Resort approaching same total snowfall as all of last year
By Alissa Johnson
There was a period of time on Monday that felt unreal: as snow pounded Crested Butte and the Gunnison Valley, word of closures kept coming from Crested Butte Mountain Resort (CBMR). First, lifts that never opened. Then lifts that stopped running during the day. Finally, the resort closed early.
“Well folks, we officially #buriedthebutte,” a statement on Facebook read. “Due to the safety concern for our guests and employees, we are closing all lift operations for the day. We apologize for any inconveniences and Patrol and Mountain Ops are working as hard as they can to get up and running tomorrow.”
According to CBMR vice-president Erica Mueller, it was the only time the Mueller family has had to make such a decision in the 35 years it has been operating ski resorts. To her knowledge, it also hasn’t happened at CBMR before, but she hasn’t been able to confirm that.
“It was the rate of snow we were seeing, two to three inches an hour, which is a pretty intense snowfall. And in addition to that it was so warm, the snow was heavy and thick, as everyone can probably attest to that had to shovel… With those two things combined, things started to get sketchier,” she said.
Over a 48-hour period, the resort had received 30 inches of snow by 5 a.m. Tuesday.
Mueller explained that the East River lift never opened because of avalanche control work. Also due to avalanche concern, the High Lift and Headwall closed early, and the North Face Lift never opened. Red Lady also never ran because of frozen grips where the chair attaches to the haul rope.
“Those had snow and ice compacted in them,” Mueller said. That causes complications preventing the lift from turning on, and requiring that all the grips be de-iced.
Mueller says when it came to considering closing, one red flag came as employees started having a hard time getting around the mountain by snowmobile. “When your employees are having a hard time getting around to the lifts, that’s a big concern for us,” she said.
Finally, the Silver Queen stopped running due to an issue similar to one that caused a stoppage in December. The blowing wind and snow caused a safety mechanism to crack, which it is designed to do and, according to Mueller, a good thing because it lets the resort know that lift “is not communicating with itself” properly.
“At that point it was starting to get even sketchier. The snow wasn’t letting up and the winds were picking up even more, so we turned on the auxiliary motor, escorted everybody off, and decided for the safety of everybody and our employees that we needed to shut down early,” Mueller said.
In light of conditions, Mueller said the decision came down to safety. She was also adamant that the decision was not the result of or a reflection of the lift maintenance team or mountain operations, who were all working extremely hard to stay on top of the snow.
“We don’t want to run an operation where we feel there is a safety concern for our guests and employees. We will not [do that] and will shut down, and that was proven [on Monday],” Mueller said.
In fact, the snow has created significant challenges for ski patrol. Mueller confirmed that on two separate occasions, ski patrollers were caught in slides during the storm cycle: one on Flatiron on Sunday and one on Monument on Monday. That information was provided to the Crested Butte Avalanche Center.
“[This] is for public knowledge that conditions are dangerous out there. We need to ensure that people are well-informed of these dangers throughout the valley,” Mueller said.
According to information provided by director of snow safety Frank Coffey, a patroller was caught in an avalanche while ski cutting a slope on the lower Flatiron on Sunday. He was carried a short distance, buried to his waste and there was no injury.
On Monday, a patroller was involved in an explosive-triggered avalanche on Monument while standing in a spot that had previously been considered a safe zone (the route leader had never seen that area avalanche). The patroller deployed his air bag, was carried 200 feet down slope and buried waste deep, again with no injury.
“We are thankful there was no injury in either case. The extreme nature of this storm is definitely leading to rare circumstances,” Mueller said, noting that patrollers are encouraged to opt out and go to safer ground if they feel they are in danger.
By Tuesday, the resort reopened and by mid-day, Red Lady, Paradise, East River and all the terrain near Gold Link were open. East River and Paradise did open late due to control work, and the Silver Queen was on track to follow soon.
Looking to the rest of the season, it’s hard to deny that it’s been a big snow year. Mueller said the resort received 80 inches of snow between January 2 and Tuesday, which is roughly the equivalent of the depth of six and a half feet.
“We have been at the epicenter of every storm,” Mueller said, noting that Open Snow meteorologist Joel Gratz has always said that west/southwest storms favor Crested Butte. Sure enough, every storm has come from that direction.
Preparing for any snow that comes, Mueller says the insights from this experience primarily relate to guest service. “Operationally, I don’t know that we could do anything differently. The one thing we will improve on is communication and how to better communicate to our staff so our staff can communicate to guests,” she said.
As the snow continues to fall, Mueller added, Ski Patrol is working extremely hard and doing its best to ensure their own safety, he safety of guests. Director of Ski Patrol Bill Dowell emphasized that the resort is dealing with a lot of snow, approaching the same total snowfall that it saw all of last season.
“Guests should anticipate new terrain openings as soon as patrol has completed all necessary avalanche control work and has all appropriate ropes and signage in place. We need to treat all these new terrain features like backcountry areas and as such they need extensive snowpack testing to insure their stability before we are able to turn the public loose on them. Please be patient—it will be worth the wait!” Dowell said.