Intentional Avalanche Destroys Crystal Mountain Chairlift

Mar 12, 2014

An avalanche destroyed a chairlift at the Crystal Mountain resort near Mount Rainier on Monday afternoon when the resort was closed. The avalanche was intentionally set off by the resort's ski patrol and no one was hurt.

Despite the destruction, patrollers say they have no regrets.

Ski areas routinely trigger avalanches to stabilize the snowpack before skiers and snowboarders arrive, but there's no guarantee any avalanche will go where they want it to. Crystal Mountain, for example, had triggered several avalanches the day before the one that took out the chairlift.

In this video filmed on Sunday, Crystal Mountain ski patroller Kim Kircher and her husband John Kircher, who owns the resort, watch a patrol-triggered slide take out trees.

"Kim? It's huge," he says.

"Oh my god," she replies. Then, "Uh oh," as trees crack in the distance.

Explosives In A Snow Saucer

Kim Kircher was part of a three-woman team that set off a 25-pound explosive on one of Crystal's highest slopes on Monday afternoon.

The three ski patrollers hiked up a ridge above the mountain bowl called The Throne. They put the 25-pound explosive and its 90-second fuse on a plastic snow saucer.

With a rope, they lowered the explosive down the slope and took shelter behind the ridge, then behind a tree. To protect their eardrums from the blast, they plugged their ears and opened their mouths.

Kim Kircher said she knew something was different about this avalanche as soon as the blast went off.

It was just a thundering, ripping sound. Then I heard the timber breaking--there’s nothing like that sound. It’s very distinctive: "Oh yeah, there’s trees breaking. This is going big, you guys." And then we hear the sound of twisted metal, and we think, "Uh oh. We hit the chair."

Kircher said she'd never seen such a destructive avalanche in her 25 years patrolling at Crystal Mountain.

The slide toppled the resort's High Campbell lift, as ski patrollers discover to their (expletive-laden) dismay in the video below. Replacing the lift will cost about $1.75 million, according to Crystal Mountain officials.

Video contains strong language. 

Potential For More

Northwest Avalanche Center director Kenny Kramer said the center had only heard of one other large, slab avalanche in the Cascades in recent days: on Kendall Peak in the backcountry near Snoqualmie Pass.

"It tells me that we have the potential to see these large slides not just with a massive amount of explosives but also released naturally," Kramer said.

After a winter of long dry spells, Crystal Mountain received nearly 10 feet of snow in February and as much as 6 inches of rain in the past six days. Rain falling on snow can make the snowpack heavier and more prone to slipping downhill.

Kramer said none of this winter's events are that unusual in the Cascades.

"When you link them all together, that's what makes it unusual," he said. "The fact we had these long, cold, dry spells gave us layering that is unusual for us."

Kramer said the snowpack in Monday's avalanche ripped apart at a layer of snow that had fallen back in December, but whose crystals had been transformed and weakened by the cold, dry nights in December and January.

Kim Kircher said, though the avalanche caused more than $1 million in damages, she wouldn't have done anything differently.

"We are glad we did it because we did it when it was unoccupied," she said. "We know that the chances of this happening during the day were high if we didn't do it."

Her husband was planning to replace the destroyed chairlift in the next five years. Now he plans to do so this summer.