A lot, it turns out. While ski resorts make it their mission to give guests the best on-snow experience possible, on a big powder day, the logistics involved in doing just that ramp up considerably. From plowing parking lots to making sure lifts are spinning, from grooming beginner terrain to performing avalanche control work, the coordination required to open a ski hill is multi-layered, not to mention pressure-packed. At Marmot Basin, when giddy guests arrive to hop on the first chair at 9 a.m., dozens of staff members have been hard at work for hours, preparing the ski area so hundreds, if not thousands of powder hounds can get their fill.
The last big dump was January 3, when Marmot was blessed with almost 40 cms in 24 hours. Together with mountain operations supervisor, Rob Ellen, the Jasper Local looked back on that adrenaline-soaked day to piece together what goes on behind the storm.
5 p.m. Before the Storm
Thanks to high-tech computer modelling, big weather is never a
complete surprise, but although Ullr puked twice as much pow as was being called for, the day before it hit, forecasters at Marmot Basin definitely knew a storm was brewin'. When they see heavy snow in the near future, avalanche control staff alert the grooming team. The reason? So grooming cats don't enter dangerous terrain. A lot of snow can fall during the groomers' 3:30 p.m. - 2 a.m. shifts; with no avalanche control present, it's safer to postpone their high-alpine duties.
2 a.m. Socked In
If the grooming team is seeing big snow during their stint, they'll
make adjustments to their schedule, delaying their corduroy treatment on the beginner slopes so the flattest terrain gets attended to last.
"Beginners often have trouble with deep powder," Ellen explains, crunching on a chicken finger. "If we finish grooming the beginner runs, it makes it a more conducive product for everybody."
6 a.m. Up and At 'Em
Near the vehicle maintenance building, a stake protrudes from the snow. Unless you knew it was there you'd walk right by it, but what it tells the 6 a.m. staffers goes a long way in determining whether skiers and snowboarders are going to have a great snow day or an unbelievable snow day. It also determines whether the grooming staff are going to have a good sleep or a bad one.
"Anything over eight centimetres on that stake and we call two cats back in," Ellen says.
While 8 cms in three hours means that intermediate and advanced riders will be getting face-shots, it also means that beginners will doing face-plants. The sleep-deprived grooming crew help mitigate the powder floundering by pounding out the easier trails.
7 a.m. The Big Push
Maintenance staff, who double as Marmot's snow removal crew, are now focused on getting the snow cleared from the vehicle traffic areas. Access to the lower chalet, as well as the parking lots, becomes their priority. Meanwhile, Parks Canada has plowed the road from Jasper right up to the resort's leasehold.
"We have a very good working relationship with Parks Canada," Ellen says. "They get the road to the mountain cleared and sanded."
Avalanche Control has also been hard at work since they arrived a half-hour earlier. Their initial observations (overnight accumulation, forecast) is relayed to marketing's eager ears before the data are used to address whatever avalanche issues that may be mounting. Over at lift-ops, millwrights and electricians are starting their snowmobiles to perform their daily checks. In a huge snowfall, the machines can become bogged down.
"Just getting to the office can be a challenge," Ellen says.
8 a.m. All Hands on Deck
When the staff bus arrives and parking staff, lift operators,
cafeteria personnel, ticket vendors and rental attendants disgorge, shovels are divvied out to those whose hands aren't otherwise occupied. The chalet is dug out, starting with high foot-traffic areas and ending with the sun decks. Lift operators will take over for lift maintenance staff, who have been removing snow from bull wheels and chairs, while transportation staff will assist with clearing parking lots, building snow berms and directing traffic. By this time, guests are starting to trickle in. Any obstruction between the lower gate and the parking lots could be disastrous.
"At that point the pressure's on," Ellen says. "People are on their way."
8:30 a.m. Powder Frenzy
Anyone who's been lucky enough to be in the parking lot at 8:30 a.m. on a powder day knows the feeling: powder frenzy. Never mind anticipation and excitement, there exists an irrational need to boot up and get to the lift before the other people around you. Goggles are forgotten. Keys are locked in cars. Children are left behind. All of this buzzing energy is not lost on operations staff, nor are they immune to it.
"There's an elevated level of excitement," Ellen says. "For guests and for staff."
9 a.m. Lift Off
When the rope finally drops and the first guests are swooped up by the chairlift, those skiers and snowboarders who've been standing in line for 30 minutes will feel a wave of relief, a heady rush that the wait is finally over.
And while their whoops of delight will certainly be warranted, a
different kind of satisfaction will be coursing through the minds of those who've been at the mountain for three hours: that of a job well done, a deadline met, a disaster avoided.
"The level of coordination inherent [in opening the ski resort] on a powder day is quite amazing," Ellen says. "It involves so many different staff with so many different roles and responsibilities."
While he didn't get to shred powder on January 3, Ellen was stoked just the same.
"That day went really well," he says.