The history of ski racing in Sun Valley is as rich and as impressive as anyplace in the country. And the future is looking pretty bright, too. It is as if the slopes of Baldy and Dollar were blessed by the ski gods, Ullr and Skadi, to groom the fastest and strongest skiers and snowboarders to ever ride on snow. Sun Valley has been home to the best in the alpine sports scene since shortly after inventing the world’s first chairlift back in the 1930s. It’s a tradition that’s staying strong and is proudly on display as Sun Valley hosts events like last weekend...
For the mountain community, February has been like Christmas Day over and over again. The gift? Snowstorm after snowstorm dumping the wonderful white stuff to the tune of more than 100 inches of snow this month – a record since records started being kept decades ago. And the month isn’t over yet.
There has been so much snow atop Baldy that the Ski Patrol shack is literally buried
What is a gift to recreationists, though, provides some pretty enormous challenges to the team keeping our winter white playground functioning and safe under extreme conditions. The outstanding men and women of Sun Valley Ski Patrol, mountain grooming, and lift operations deserve a huge shout out for the amazing work and long hours they have put it this month and over the course of this particularly snowy year.
When most of us are tucked snugly into our beds with visions of powder in our heads, Bald Mountain is alive with action. Well before dawn breaks over the eastern mountain ranges, some of the 53 members of Sun Valley’s storied Ski Patrol are on their way to work, commuting to elevation 9,150, to see what the latest storm wrought and assess what needs to be done. Much of the work this month has centered around avalanche mitigation given the big dumps that keep blanketing the mountain. Many of us have awoken to the big booms of dynamite exploding on top of the hill; an indication that Patrol is doing everything they can to provide the safest, most fun day possible for guests.
Following a huge snow dump, one of Ski Patrol’s primary duties is avalanche mitigation, often aided by explosives
An unprecedented 14 days this winter have been what Ski Patrol Director Mike Lloyd calls “early mornings,” and he isn’t kidding! On mornings when the team anticipates it will take extra time to get the mountain ready, lift operators show up to work at 6 a.m., well before the sun rises. They have to shovel out and prepare all the lifts and get them running – no small feat when the new snow is thigh deep. Ski Patrol is close behind, arriving at 6:30 a.m. “Usually we have maybe six early mornings a season,” Mike said. “There is nothing usual about this year, though.”
Sun Valley’s storied grooming division is also working around-the-clock to manage huge snow loads. Even on moderate slopes that groomers can normally climb, winches are being used to groom slopes that are covered in piles of powder. Keeping the runs in great shape is a, pardon the pun, uphill battle.
The snow stake on top of Baldy hasn’t seen action like this in a while! It truly is an unprecedented month in Sun Valley
But Mother Nature has proven too much even for the highly skilled members of Ski Patrol a few times this year. “This winter has been unprecedented for the length of the weather systems and the amount of precipitation they’ve brought,” Mike said. “There have been mornings when Assistant Patrol Director Mike Davis and snow safety pros like Skooter Gardiner go out to check out the Bowls and conclude Patrol simply can’t safely do our job given the amount of snow and wind. It’s impossible to make correct decisions in the kinds of conditions we’ve had. In my 42 years on Patrol, before this year we’ve closed the mountain three times total for one day each time. This season we have had to close the mountain three times already.”
He continued, “Patience and staying ready are the name of the game on days like that, though. If you let the wind calm down get some visibility, you can test it with the dynamite and start proper mitigation. Then, conditions can turn out really good.”
Keeping guests safe is mountain operations and Ski Patrol’s first priority and they have done an amazing job despite Mother Nature’s tough challenges
Assistant Patrol Director Mike Davis surveys the scene after a(nother) recent storm
Good communication is also the name of the game and it takes a great deal of teamwork to keep things running in adverse conditions. “We are constantly talking to Sun Valley’s Head of Mountain Operations Peter Stearns and the folks in charge of lift operations and grooming,” Mike explained. “For instance, earlier this week the wind was so strong we were talking to lift operations continuously about trees we were worried could fall near lifts and other concerns relevant to guest enjoyment and safety.”
The worst part of the winter for Mike? “Shoveling!” he laughed. “Endless shoveling. It’s also been a huge chore to raise our boundary ropes and pads every day. They keep getting buried.” The best part? “Our mountain users, of course. Everyone knows that safety is our top priority. Many people in mountain operations are putting in long, hard hours and on Ski Patrol, there are no days off right now. A lot of patrollers have been working seven days a week and it’s intense, physical work. We just want to make sure our guests have the best experience possible in all this amazing snow. It really is a winter to remember.”
Mike Lloyd has just about had it with shoveling this winter, but the skiing has been epic!
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