Anyone lucky enough to have made it up to either Lake Louise or Sunshine Village during opening week was probably greeted, back in town, by a barrage of questions about conditions. How was it? How is the base? Still rocky? Nicely groomed? Everyone is curious about conditions – about that base.
In a ski town the base becomes part of the town’s identity. The deeper the base, the more bragging rights. With the base hovering at about the half meter mark at both Sunshine Village and Lake Louise, the resorts have had a healthy start to the season but what many people don’t realize is that a lot of work goes into establishing that base.
Here in the Rockies we are known for our blue smoke powder, a very smooth, dry, airy-light snow, and while it is a dream to ski in – it presents a very unique challenge to operations at the ski hills. While a healthy base is constantly being compressed and compacted by skier traffic during the season, before opening the hills are forced to mimic that traffic in an attempt to establish a healthy base. They do this by ski packing.
Ski packing is a fancy term for sidestepping the entire length of the mountain. This may sound simple – there’s very little technique to it – but it is hard work. Skis are heavy. Snow covered skis are even heavier. Picture doing a high knee drill sideways down a rocky, sloped surface with 10 to 15 pound weights strapped to each foot. Hours then days are spent doing this. At Sunshine Village dozens of patrollers and trail crew will pack down entire sections of mountain side. This is how a solid week or two are spent preparing for opening day.
This scene – ski-packapalooza- is very particular to the Rockies. Just on the other side of the great divide, hills don’t go to these extreme efforts. West of here the snow cooperates a bit more. It holds more moisture so the weight of the snow itself makes ski packing unnecessary. The irony of it all is that the blue smoke powder we love to shred is made possible by cold dry days – the very same conditions that can lead to a relatively shallow and weak (meaning able to slide) snow pack. Those weaknesses are almost literally stomped out of the snow by ski packing. Compressing that powdery snow (which sometimes has the consistency of sugar in its underlayers) creates ground anchors and disrupts weak layers effectively creating a healthy base on which the rest of the seasons snowfall will accumulate.
So bring on the snow Mother Nature! We are ready!