When I wake up early on a powder day, the only thing that gets me out of bed before sunrise is the thought of lap upon lap of fresh snow. That and strong coffee get me rolling out the door, but from now on, this thought might help ease the struggle of early mornings: by the time I leave Bellingham, the Mt. Baker Pro Patrol has already been at work for two hours. Here’s a typical day for the guys who make the ski area safe.
4:30 a.m. Andy Sahlfeld checks the weather bulletins and instruments and takes a look at the snowfall outside the pro patrol’s A-frame building near the Heather Meadows lodge at Mt. Baker Ski Area. The patrol A-frame (not to be confused with the medical A-frame) is where he and two other patrollers sleep weeknights, and where the crew meets and stores its gear.
A foot of fresh snow has fallen since Sahlfeld went to sleep, and it was unseasonably cold overnight. He calls the main ski area office in Bellingham to relay his observations. He determines the plan for the day – the ski area will be open for mid-week shredders, and he and the crew need to prepare the mountain.
Sahlfeld runs patrol operations midweek, and his counterpart Sam Llobet takes charge on weekends. Sahlfeld calls up the rest of the crew, most of whom live in Glacier and Maple Falls, and tells them when to be in the A-Frame for the morning meeting. The start time varies in accordance with the changing sunrise.
“We try to get going up the chairlift just before dawn breaks, so we can start working trails as soon as there’s enough light,” Sahlfeld said. “We typically do our first runs with headlamps.”
As he and the other two patrollers living in the A-frame wait for the crew to arrive and eat breakfast, they assemble and prepare the gear for the day.
6:15 a.m. Once the crew has eaten breakfast and gathered in the A-frame, Sahlfeld begins the morning meeting. He tells them what happened overnight, and brings everyone up to speed with the recent history of weather and snowpack in the area. Other patrollers share their observations. They check radios, don ski gear and shoulder their packs before heading out to the chairlift in darkness.
7 a.m. The last of the patrollers disembark Chair 1 as the sky begins to lighten, but the sun won’t rise over the shoulder of Mt. Shuksan for at least another hour. On this day, eight patrollers will cover the whole ski area. They split up to tackle the two sides of the hill – the Panorama Dome side and the Mt. Shuksan side.
Run by run in teams of two, the patrollers mitigate avalanche danger with ski cuts, runs and other techniques to knock the snow down the mountain. The pop and rumble of snow slides wakes up some first-chair hopefuls sleeping in their vehicles in the Heather Meadows parking lot.
While mitigating avalanche danger, the patrollers are also checking each run for other problems such as wind slab cornices and downed trees. They’re assessing tree-well hazards, setting up rope lines and generally getting the mountain in shape for the paying public.
If patrol workers can’t create a slide on the edges of Gunner’s Bowl and the canyon, they won’t open that terrain because they can’t be certain a slide won’t happen. The canyon is a massive terrain trap that would be seriously deadly in the event of an avalanche, Sahlfeld said. The run also takes a long time to fill in, so it tends to remain closed until later in the season.
In addition to dealing with what goes on inside the ski area boundaries, Baker’s pro patrol has to consider certain backcountry zones with slide paths that could enter the ski area. Those areas include the Shuksan Arm and Hemispheres, both of which are outside the ski area’s permitted portion of the Mt. Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest. Once a week, patrollers profile the snow in those areas to see if they pose a significant threat. If they do, they coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service to do control work.
9 a.m. Everything has gone smoothly, and patrol was able to check and ski every run by the target time of 9 a.m., when the ski area is supposed to open. That isn’t always the case.
“A lot of times, factors beyond our control will set us back,” Sahlfeld said. “A chair could have trouble starting or be frozen in place if it rained overnight and then got very cold. A snowcat could get stuck and need to be dug out. Any number of malfunctions could disrupt our routine.”
Once the avalanche control work has been done for the day, Sahlfeld calls Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center to tell them the crew’s observations. Was there significant slab formation or gradient layering? Any natural avalanches on nearby slopes? Data from ski areas is extremely helpful for avalanche forecasting services.
The first couple hours of operation is when most patrollers get in a few runs for themselves, and perhaps a second breakfast. It isn’t long before skiers and snowboarders like me start getting into trouble.
10:30 a.m. The first calls for help start coming in. “On busy days, we could be responding to accidents all day,” Sahlfeld said.
Missing person reports are the most time consuming, and can be scary on a snowy day.
“It could be as simple as a friend who went in to the lodge without telling anyone, or it could be someone stuck in a tree well,” Sahlfeld said. “It’s real nice when people answer their cell phones.”
Pro patrollers also act as first responders for accidents that happen out of bounds - from backcountry avalanche burials to cars going off the road near White Salmon lodge. While increased backcountry use has increased the pro patrol’s workload in some respects, Sahlfeld said he’s noticed the benefits of a more educated backcountry user group in recent years.
“They help lost people get back to the ski area from time to time,” Sahlfeld said.
3 p.m. Volunteer patrol members begin their intermittent yells of “Ski area’s closing!” and pro patrollers make the final sweeps.
At the end of the day, patrollers gather in the A-frame to share their aid reports and maybe a few beers. Those who live in Glacier and Maple Falls eventually head home, but Andy and two other patrollers man the fort and get ready for another snowy day on skis. The storm cycle continues. x