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Warm spells mean work for patrol

Steve Benson

With much of Ajax’s steep terrain located on the lower half of the mountain, wet slides and extensive control work are common during spring warm spells.

“We have to go through a cycle like this every year,” said Cory Brettmann, a lead patroller at Aspen Mountain. “It was little unusual because it came earlier this year, but we do this every year.”

At Aspen Highlands, particularly in Highland Bowl, conditions were a little more extraordinary.

“It was a historical event,” Kevin Heinecken, Highlands assistant ski patrol director and snow safety director, said. “We haven’t seen a warm-up happen like this [in March].”

Things started to get weird about a week into March, when temperatures in Aspen soared to 60 degrees. A week later, the high approached 70 degrees.

“It was a very odd warm-up this year, because it was so warm and lasted so many days,” Heinecken said. “We had somewhere between seven to nine days without temperatures going below freezing.”

That warmth wreaked havoc on the terrain at all four mountains, but made things especially dangerous in the enormous and steep Highland Bowl.

“We knew it was coming a couple days beforehand,” Heinecken said. “We generally know what to look for – these wet slides [release in] real specific spots, we know where they are.

“All of our guys are pretty skilled.”

But with the heat persisting, ski patrol closed down much of the bowl’s southeast-facing terrain, an area consisting of the Y-Zones. For several afternoons in a row in mid-March, patrol went to work setting off wet slides in the Y-Zones, which Heinecken said is “influenced by solar radiation.”

Using abnormally large explosives, Heinecken said patrol set off a wet slide in the Mosh Pit area that slid “bigger than we’ve ever seen.”

The debris from the avalanche could be seen from Aspen Mountain.

Eventually, the patrol began to close more and more of the Bowl, but they battled to keep the G-Zones – to skier’s far right – open. As Heinecken said, it was an “aggressive” effort.

“There was some internal debate of whether it was time to throw in the towel,” he said. “But that’s not historically the way our guys have done things here. It’s done through our whole philosophy: Keep terrain open whenever possible.

“In the end, you feel better having worked a hard day.”

But the control work was only part of the challenge. There was the monitoring of the closed areas, such as reconfiguring the ropes and closed signs to ensure nobody wandered off into dangerous conditions.

Then there was the chain-saw work.

The slide that released from Mosh Pit ran into the Bowl’s gut, leaving truck-sized, immovable debris in the runout area below the G-Zones. In order for skiers and riders to get out of the bottom of the bowl, a new traverse had to be cut.

So the patrol went to work with chain saws, cutting through the debris to clear a path to the SJ Traverse, which leads back to the Grand Traverse.

Meanwhile, the SJ Traverse itself was in serious need of attention. Primarily south- and east-facing, the traverse had been beaten by the sun and worn down to almost bare dirt – only a thin line of white, edge-friendly snow remained.

“We put in over 100 man hours on that area of the traverse,” Heinecken said. “We’ve had to recut it and reshape it. That’s been ongoing and ongoing, and we finally collapsed through to the ground.

“If we had another week [of skiing] and sunny skies we’d be sunk.”

But Heinecken said it was all worth it.

“It’s been an aggressive spring, but things have been great around here when it’s busy,” he said. “Guys like to work, that’s why they’re here.”

With last week’s storm, Heinecken said the G-Zones are still skiing great.

But this weekend is your last chance to get it, as Sunday is the last day of the season at Aspen Highlands.

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com


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