Snow supervisor tells his side of the business
This week, Ski Utah reports the state’s snowfall has been good for resort business — holiday bookings were up as much as 30 percent over last year and several resorts now have base depths of more than 100 inches.
Though resorts do not disclose the numbers of skiers on the mountain, The Canyons Resort let Ski Utah know that on top of logging 30 percent more bookings than last year, they "broke all previous lift ticket sales records on Dec. 30."
Park City Mountain Resort told the organization that since Dec. 27, the resort has received 75 inches of fresh snow. PCMR Spokeswoman Krista Parry told the Park Record that bookings for this week, the week following New Years, were up 60 percent.
Behind a business that depends on the snow, of course, is the business of snow maintenance. Lately, the issue of slope safety has been of the utmost concern to resorts, since between the snowstorms, the Park City area has received days of unseasonably warm weather, and some wet conditions.
The result is unusual and dangerous avalanche patterns, according to PCMR Snow Safety Supervisor Chad Jacques: unstable snow beneath hard, wind-packed and water-saturated snow. Jacques estimates that winds ranged from 40 to 70 miles per hour across the ridgeline and that the resort picked up somewhere between seven to eight inches of water.
"How many slides have we had? To be honest with you, without sitting down for an hour or two, I couldn’t tell you — there have been so many slides since Dec. 28," he confirms. "This year’s snowfall and the rain we’ve had at low elevations have created quite a bit of risk on our lower mountain and we’ve had to do avalanche control work down there."
One patrol-triggered slide off of Jupiter Peak, released 15 feet of snow, he says. Another slide on West Face last Sunday released the full depth of snow, which meant that the entire snowpack slid down to the ground.
Patrol monitored an avalanche Wednesday morning off Pinecone Ridge that released three to six feet of snowpack about 500 feet across, Jacques says.
Short days coupled with challenging conditions have meant that PCMR was only recently able to begin loading skiers on the mountain at 8:30 a.m., according to Jacques. These days, Jacques sends out his 24-member avalanche control team at 7:20 a.m.
Some holiday resort-goers who had hoped to get up the mountain earlier, have been disappointed at the 9 a.m. openings, according to Parry and Jacques.
"Krista and the front offices have been receiving a lot of negative feedback regarding getting the mountain open and I just think that people should realize that we get terrain open as fast as we can, and yet we make sure it’s safe for skiers," he explained.
So, at the risk of being labeled "conservative" at times, Jacques and his crew make sure to be thorough and do everything they can to make sure that no one skiing on this mountain gets killed in an avalanche. "The absolute worst-case scenario for a resort is to have a skier to have a death due to avalanche at any time when it’s open terrain," he stresses.
The last time a skier died at PCMR was in March of 1983 during a wet slab avalanche off Ski Team Ridge, according to Jacques. There have been no deaths during the 16 years that Jacques has helped to control avalanches at the resort.
Jacques notes that things have changed since he began working at the resort: many more people come to the resort these days and much more advanced terrain has opened up, which has meant that PCMR ski patrol has had to modify their procedures.
Until a few years ago, Pinecone ridge was only open for spring corn-snow skiing, and now it’s open mid-winter, he observes. McConkey’s lift, which opened in 2000, has put a lot more skiers and riders backside of Jupiter Peak, arguably some of the most challenging terrain on the mountain more skiers than Jacques ever recalls having in expert terrain before.
In addition to digging snow pits to analyze snow layers, Jacques can assess the need for avalanche control using multiple automated weather stations placed throughout the mountain. He pays special attention to the Jupiter and Eagle stations, which calculate wind speed and snowfall.
It takes patrolmen on an average avalanche control morning an hour and a half to open the mountain, during which they use hand-thrown charges to blast high-risk areas each morning.
"Usually when people hear shooting, we’re shooting the Ski Team ridge, sometimes we’re shooting as far down as Pay Day pods, but more typically we’re shooting the bowl areas," he explains, adding that afterward, patrolmen often have to do ski cuts, cutting the slope with skis to try and release further snow that hasn’t released with a shot, if the shot didn’t get it all.
Jacques cannot say that his team has been working harder this year than last. The amount of avalanche control work appears to be on par with last year, he says.
While some customers have complained about a later opening at the resort, other PCMR skiers and riders have recognized the patrolmen’s good work a business that is largely invisible to most customers.
"I stood at the top of Jupiter [Tuesday], and it took us a long time to get Jupiter open, but every skier that got off the chair thanked me," Jacques says. "People just need to understand that when the ski patrollers are out doing avalanche control work, we’re taking an awful amount of risk. We’re doing everything we can for them, and once we’re able to get started earlier in the morning later in the season, terrain will open earlier."
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Park City at the start of 2021 is preparing for the return of numerous special events, something that could help reignite Park City’s tourism-heavy economy and re-create some of the energy that was lacking in 2020.