Snow in the Pacific Northwest is a game of inches. The difference between a powder day with light, fluffy snow swirling around every turn and a washout where your Gore-Tex jacket is soaked before your first run is a matter of just a few degrees shift in the air temperature between elevations. It’s almost always above freezing at or near sea level where most of Western Washington makes its home, but will the mercury drop below 32 degrees up in the mountains in line with enough precipitation to coat the slopes in a fresh blanket of snow?
To answer that question, today’s powderhounds can carefully study long-range weather forecasts from the National Weather Service’s GFS model and the competing European model, check real-time snowpack data from the Northwest Avalanche Center, see the mountains up close on ski resort and national park webcams, and hear reports from a plethora of social media channels. But a quarter-century ago, few of those resources were easily accessible to the general public and Larry Schick, already a well-known weatherman from morning broadcasts on KING 5, pioneered the idea of independent snow forecasts with an emphasis on powder days.
Today, if you relish fresh snow and don’t have the time to put yourself through a crash course in atmospheric science, Schick’s Powder Alerts are still a must-read resource for Northwest skiers that, 25 years after the first forecast, now boast some 10,000 subscribers who tune in to the self-proclaimed Grand Poobah of Powder.
“I started subscribing a few years ago and I realized that this was exactly what I was missing: a plain English forecast of what’s happening on the mountains, with clear guidance on when to go and where,” said Bellevue resident Matti Suokko. “Many of us live busy lives and it is super hard at times to translate the local Seattle area weather and the mountain forecast into what is really happening on the mountains.”
In the early 1990s, Schick was the TV weatherman for KSTW in Tacoma, where he’d broadcast a weekly ski report. But the avid skier knew that once a week was practically worthless given how fast mountain weather can change in the Northwest, from rain one day to a multi-foot snowstorm the next.
An astute observer who felt he had a knack for predicting powder days, Schick reached out to the team behind the now-defunct Northwest Ski Reports website. Using a then newfangled technology called the internet, the crowdsourced web form encouraged Western Washington skiers to submit a report on the day’s ski conditions back in the days when you still had to call a ski resort’s “snow phone” to listen to a recorded line that likely upsold the quality of the day’s skiing.
“I suggested doing a weather forecast for their website,” Schick said via phone from his Seattle home on a mid-November day when he was tinkering with an upcoming forecast during a period of seesawing snow levels and impending heavy precipitation. “My motivation was that I would be doing this anyway.”
Northwest Ski Reports eagerly took Schick up on his offer, sending his initial forecasts during the 1996-97 winter to a few hundred souls. He was ahead of his time on several fronts. While Schick has always offered Powder Alerts as a free public service, he spent five seasons in the 2010s as the Northwest forecaster for OpenSnow, an online snow forecasting service covering every region of North America replete with a smartphone app and paid all-access features. “Before social media allowed anyone to post their thoughts about snow (or anything else), Larry was giving the heads-up about powder days,” wrote OpenSnow founder Joel Gratz via email. “As far as I know, Larry was one of a handful of early powder forecasters on the web.”
Moreover, Schick’s emphasis on powder was outside the mainstream in the 1990s. “When you skied powder in the old days, you had to have a high level of skill to do it,” he said, recalling an era when narrower skis made deep, untracked snow more challenging and led most resort skiers to prefer groomed runs. But over the last quarter-century of Schick’s forecasts, the proliferation of wider powder skis, designed to carve up fresh snow untouched by a grooming machine’s blades, has made powder into a popular commodity.
Now that ski culture has caught up with Schick’s thirst for powder, the public and the forecaster are on the same page. “People take powder seriously and I take the weather seriously,” he said. “I always pick the most confident forecast.”
Not that he hasn’t faced his fair share of criticism. “I’ve been accused of hoarding the forecast and not telling the real deal and I’ve been accused of spreading too much of the word,” he said.
Sending out a powder alert is a meticulous process that can take a couple hours out of the day as Schick follows changing weather patterns from morning until evening before putting the finishing touches on a missive. “Weather is something you have to follow every day whether you’re writing about it or not,” he said. “It has a rhythm to it.”
His passion for Northwest winter weather stems from outdoor observation that treats the atmosphere as a narrative setting. “I ride the chairlift and watch the clouds to see if a storm is coming in or exiting. I put out my dark ski glove to catch a snowflake and I can tell the temperature and humidity,” he said. “I see the close up and the wide shot. It’s like a story.”
Schick, now 68, retired from daily TV broadcasts after 25 years and worked in flood control from 2003 to 2017 for the Army Corps of Engineers. But two full-time careers haven’t dulled his essential love for sharing the mechanics of the weather. “I’m a teacher at heart,” he said.
Fox 13 meteorologist Erin Mayovsky concurs wholeheartedly. They worked together from 1996 to 2002 at Northwest Cable News and Mayovsky has subscribed to the powder alerts for at least a dozen years. They skied together plenty — “He’s a phenomenal skier, really has finesse,” she said — and he taught her the ins and outs of tricky Pacific Northwest weather. “I feel like I learned firsthand from the best,” she said. “We called him ‘Lucky Larry’ because he always hit the forecast.”
As for that other nickname, the Grand Poobah of Powder? Schick’s former neighbor Mark Hardy, a volunteer ski patroller at Alpental ski area, got to know the local celebrity next door and once jokingly emailed him about an upcoming storm with the salutation, “O Grand Poobah of Powder.” Schick ran with it. “I love the name because it’s fake pompousness,” he said.
Schick logs at least 40 days on the slopes in a good season, often at Crystal Mountain Resort, his standby, although he has skied at over 60 ski areas across western North America. While he’s playing his future cards close to his ski jacket, he has hinted at the possibility that if this La Niña winter is gangbusters, he may hang up the powder alerts for good. “I might entertain going out on a high note,” he said. “More time to ski.”