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Copper Mountain volunteer boot packers stomp trails to reduce avalanche danger and conserve snow

Crews at several Colorado ski areas spend early season weeks burrowing through powder to stabilize snowpacks
Volunteer boot packers work their way down Copper Mountain’s Spaulding Bowl on Dec. 13 in Summit County. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

COPPER MOUNTAIN – The hardy skiers shoulder their skis and wade into the waist-deep powder atop the steep Patrol Chute in Spaulding Bowl. Reed Ryan, the ski area’s snow safety boss, warns the crew of looming avalanche hazards.

“We may hear some whumpfs. We may see some cracking. That’s fine. That’s what we are here for,” he says as the line of boot packers begins stomping down one of the steepest lines at Copper Mountain.

They plug their ski boots deep into the snow, mixing the powder on the top layer with the sugary facets closer to the ground. When they’ve trampled Patrol Chute, they move over to the next. It’s a grueling day for the unpaid volunteers.

“But it’s fun and outside and so beautiful and I’m hanging with great people,” says John Murtha, a 48-year-old from Frisco who is finishing his second year boot packing at his home hill.

In 2015, Copper Mountain ski patrollers started recruiting volunteers to boot pack the ski area’s steepest terrain. There were about 20 skiers who signed up that first winter. Now there are 75 and a long waiting list. Most of the skiers keep coming back every winter.

Boot packing is an important part of avalanche mitigation at other ski areas like Aspen Highlands, Crested Butte and Silverton Mountain. Steep ski areas have long enlisted volunteers who wade through snow in exchange for passes or lift tickets. Their boots stabilize snowpacks through compaction, mixing up the snowpack to reduce the risk of catastrophic slides.

Keeping the snow where the skiers need it

There’s another, overlapping purpose of boot packing: snow conservation.

“We want to keep the snow up where we can ski it,” says Bill Blair, a former Copper Mountain ski patroller who now works as director of mountain operations. “Every flake is gold.”

By getting skiers stomping through steep snow, the chances of a big slide scouring a mountainside to dirt in January is reduced. That’s how it was in the old days: wait for the rotten early season snow to avalanche and then wait for more snow to fill in the avalanched slopes.

Now, ski patrollers direct a choreographed swirl of mitigation that includes digging pits, hurling bombs and directing snow-blending boot packers, all of which enable skiers to get into the steeps early in the season.

Copper Mountain patrollers have been able to open the mountaintop Spaulding Bowl with as little as 60 inches of snowfall. This season, they are still working in the bowl after 75 inches of snow. The season’s winds and long weeks of snowless, high-pressure weather systems have required additional mitigation efforts.

After the last big storm in late November, ski patrollers ski-cut Spaulding Bowl, carving diagonal tracks across open faces of snow. The dissected chunks help limit the potential of a massive slab of snow releasing.

As boot packers two weeks ago stomped down the steep lines on the south-facing slopes, a pair of patrollers were digging a pit on a north-facing slope. They were testing the snow to see how previous boot packing work has broken up the rotting, dangerous layer on the ground. Depending on what the snow pit reveals, the boot packers might be called back to the north-facing zone.

The snow-stomping crew typically winds down after the first of the year. They get a free pass for seven days of work. But where a ski pass is a big motivator at resorts like Aspen Highlands – where 15 days of boot packing earns a $3,000 Premier Pass – the Copper Mountain boot packers are not necessarily working for a ticket to ride lifts.

“They get to be behind the curtain a little bit and see how we operate,” says Ryan, who has hired six boot packers over the years to join the Copper Mountain patrol. “And they usually get a little bit of soft snow to ski.”

Atop Spaulding Bowl, the boot packers are happy to share some important tips. Like: tuck the gaiter under the cuff of your ski pants underneath the buckles of your boots to keep snow from sneaking into your boots. And clasp your buckles tight because they pop open when plugging deep snow. And sort of pre-step your hole before fully weighting your downhill leg, so you can get deep into the snow and reach those weak facets near the ground.

“This is kind of perfect boot packing snow,” Ryan says as the line of packers slowly descends Patrol Chute, most of them hip deep in powder.

At the bottom of the steep, Ryan makes the call to put on skis. After a couple minutes of sidestepping down, it’s time to ski and the packers stack tidy squiggles in the apron of snow beneath the chute.

Jim Bradley, a 33-year-old from Leadville, takes the opportunity beneath the ski tracks to ask Ryan and Blair about their favorite places to ski at Copper Mountain. He listens closely as they describe wooded nooks and hidden patches.

Bradley has boot packed at Copper Mountain for five winters. He likes how the work delivers insights into the snowpack before the backcountry season gets rolling. How else could he spend time in the north-facing Alpine without exposing himself to serious avalanche risks? And he likes listening to the Copper vets tell their stories.

“Just going on the different slopes and feeling the different snow packs at different angles, different sun exposure, different wind exposure, it really does help you get a kind of a feel, early season, for what the snowpack is gonna be like for the rest of the year,” he said. “And it’s so fun to hang with these very knowledgeable ski patrollers and pick their brains. Just so much information to glean, you know.”

Maria Leech is a full-time ski patroller at Breckenridge who enjoys skiing Copper Mountain. For the early season, she spends her days off from Breckenridge boot packing at Copper.

“Just one more lap to go,” she says on her seventh day, nibbling peanut noodles from a Tupperware container in the Copper patrol headquarters. “l get to see another patrol’s operations and it’s something to do outside before the skiing gets really good.”

Two years ago Murtha, the volunteer from Frisco, was rushed to Denver via Flight For Life after suffering a stroke. Now, he says, “I say yes to a lot of adventures.” Like boot packing.

“I mean, come on. Look at how beautiful this is,” he says, riding a chair up for his final lap of the day burrowing through precipitous powder. “I’m pretty lucky. I’m living life, baby!”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.

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