By Steve Crowe, Mountain Safety Team Lead at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Ever wonder how ski hills get all that snow to stick to the slopes? Is it simply a cooperative quirk of nature that encourages pretty, frozen water particles to bond to the tilted earth, sometimes to absurd depths? Or do humans have to interfere to enforce that cooperation? Well, it can depend on where you ski. At Kicking Horse we humans have to do some persuading, and they way we do that is through bootpacking.
In very simple terms, snow slides down slopes when it doesn’t bond to the snow, or ground, below it. That’s called an avalanche, and those are very unpopular with resort managers. So they ask the mountain safety team to undertake the task of making the early season snow glue to our steep alpine bowls. This is a three-stage process:
Step 1: An avalanche control team tests the snow’s willingness to stay on an angle by throwing explosives from the ridge tops. The resulting concussion either shakes the snow so it tumbles to the valley bottom or it doesn’t. If it does, then we know what the problem layer is (usually a crust), and if it doesn’t, then we don’t know (maybe there is no problem, or maybe it is a problem uninfluenced by explosives).
Step 2: When it is deemed safe to enter the slope, we send one person at a time to ski cut the snow, hoping to penetrate down to the problem and release any remaining snow that would rather not stick around. Once obvious problems are solved, we release 10-20 ski cutters onto the slope to slash it up and destroy any layers near the surface.
Step 3: When we discover a deep crust layer near the ground that could be a potential problem sliding layer for the rest of the season, the final step involves taking off our skis and boards and walking in a zig zag down the slope trying to crush that layer as thoroughly as possible. This is called bootpacking and is very popular with resort visitors despite most of them having no idea it happens. But the skiing public actually does the work during the rest of the season. By skiing each successive layer to ribbons (after mountain safety deems it safe), large-scale, inbounds avalanche hazard is continually kept at a very-unlikely-to-happen level.
So come appreciate and enhance the efforts of Kicking Horse’s bootpackers this season. Their efforts are certain to be worth your while.