine County Road and Bridge crews also triggered several slides near the point at which Warm Springs road becomes unpaved.

This week, the snowpack is expected to stabilize as the snow settles and bonds to the layer below. However, Lundy warned that skiers can still cause slides even as the danger decreases slightly, mostly because signs of instability are harder to identify.

"If you trigger an avalanche, it's going to be a pretty large one," Lundy warned. "We really urge people to just give it some time."


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