BEAVER CREEK, Colorado - The sounds of explosives and sliding snow is the sound of a ski resort working hard to open extreme terrain.
At Beaver Creek, where about 80 percent of the mountain is already open, ski patrol and its snow blasting experts are throwing charges onto steep slopes such as the Stone Creek Chutes in anticipation of opening that terrain. It's one of hundreds of jobs the ski patrol team at the resort is tasked with daily.
Beaver Creek Ski Patrol Snow Safety Director Jeff Thompson threw one-pound charges onto The Glade in the Upper Stone Creek Chutes Friday morning. And while the pillows of light, fluffy powder might look prime for skiing, the aftermath of the small blasts - which produced small avalanches and cracks in the snow - shows why the chutes aren't yet ready to open.
Working on snow safety is something happening far behind the scenes at Beaver Creek. It's something that begins almost as soon as the snow falls.
"If we don't get on it right away, it might start to rot and it might get to a point to where we can't manipulate it and potentially get it open," Thompson said. "It's really important for us, as we get the snow, to get in there as we can and start working it."
"Working" the snow means everything from two-stepping to ski-cutting to boot-packing. Sometimes the work means the patrollers will take off their skis and walk up and down the runs in order to stabilize and pack down the snow.
Rose Bowl is a great example of the work that goes into terrain openings. Thompson said if they had let Rose Bowl sit for another four or five days, the conditions would have deteriorated.
"We were able to get that open when it was really nice skiing," he said. "We got it skied-in now - there's a really good base and we're ready for new snow on top of it."
It's a busy time of year for ski patrol because the mountain is not 100 percent open. They're doing their everyday duties of responding to on-mountain emergencies and medical calls, but they're also constantly thinking about which terrain to open next.
"It takes so much work to open terrain," said Beaver Creek spokeswoman Jen Brown. "It's constant."
Besides just working the snow, ski patrol is coordinating with all of the resort's on-mountain departments in preparation of terrain openings. They have to know where grooming is occurring, where it's not occurring, where the snowmaking is happening and each and every ingress and egress route. It's tiresome work to those looking on from the outside, but for these mountain operations crews, the work is pure joy.
While the adrenaline rush of throwing a charge onto a slope and waiting two minutes for it to blow has worn off, the enjoyment and excitement that changes practically by the minute never goes away for patrollers like Thompson.
Thompson has expert avalanche training, medical training and explosives training, among other skills. He's been on the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol for 15 years - that's why guys like him are in Stone Creek Chutes right now, even as they warn others of the dangers in there.
Stone Creek Chutes feature 18 prominent chutes within the trees, all on slopes with angles higher than 35 degrees. Each and every chute is capable of sliding, Thompson said.
So Thompson and the other blasters and patrollers are looking at the snow crystals from the ground up. They decide if going out there to do snow work is practical. For example, sometimes the work means the snow gets lost, although sometimes the best work the patrol can do is to purposely lose snow.
Last year was that kind of year. It was better to knock down the weak, rotten snow that fell early on in the season and let new layers build because the conditions were so dangerous.
"It's just a constant conversation," Thompson said. "I talk to all the blasters. ... Every day, we're just reassessing what do we need to do today."
Thompson feels good about the current conditions on the mountain. Crews knocked down the early snow and got slopes ready for the last few storms that have come through in the last week or so, he said. The major concern over at Stone Creek Chutes, in addition to continued avalanche and snow stability work that needs to be done, is the egress at the bottom - it's a boulder field and needs more coverage.
He said after another round of eight one-pound charges through the area bombed Friday, ski patrol will be ready for their next move: To safely start moving through the terrain and putting tracks through it.
"You can't just throw one big charge in here and say it's good," Thompson said. "You have to control that little pocket, that little pocket - you try to aim for certain spots, and you want that area of influence to overlap."
The last step of the terrain-opening process is marking obstacles and closures. When patrol is out doing that, the opening is near.
While Thompson can't yet say how soon Stone Creek Chutes or other difficult and extreme terrain at Beaver Creek will open, he is optimistic.
"We're in a good spot," he said.
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.