Fresh powder, fresh danger of avalanche
TRUCKEE – It’s 4:30 a.m. Friday morning. Awakened by the howling of coyotes in the back yard, you glance out your window to discover that 6 inches of fresh snow have fallen overnight, blanketing Truckee in a shroud of white.
Hoping to get some fresh tracks before the weekend crowds arrive, you set your alarm clock for 7:30 a.m., so you can get your gear together and make it to the mountain by 8:30 a.m., when the first lifts start running.
Mornings like this remind many Truckee residents of why they live in the mountains, but for the 28 men and women who make up the Alpine Meadows Ski Patrol, the new snow means it’s time to go to work.
Keeping the mountain safe for Alpine Meadows’ guests is always a challenge, but never more so than after a heavy storm system has dumped a layer of new snow on the mountain, elevating the avalanche danger to extreme levels.
On days with significant snowfall the night before, 364 avalanche paths must be controlled before all areas on the mountain can be opened to resort guests, a task that has Avalanche Director Gary Murphy in the patrol room by 5 a.m. on powder days.
Murphy begins his day by taking a look at the weather data recorded at the resort during the previous 24 hours. Snow totals, temperature readings, wind speeds and other factors all get compiled into an avalanche forecast for the day, which Murphy then shares with the other patrollers gathered in the ski patrol headquarters.
While Murphy and Assistant Avalanche Director Gene Urie come up with an avalanche forecast, other patrollers are preparing the dynamite to be used on the mountain to trigger small-scale slides in the hopes of preventing major ones. In their battle to prevent avalanches within the resort’s boundaries, Alpine’s patrollers can carry as much as 600 pounds of explosives onto the hill.
While hiking along alpine ridges with 30 pounds of explosives stashed in one’s backpack may not sound like fun to everybody, the chance to do avalanche forecasting and prevention is a big part of the attraction of working for the Alpine ski patrol, according to Larry Heywood, Alpine’s director of mountain operations.
“I think what keeps guys coming back here is the avalanche problem and the exhilaration of those storms,” Heywood said. “There’re a lot of rewards in that, though certainly they’re not financial. We’re lucky that we have a good strong patrol and turnover is relatively low.”
Though maintaining a solid group of experienced patrollers has become more difficult for Alpine and other Tahoe resorts because of the high cost of living in this region, patrollers at Alpine enjoy the sense of camaraderie among the group and the freedom to work outdoors during the winter.
Ray Belli, Alpine’s current ski patrol director, summed up what has kept him on the patrol for more than 30 years: “The enjoyment, the outdoors, the challenge; and it’s just an interesting type of workplace and something I like to do,” he said.
Senior Patroller Sean McAllister agreed: “Just being into mountaineering, the backcountry, and things like that … that’s how I got into it. …”
Working as a ski patroller during the winter often means making a financial sacrifice, as patroller pay rates have not kept up with the area’s cost of living. But the seasonal nature of the work does allow many patrollers to work as carpenters, firefighters or at other seasonal jobs during the summer months.
Though the financial rewards of the job aren’t great, Alpine’s patrollers do receive other perks, including season passes for family members and equipment deals on skis, bindings, backpacks and other gear.
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