Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows is upping the ante for the 2017-18 ski and snowboard season with a $4 million investment in the resort’s snow safety program.
The resort has leased an Astar 350 B3 helicopter, purchased four new avalaunchers, and nearly tripled the size of the its Gazex remote avalanche control system, also known as dragons.
“When it’s all said and done, all these tools support us in being safe and efficient in what we do,” Ken Bokelund, Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol director, said in a statement. “We’re here to get the mountain open. That’s what we live for and we want to do it as safely and efficiently as possible. I’m really excited coming into the season with what we have available to us.”
After a record season of snowfall, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows will come into the upcoming season more prepared for the Sierra Nevada’s big winter storms.
“Last season was a real challenge for us; we learned a lot. We received 728 inches during the season, and a lot of that came in January and February, so we got a big, heavy punch,” Will Paden, Squaw Valley Ski Patrol director, said in a statement.
“We did 56 days of avalanche control, which averages out to something like one out of every three days we showed up to work. For the newer folks on the patrol last year, just the sheer amount of avalanche control was a real learning experience for them.”
In order to deal with potential risks during heavy snow periods, the resort leased an Astar 350 B3 helicopter from Skydance Helicopters of Minden.
The helicopter will be used for avalanche control at both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows after major snow cycles, according to information from the resort, and will make the resort the only one in California, and one of a few in North America, to use a helicopter as part of its snow safety program.
The helicopter will be piloted by one or two professional Skydance pilots and staffed by specifically trained patrol team members, according to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Public Relations Director Liesl Hepburn, and will be equipped with baskets to transport ski equipment.
The helicopter will be onsite at Squaw during the high season, but will be available to be called up from Minden if necessary.
Fire Breathing Dragons
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has also installed 13 new Gazex remote avalanche control systems. The systems explode an oxygen/propane gas mixture, which creates a concussive blast to remotely trigger avalanches.
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows became the first California resort to install the technology, according to a statement from the resort, when it utilized the dragons in 2015.
The resort will have eight new dragons placed near the ridge above Alpine Meadows Road and five within the resort’s boundaries, which gives the resort the largest system in use at any ski resort in North and South America.
“What’s great about the dragons is we can set them off at any time. So we don’t have to wait for light, we can do it in the middle of the night. Groomers can keep grooming safely at night and help keep work roads open so the rest of the team can access the mountain too,” Bokelund said.
“This is a big advantage on Alpine Meadows Road, too. We can set them off routinely as the snow piles up, during times when our guys and gals can’t access those areas safely. We’ll be able to maintain access on Alpine Meadows Road more safely and efficiently: it’s exciting for our guests and staff, and our neighbors.”
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows will introduce two new avalaunchers each at Squaw and Alpine. The avalaunchers use compressed nitrogen to fire an explosive projectile in order to trigger avalanches and control snowpack from a safe distance.
Alpine Meadows has traditionally used avalaunchers, according to the resort, but this season will be the first in many years that Squaw Valley will use them.
“We’ve seen how they’ve worked at Alpine, and we’re sold on it. The technology has really come a long way,” Paden said.
“I think for us it’s going to be a very defensive tool, meaning that during big storms we’ll be able to shoot it late in the day to mitigate for the safety of our patrollers so the next day when they go in, we’ve already done control work on there.”
During the summer and fall months, Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows sent leaders from its mountain operations departments to train with the Karakoram Group, which comprised seasoned special operations professionals and veterans from elite organizations that have helped lead the fight on the global war on terror.
Members of the resort’s lift operations, lift maintenance, grooming, ski patrol, and snow-making departments have been working with the Karakorum Group to identify ways in which they can optimize their operations. “The mountain operations mindset is similar to that of a Navy Seal: high-adrenaline and self-challenging,” Dave Cooper, founder, chief strategy officer and chief of operations for Karakoram Group, said in a statement.
“They work in a complex and challenging environment, from lift maintenance hammering rime ice off lift towers, to groomers winching their cats up terrifically steep slopes, to ski patrol hiking along ridge lines to perform snow control. They are passionate about what they do and they hold themselves and their teams accountable.”
Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows said it will employ more than 2,600 people for the 2017-18 season, which would be the most in resort history.