Photo of slide triggered by Big Sky Resort Ski Patrol Snow Safety on the South Face, Marx Run. PHOTO COURTESY J.C. KNAUB

Mitigating danger

Snow safety team triggers early season avalanches to ensure safety

Early ski season is typically a little more technical for the folks responsible for snow safety. Using data analysis and strategic, careful work, they tame the mountain as best as possible for the safety of the skiing/ snowboarding public. 

“Opening terrain in the early season requires extra careful work, both on the mountain and with data analysis. This takes more time in early season compared to later in the season when the snowpack is deeper, (usually) stronger, and less reactive to subtle changes in weather and snow load,” Snow Safety Director of Big Sky Ski Patrol Mike Buotte wrote in an email. 

He said that early season is anything but business as usual for his team and that safety requires “diligence and oftentimes patience.” 

Mitigation of avalanche hazards could almost be deemed a delicate dance – with explosives. A practice of ski resorts around the world, Buotte and his team set-off intentional avalanches and release unstable snow. 

“The absolute priority is safety: We intentionally trigger unstable snow before the skiing public is given access to the slopes,” he said. “For the safety of the public and our patrol team, it is important to respect closures on the mountain to ensure our team can safely open terrain when the time is right.” 

Recently, the team released unstable snow in Marx, a typical practice for early season conditions, he said. 

“We will continue to analyze and mitigate avalanche hazard in the coming days and throughout the entire season,” he said, noting that they methodically assess snow stability on Lone Mountain every day. “We test our analysis and mitigate potential avalanche hazard each morning as necessary.” 

It is a practice not only used by ski resorts, but also by road crews. Historic avalanche danger wreaked havoc on spring skiing in Colorado this year, with Arapahoe Basin closing early and numerous avalanches wiping-out sections of I-70. After the Vail Pass slide, road crews triggered additional avalanches to protect drivers on the major highway, KUNC reported.

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