It’s every skier’s dream: to arrive at a resort just after a good storm, take one of the first lift rides up and ply delightfully fresh, powdery tracks. The reality, though, is that most of us can’t drop everything to chase storms. We have to plan a ski trip in advance. That means the odds of finding good snow, let alone a powder day (often defined as 6 or more inches of new snow), requires some strategizing.
The simplest trick (other than forking over a lot of money for a snowcat or heli-skiing trip, and even that’s no guarantee) is to pick a resort known for receiving prodigious amounts of snow.
But start talking to meteorologists and others who track snowfall, and it turns out that it’s not so simple. The vagaries of mountain weather mean that snow conditions in a couple of months are nearly impossible to predict accurately.
“I really hate planning trips too far in the future, because you never know what’s going to happen,” said Joel Gratz, a Boulder, Colo.-based meteorologist and co-founder of opensnow.com, which specializes in ski-targeted forecasting. “Hope isn’t in my vocabulary.”
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Short-term forecasting isn’t much easier. The craggy topography of mountainous terrain is partly to blame, as is the difficulty of measuring atmospheric moisture at mountain-top elevations and in the upper atmosphere. “A lot of the tricks of mountain forecasting come down to terrain and wind direction,” Gratz added.
GET TO KNOW YOUR BEST BETS
There is an elite club of U.S. resorts that average 500 or more inches of snow annually. They include Washington’s Mount Baker (655 inches); Alyeska in Alaska (650); Kirkwood (600) and Sugar Bowl (500) in California; Alta (560), Snowbird, Brighton and Solitude (500 each) in Utah; and Grand Targhee in Wyoming (500).
MAKE YOUR OWN LONG-TERM FORECAST
So how do you know what to expect if you’re looking to book trips far in the future, around a school vacation, say?
The Pacific Ocean’s weather patterns can sometimes tell you what sort of year to expect, but this year it is experiencing a neutral pattern, said Mark McLaughlin, a Lake Tahoe-based weather historian. The word “neutral” — which means that it is not an El Niño or La Niña year — sounds innocuous, but it means that the weather is especially difficult to predict for skiers.
So early-season weather may be your best guide, this year especially. Wait until December or January to choose a location, said Tony Crocker, a snow tracker who runs the bestsnow.net website. Then you’ll know which areas have gotten off to a good start. Using his logic, look to ski resorts along a swath of the Rockies from British Columbia to northern New Mexico, which have received above-average snowfall.
Picking a resort within driving distance on a short timeline increases the likelihood of finding good snow.
“Start getting a feel for the weather pattern 10 days out; then start planning details about five days out,” Gratz advised. “It’s hard to forecast confidently for powder more than two to three days out.”
To aid short-term planning, some resorts have added ways to more accurately track snow conditions in real time. Vail Resorts recently installed web cameras that broadcast live views of on-mountain snow-measuring stakes at seven of its ski areas (the stakes get cleared off between storms). Copper Mountain, in Colorado, has a live feed of its midmountain stake. This fall, the Aspen Skiing Co. installed four Swiss-made Roundshot panoramic cameras; it’s the only North American resort to have them. The cameras capture high-definition, 360-degree views of each of Aspen’s four ski areas.
In addition to reposting snowfall figures from its 14 member resorts on its website, Ski Utah added a custom weather forecast, updated daily by a local meteorologist.