By Scotty Savage Explorebigsky.com avalanche expert
‘Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb
across my head…found my way downstairs
and drank a cup…’ – The Beatles,
“A Day in the Life”
With the exception of the fact that
most avalanche forecasters don’t own a
comb, let alone actually use one, those
lyrics from the Beatles’ 1967 hit do a
pretty decent job of describing the first
few minutes of a ski area avalanche
Here’s what a typical day in the life
3:45 a.m. – Is that really the alarm? So
soon? Why do I do this? Get up, time
to make the donuts.
3:50 – Fire up the computer at home to
check weather data and forecasts. 8-12”
new with strong winds and more snow
on the way makes it an easy decision
to call everyone in for an early start for avalanche work.
4:00 – Start calling ski patrollers. “Uh,
hello.” “Good morning sunshine, it’s
an early morning, see you soon, bye.”
No time for chit-chat with 20+ people to call.
4:15 – The first wave of phone calls
is done. Inhale breakfast and pack up
about 3,000 calories of food, aka lunch.
4:30 – Make the remaining phone calls,
hoping the ones that didn’t answer the
phone heard it ring and realize that it’s
absolutely puking snow and time to
go to work. Find some polypro and ski
socks that pass the “sort-of clean test”
and head to work.
4:40-5:45 – It’s a hellacious drive to
work dodging deer attempting to commit
suicide on the road and breaking
trail through fresh snow before the
plows clear the road. Most of the drive
is spent refining the plan for the morning,
searching for what could possibly go wrong.
5:45-6:30 – Arrive at the office and
hit the ground running. Talk to the cat
drivers on the mountain via radio for an
update on snow and weather conditions
and look at more weather data on the
computer. Tweak the avalanche route
schedule, post weather and avalanche
forecasts, figure out who’s sick/not
showing up for work on time and create
plan B. Talk to the lift mechanics only
to find out it’s too windy to run some of
the lifts – create plan C.
6:30 – Time for the ski patrol morning
meeting. Turn off the AC/DC cranking
on the stereo and get everyone up to
speed with conditions and the plan of
7:00 – Snowmobile up the hill to look
at conditions up close before the patrol
gets off the lifts (in theory). Bury the
‘bile in a big snowdrift, dig it out, and
arrive at the top of the lifts at the same
time as the rest of patrol.
7:30-10 – Avalanche hazard reduction
work goes smoothly with lots of
medium sized avalanches and lots of
fun. The ski patrol and mountain operations
kick butt and the mountain opens
quickly given the conditions. (Heck, I
even manage to sneak in a couple turns
at the end of my avalanche route. Yep,
this is why I do this for a living.)
10-10:30 – It’s still snowing and blowing.
Talk to several patrollers to figure
out which avalanche prone areas within
the ski area need attention. Say hi in
passing to a few grinning locals at the
top of the lift. Get accosted by a gentleman
getting off the lift who’s claiming
“the patrol at Snow Meadows Hole
would have had this whole place open
two hours ago.” 10-4.
10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. – The storm continues.
Put ski tracks in places where
no one is skiing (where all the rocks
are hiding) and find a few good turns.
Spend some time in the patrol shack
discussing avalanche conditions with
other patrollers and make sure no
avalanche paths are falling through
the cracks. Stuff food down my throat
while worrying/fretting about the
rapidly increasing snow load in a few
particular paths. Repeat this cycle
3:00 – Perform an end-of-the-day
sweep on one of the ski runs that closes
early and head down to the office.
Notice that the locker room really does
smell like a locker room: a potpourri of
smelly socks, stinky ski boots, old poly
pro and some old fruit.
3:45-4:30 – Broadcast the afternoon
weather forecast for the patrol and
mountain operations staff: more snow
and wind on the way. Breath a small
sigh of relief when all the lifts close for
the day; daytime storms are stressful
for ski-area forecasters. Hurriedly try
to come up with tomorrow’s avalanche
route schedule and finish some paperwork
before sweeps are completed
and the ski patrol arrives en masse.
4:30-6 – Data entry, data entry, and
more data entry. Ugh, computer
time when you’re dead tired is a
tough way to end the day. Half-listening
to some interesting conversations
in the background (crash
and burn ski escapades, love triangles, river trip planning…) makes
the data entry task less painful.
6:15-7:15 – Drive home, daydreaming
much of the way. Time to
prioritize as there’s less than nine
hours until it’s time to make the
donuts again. A huge burrito and
a cold Tecate hit the spot, but the
shower’s going to have to wait until tomorrow.
8:30 – Head, meet pillow. Pillow,
meet head. Seven hours of bliss
before it starts all over again…
Scotty Savage had the privilege of
spending many years as a Southwest Montana ski area avalanche
forecaster until knee issues forced a
sabbatical. He’s currently involved
in recreational and professional avalanche
education but he still doesn’t
own a comb.
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