Preparing for another Snowcat Ski Season with Eleven Experience

By: Billy Rankin

Preparations for the 2017-2018 snowcat ski season are underway! Though we are still a few weeks away, we have been working on winter snowcat operations for over a two months now. What will the 2017-2018 season bring? Uncertainty is the only definite but in today’s world of global weirding no one knows? But one thing is for certain; there will be dry spells, wind events, very warm and very cold temperatures, and many epic powder days. Our first guests will arrive in December and then there is only one focus. Providing the ultimate ski experience of charging down untouched slopes of steep and deep powder with face shots every turn, adrenaline and pure bliss running through our bodies while wiggling inside of the white room! To provide this experience everyday for four months straight, managing the risks involved and providing over the top amenities that Eleven is known for, takes a lot of planning, preparation, and training. Here is a quick look at what we do to prepare for the season.

Guide Scheduling 
I love our guide team and am blessed to work with such amazing human beings and top-notch professionals! They are the best of the best with the highest level of certifications, training, and experience and they all bring something unique to the team. Now managing this group of hedonistic, individual free spirits, parents, travelers, and guides is not an easy task. We try our hardest to meet the needs of all of our guide’s personal and professional requests while trying to schedule a 7-day a week operation. We have been working on the schedule for over a month now and almost have the final version complete.

Weather Stations 
We operate two weather stations within our snowcat terrain and record hourly snow, water, wind, temperatures, and solar radiation. This weather data is an important part of our daily avalanche forecasting process. Though these weather stations are amazing they take a lot of maintenance and repair work. With negative digit temperatures, melt freeze cycles, and wind gusts over 100 mph these stations take a beating. I recently spent a day assessing the damage of another year of wear and tear to our stations and made the lists of needs. I spent hours straightening the tower and adjusting and tightening guy wires to hold the tower in place. Animals had eaten through two of our connector cables and a couple of our instruments need new parts, adjusting, or recalibrating. By the time the snow begins to fall we will be ready for another season of weather data collection.

Snow Safety Database
Throughout the snow and avalanche community there are great standards for weather, snow, and avalanche observations. As well all professionals use very similar standards, tests, and avalanche forecasting methodology. When it comes to documentation and recording of these observations everyone does it differently. The “Old School” method was to have graph paper on the wall, and hard copy photos of avalanche terrain on clipboards that the guides or ski patrollers would scribble on. Over the past couple decades technology has allowed us to record our findings in a much more robust and visually representative way. I have been busy all summer working with a colleague and computer developer creating a custom built database for our snowcat operation. This web-based platform is where we will document all of our weather, snowpack, and avalanche observations and where we go through our avalanche forecasting process. The database allows us to analyze the data strategically so at the end of the day we are able to make appropriate decisions and manage the risks for our guest each day. The coolest parts of the database are photo overlays of all explosives work, ski and boot packing, and avalanche activity to get a comprehensive look at our terrain and what’s been happening.

Reflecting on the 2016-2017 Season and Remembering Lessons Learned 
An important aspect of learning and growing as a ski operation is reflecting on past events and experiences. Many times in work, and in life, we are too busy to slow down and reflect. Reflecting on the prior season offers great opportunities to examine what happened, how we did, and figuring out what we can do better and how. We take the time in the spring and summer to write an end of season report. It is a great practice to recap the season’s events including weather, snowpack development, avalanches, and review all incidents or near misses we had. The big news of the 2016-17 season was “Snowmagedan” in January! We received 188 inches of snow in January and it was EPIC! Our snow safety teams worked extremely hard to keep guests skiing the goods. We used explosives almost everyday to help verify the forecast and increase our confidence. Guide teams followed the snow safety teams and we aggressively skied our terrain managing storm instabilities. We did hit a critical mass and we closed our operation down for snowcat skiing on January 11th & 12th. This was mainly due to the commute to Irwin on the Kebler Pass road and concerns of passing under avalanche terrain. The Crested Butte Avalanche Center rated the backcountry at Extreme Danger and we threw in the towel. All and all we had an extremely successful season providing high quality skiing to our guests with very few incidents or accidents. Reflecting on last season gives us direction on training topics and sessions for this fall.

Professional Meetings & Conferences
Like any trade or industry there are professional associations and groups that we stay affiliated with. In the fall many snow and avalanche professionals get together before the season to prepare and share what’s new in our industry. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) hosts the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop (CSAW) in October. During CSAW we will have our guides in attendance along with hundreds of other professionals for a full day of talks, lectures, and training sessions. There will be the fall meeting of the American Avalanche Association (AAA), which all of our guides are professional members. The AAA promotes and supports avalanche professionals and publishes the Avalanche Review, which is a great publication within our industry. We will also attend the fall meeting of Catski US, which is a snowcat trade organization. Catski US does a great job bringing together different organization and we view ourselves more as partners vs. competitors. We share our best practices amongst each other to promote standards in the snowcat industry. 

Pre-Season Training 
A big part of preparing for the season is training. We are in the process now of planning about a week of training prior to the season for our guide and mountain operations team. We will get together as a full company just after Thanksgiving to take a look at the mission and values of the company and how we deliver it. We will then follow through with trainings within our respective departments. Our guide team will spend a day or two practicing medical response going through our entire medical and rescue equipment reviewing protocols and procedures for emergencies. We will run our toboggans and go through a mock rescue scenario. We will have flight for life helicopter fly to our location and review our landing zones, communications, and patient handoff procedures. We will also spend a full day or two with avalanche training. We will have some classroom sessions and then spend a full day in the field doing rigorous training scenarios with avalanche rescue. Even though we are all trained professionals, we constantly challenge ourselves to get better and practice with our avalanche transceivers, probes, and shovels. Like emergency workers such as firefighters and EMT’s, we never get complacent and are always looking to be better trained and prepared for emergency situations.  

Well that’s just a glimpse of what we will be doing this fall to prepare for the 2017-18 snowcat ski season. There is a lot that goes into running a world-class snowcat operation and a fair bit of behind the scenes action. I’m sure everyone is getting just as excited as we are for another ski season and we hope to see you in Crested Butte and Irwin this winter with Eleven Experience to have some memorable and epic powder days!

Interested in booking a snowcat ski day, head over to this link or give us a call at the Irwin Guides office at 970.349.5430

Filed under: Colorado Winter

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