Kirkwood, California (PressExposure) March 11, 2011 -- Kirkwood Mountain Resort's 500 inches of annual snowfall and high base elevation allow for some of the deepest, driest powder conditions in the Sierra. Heavy storms often drop feet of snow in a single day and sometimes ten feet or more before the weather clears. While the caches and cornices formed over Kirkwood's two miles of ridgeline and steep wide open bowls add to the appeal for powder hounds and extreme skiers, they can result in avalanches when left to accumulate.
Recent in-bounds avalanches at well-known resorts have ski areas nationwide re-thinking their own avalanche safety measures. Kirkwood has maintained a stellar safety record, without a single avalanche-related death, since its opening in 1972. Ski patrol intends to keep it that way by embracing top of the line technology, increasing guest awareness and adapting snow safety measures in response to on-hill snow conditions at any given time.
"We rely on extensive training, well-planned safety and response programs and a certain degree of good fortune when dealing with avalanche danger. Any step in the right direction in terms of equipment or education ups our odds of finding our patrollers, or our guests, alive and unharmed in the event of a slide," says Director of Mountain Operations Dave Myers. Left unmanaged, Kirkwood's slopes present a Class A avalanche danger-without mitigation efforts, slides could potentially reach the lower slopes and threaten base area buildings.
Patrollers focus their efforts on roughly 22 established snow safety routes, working sequentially to maximize safe terrain available to the public once the lifts turn. Some areas may remain closed for a day or longer to ensure the appropriate precautions are taken, but the public response is generally one of gratitude. After hearing the blasts of hand charges or artillery, or witnessing a large slab break loose and rumble down the hill, guests often gain respect for the reality of in-bounds avalanches.
New Technology for 2010/11
Kirkwood has purchased a fleet of 42 Backcountry Access Float 30 avalanche airbags and Tracker 2 beacons for use by ski patrol. Both products, manufactured by Backcountry Awareness (BCA), improve survival rates over today's most widely used technology. Still in its infancy, float technology is a physical, not electronic, weapon against avalanche burials. The concept of the Float 30 is simple: if caught in an avalanche, pull the t-grip and a 150-liter airbag deploys out of the backpack and essentially "floats" the skier, now with increased mass, to the top of the slough as smaller debris fills in underneath. This decreases odds of a full burial and response time of potential rescuers due to increased visibility. BCA reports that in 98% of the recorded Float 30 deployments, the avalanche victims survived.
According to Kirkwood's Snow Safety Manager, Rick Newberry, "Kirkwood chose the Tracker2 avalanche beacon because of its ease-of-use and robust design. And we went with the Float 30 for three reasons: avalanche airbag technology is proven to prevent burial, the compressed air cylinders are fast and easy to refill and they're affordable when compared to other models available." "Kirkwood's snow safety program is ahead of the curve," said BCA marketing VP Bruce Edgerly. "They set an example in our industry. So we're extremely excited and honored that they've chosen our products for their patrol." Expedition: Kirkwood will also incorporate the Float 30 into its backcountry and in-bounds tours. The Float 30, Tracker 2 beacon and other backcountry essentials are available for purchase at Kirkwood Mountain Sports and demo through Expedition: Kirkwood Outfitters.
Avalanche Education and Awareness is the First Step in Averting Disaster
Untracked powder runs and exquisite scenery beckon backcountry enthusiasts to adventure past Kirkwood's resort boundaries to the Mokelumne Wilderness and Silver Lake basin. Thunder Bowl, California Chute and the West Shore areas, among others, offer some of Tahoe's most coveted backcountry lines but must be approached with the utmost caution-with ski patrol unavailable for assistance and avalanche threats left untouched beyond resort boundaries, proper education and preparedness is the best defense against an epic ski day becoming unduly dangerous.
Expedition: Kirkwood is pleased to offer resort-based, progressive skills clinics, avalanche preparedness courses and guide services. In addition to basic, one day backcountry awareness courses, E:K partners with AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) to offer multi-day Level 1 and Level 2 avalanche certification courses. While not a substitute for good judgment, these courses provide classroom instruction and the opportunity to apply the skills on the hill under the watchful eye of an expert instructor.