Opening the 'wood on a powder day
The article below was reprinted from the Kirkwood Times and authored by Tom Patton. Powder Pros
Did you know that it truly takes a very large coordinated effort on the part of Kirkwood's Mountain Operations team to get this place open after a snowfall? I'm guessing most people have some idea of some of the effort, but I'd like to share some of the finer details with you.
When all indications point to a snow safety morning, 2-4 people will stay in patrol huts at the top of Chair 6 and 10. Usually a combination of ski patrol and lift maintenance, these folks will begin to clear snow from the ramps and terminals as early as 4 am. Quite often Chair 10 is buried up to the top of the bullwheel. The majority of the rest of the mountain personnel must arise, begin the arduous drive up to Kirkwood, and arrive by 4 am. Keep in mind this drive is done at night, in the middle of the snowstorm, before CalTrans has done much work.
Groomers in their snowcats have been out all night. It is important to keep in mind there are restrictions imposed on groomers due to avalanche danger, which keep them away from the tops of most lifts, and most of the backside. In addition, noise restrictions keep the groomers away from the base of Chairs 10 and 11 until 7 am.
One of the first things to happen on snow safety mornings when the mountain personnel arrive is that a patrol manager will put snow safety holds on all chairs and almost all but the lowest trails. Thus, the lift personnel can't spin lifts until the groomers can plow the lift ramps and give them clearance to do so.
Upon daybreak the ski patrol hand charge routes, set to blast and assess the snow pack. All told, we have 19 routes that must be run to open the whole place, with up to 375 charges being set off. Conditions sometimes mandate that some of the routes be run more than once to safely open that particular area. It should be noted that we absolutely would not send out our hand routes until we have enough daylight to do so. These men and women are handling dynamite and blasting caps, a dangerous enough proposition in controlled circumstances and good weather.
Once avalanche control is complete and the slopes are deemed safe, clearances are given to groomers and lift personnel to begin the process of plowing and shoveling and setting up the lifts. It is of note that although we can get the lifts to a point for trained mountain personnel to ride them, it is yet another to get the ramps and mazes in shape for public use. Chair 10 for instance takes at least an hour of hand shoveling after plowing with a snow cat to get the proper clearance for public use.
Although it takes a total team effort on snow safety days to get the mountain open, there is one key position through which it is all channeled. This position is the mountain dispatcher, working in lift operations. It is the responsibility of the person in this dispatch position to carefully coordinate all closures and subsequent openings and to make sure it all goes smoothly and safely. Maggie Fleenor is our fulltime dispatcher, and more often than not, she can be found very capably manning this position on busy mornings.
There are many variables affecting this process. One huge factor is of course the weather: how much snow, how much wind and so on. Sometimes the passes close before we can get all personnel on site. Snow cats and plows break. Lifts ice up. Or sometimes charges fail to detonate, creating what we call a dud, often in a critical area, which then must be dealt with before we can open that area. In spite of all these variables and more, there is one constant in this process: a lot of people work really hard to get as much of the mountain open as we can as quickly as possible. In fact, it is not uncommon on these days for ski patrol and lift foremen to go nonstop without a break from 6 am until late afternoon. We do it so many hundreds of people can get out and have fun. We are dedicated and committed to providing our guests the best powder skiing experience possible, and we feel we do it as well or better than anyone, anywhere else does.
Tom Patton is the Director of Lift Maintenance and Operations at Kirkwood. He began skiing in 1961 on a pair of little red wooden skis metal wing/leather thong bindings.