Keeping skiers safe in all terrain – Snow safety team’s long days protect guests

snow safety avalanche
Nilsson and Piccininni ski cut chief as the sun rises. Photo SPIN.

My mug of tea is still steaming, abandoned on a table in the ski patrol clinic, when I ride up Sundance on a snowmobile. It’s only 6 a.m. and I’m jumping into the day head first.
Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) avalanche tech Dan Piccininni guides the machine up Rambler and stops beside a roped off area containing weather monitoring equipment. It’s one of three weather stations on the mountain, and the first of two we have been assigned to check.

His head lamp illuminates two sticks which measure snow from different time periods, one from a recent storm and one from the past 24 hours.

snow safety avalanche
Piccininni checks the snowfall in the early morning hours. Photo SPIN.

He quickly checks temperatures and total snow height, carefully recording them in his notebook. Within a few minutes we are back on the sled headed to the mid-mountain weather station to do it all again.

Piccininni or “Peach,” as he is referred to by his colleagues, has been a member of SPR Ski Patrol since 2009, first as a volunteer then moving into a paid position in 2015.

Detailed notes are kept from all three weather stations multiple times a day. Photo SPIN.

He is part of a small snow safety team whose days start early, end late and pack in a lot in between in order to keep guests safe.

After the second station we head to the Top of the World where the “Snow World” (avalanche office) is located. We meet the rest of the team and get to work entering the data into extensive spreadsheets dating back to 2013.

All of the data the team collects is entered into a shared program called InfoEx, accessed by other resorts and operations across the province.

They need to enter an avalanche rating for the day but it isn’t as easy as just assigning a number. The techs discuss wind, recent snow and weather, types of snow, concerning layers they’ve uncovered and more.

The conversation is guided by avalanche forecaster Kit Nilsson, one of the founders of the program five years ago.

“I’m training these guys to do my job,” Nilsson said. “What I’m trying to do is get people to think for themselves. Have them think about the big picture, getting them to problem solve and getting them to think for themselves is important.”

And it shows. He asks questions that force the techs to think and justify their responses, guiding them to an answer everyone feels comfortable with.

The team works together closely to assign a rating and decide on a course of action. Photo SPIN.

With a rating set we head back outside as the sun rises, moving towards the run Chief. As a team we “ski cut” most of the run by traversing back and forth while hopping or jumping in an attempt to get the snow to release and slide down harmlessly before skiers are on the slope for the day.

With three of us cutting it takes four passes to cover most of the run. As we work Nilsson decides the Gil’s area needs to be closed for avalanche control. Forty three centimetres of snow has fallen in just a few days and he thinks a few pitches in the area have the potential to slide.

Closing the large area isn’t an easy task. Patrollers race against the clock to put up rope lines, close gates, change signs and update SPR before public loads the Crystal chair.
Nilsson’s day often involves challenges such as this, budgeting enough time for each task with a small team.

Our next job is to dig out the storage magazines which contain parts to create explosives.
With bombs carefully constructed and ready, we make our way into Gil’s. It’s only the second time this season they’ve used explosives for avalanche control.

Nilsson collects parts needed to make explosives. Photo SPIN.

Skiing within the boundary is relatively safe, especially compared to resorts with more severe avalanche terrain. But as the resort grows and the boundary is pushed back it’s important the program is well established in advance.

“It’s set up so if we expand the boundary we have an avi program in place that can mitigate any hazard associated with avalanche terrain,” Nilsson said. “It’s a good opportunity to show what we can do in small terrain.”

They use explosives for three main reasons: If a slope has potential to bury a ski cutting patroller, to hit deep unstable layers in the snowpack and to disperse energy over a wider area than one skier can.

Four are set off in total, two in Inner Gil’s and two on Skunk with some small results. We go back to Snow World to complete the paperwork that comes with the fun of blowing
things up.

Piccininni prepares an explosive in the Gil’s. Photo SPIN.

A difficulty that comes from a day like this is some members of the skiing public. At least one skier ignored warnings and guards placed on the boundary and others expressed frustration the area’s opening was delayed.

But Nilsson said he’s seen an increase in guests venturing into the backcountry and has heard from many who believe there aren’t any avalanches at or near Sun Peaks.

“A lot of people, around here especially, don’t think of Sun Peaks as an avi area,” said another avalanche tech. “But as soon as you go outside the boundary it’s uncontrolled terrain and that’s where the natural and skier caused avalanches are going to happen. As soon as they cross that rope the responsibility is on them.”

The rest of our day is spent meeting with other patrol members, responding to first aid calls and collecting more weather information.

For Peach one of the most challenging parts of being on the team is balancing the role with other patrol responsibilities. The mountain still needs to be swept nightly and patients need to be helped off the mountain.

“The most rewarding part…is a toss up between teaching people specialized skills like weather or companion rescue and watching it really click for them, or doing control work and getting results,” said Piccininni. “All the work is worth it when you get a guest (especially with a family) who goes out of their way to thank you for the work you do.”