Ridge Merino Founder Jeff Russell got the chance to ride along with Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol (MMSP) to assist with avalanche control during the snowiest month the mountain has ever seen. Here is his recap...
It was 5 a.m. on a chilly, overcast morning in early January on what was supposed to be the first clearing in nearly two weeks of relentless snowstorms to hit the Eastern Sierra.
I thought back to a month prior when I attended the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center’s annual fundraiser. I had bid on, and won, a morning of avalanche control at Mammoth Mountain.
My excitement started to build. This morning, I would be bombing the mountain with the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol (MMSP) crew.
We gathered at Mammoth Mountain's Main Lodge. After the daily briefing from the MMSP Director, I was paired up with Matt Irons, a 10-year veteran, as my guide. Our initial crew included Glen Plake, a Mammoth ambassador that volunteered to come help get the mountain ready, myself and 6-8 members of MMSP. We all loaded into a snow cat for the ascent up the hill.
It was dumping and completely dark, so I had no idea where we were headed. We stopped at a mid-mountain bunker which contained the supplies we needed for our mission. Like clockwork, the MMSP team immediately hopped out and worked together to clear the snow around the structure, organizing the explosives we'd be deploying.
Our assignment: throw charges into the permanent closure above Roger’s Ridge and then into the Bear. Our crew of patrollers quickly stomped their way in the dark to each spot that needed to be bombed. They would light the two-minute fuse and huck the bomb over the cliff before moving on to the next area. After clearing the ridgeline, we skied the untracked powder in the Bear to another cat, which was waiting at Chair 2 to run us back up.
Matt Irons preparing the fuse
With the lower mountain cleared, the top - which hadn't been opened in more than a week - was next on the list. We staged at McCoy and waited for operations to load the cars on the cable so we could ride to the summit. It was amazing to see how much teamwork was involved in getting the top open. All of the signs and gates - hundreds of them – that were taken down before the last storm, needed to go back up. They needed to be removed from storage, loaded into the gondy, brought to the top, unloaded again and then placed back on the mountain - all in an effort to keep skiers/snowboarders in the boundaries of the resort and aware of dangerous conditions.
Getting to the top was interesting. Since it's usually only open if there is decent visibility, I can honestly say this is the first time I rode the gondy when it was engulfed in a complete veil of clouds. It was surreal.
In addition to the many signs and markers we had planned to redistribute at the top, our gondy was crammed with backpacks - all full of hand charges for avi control. At one point, with no warning, the gondy doors opened and a member of the MMSP calmly dropped two big berthas (four explosives taped together) with a fuse light straight down, into Climax.
Our gondola descends back into the clouds after dropping us at the Top Station.
Sitting next to the open door. In a white out. Hundreds of feet in the air as bombs detonated beneath us was unnerving, to say the least.
We finally reached the top. There was easily 20 feet of snow that had yet to be groomed. The snow cats, hard at work on the lower mountain, still needed to make new paths up the mountain. Everything needed to be cleared.
So we went to work.
The first thing we did was carve out the staircase, which usually goes down but was now level with the main floor. The snow was beginning to bury the gondola building, so we dug out the exit and the web cam, as well.
Climbing up, to get out of the Gondy building
It was amazing to see the raw state of the mountain at 11,000’ after a 20-foot storm and realize the amount of work the MMSP does on a daily basis just to make the resort operational, never mind on these extreme weather days. I had always admired the work they did, but this once-in-a-lifetime experience allowed me to – at least partially – understand and appreciate it even more. Tons (and tons) more snow has fallen on Mammoth since my avi control experience on that socked-in January morning... and the good work continues in an effort to keep the mountain open for all to enjoy.
A huge thanks to MMSP for hosting me and for everything they do to allow us to ski pow and stay safe, especially during this relentless, record-setting season in the Eastern Sierra!
"It was amazing to see the raw state of the mountain at 11,000’ after a 20-foot storm and realize the amount of work the MMSP does on a daily basis to make the resort operational. I had always admired the work they do, but this once-in-a-lifetime experience allowed me to – at least partially – understand and appreciate it even more." - Jeff Russell, CEO/Founder Ridge Merino
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