Willamette Pass avalanche expert: 'I know the bad spots'

Willamette Pass avalanche expert: 'I know the bad spots'

WILLAMETTE PASS SKI AREA, Ore. - For ski patrollers like John Fischer, the day starts before 8 a.m. Fresh snow on the mountain means great skiing - and new dangers.

"What we'll do first is check the weather and what's been going on for the last 24 hours," said Fischer, the avalanche advisor at Willamette Pass. "Anytime we get more than 2 inches of snow an hour or 12 inches in 24 hours, we're worried about avalanches."

Fischer has been patrolling this mountain for 19 years. His main job is preventing avalanches from happening.

"I know the bad spots," Fischer said. "We'll go out along what we call dragon's back ridge and kick cornices."

Fischer said there are two main techniques Willamette Pass ski patrollers use to prevent avalanches on steeper runs.
The first is triggering mini-avalanches when nobody's nearby.

"The snow builds up into big sort of refrigerator-car sized chunks," Fischer said. "We'll kick those down onto the slope. If they trigger an avalanche, if they trigger a slide, then that's an easy way to test for stability."

The other is ski cutting.

"If you ski across it in a careful, controlled way - we'll be on a rope - that cut will trigger the snow to slide down below you," Fischer said.

Some ski areas even resort to blasting hills with artillery to keep skiiers safe.

Avalanche prevention work is especially vital after huge snowfalls like the one this past week in Oregon.

"The number one reason for avalanches here is it snowed a whole bunch and it snowed so fast that the snow couldn't settle so it slid down the hill," Fischer said.

And it's up to patrollers like Fischer to keep those slides from turning deadly.

"We may trigger four or five small slides," he said, "slides that would be dangerous if we didn't do the control work."