Giray Dadali, Snowbird, Utah. PHOTO: Mike Schirf
Giray Dadali, Snowbird, Utah. PHOTO: Mike Schirf

Scenes From The Biggest Winter In A Generation

From Alta, to Mammoth, Stowe, Jackson, and Whistler, the best scenes from the best winter in a long time

597″
Alta/Snowbird, Utah, by Abigail Barronian

The lucky few who live up Little Cottonwood Canyon had their pick of chairs on mornings like this. At Alta's Collins lift, locals kept the code: As long as someone has an eye on your skis, they can rightfully hold your place in line. If you work at the Goldminer's Daughter, you get dibs on the Wildcat lift, affectionately known as "Kitty."

Down the canyon, a red snake of brake lights slithered onward. Nearly 600 inches of snow fell over the season, including a 100-inch week in January. By February, anything less than a foot went unnoticed.

I was working at the GMD, so I ended up with the Kitty crew. Everyone with the morning off stood in line. A few had Hawaiian shirts buttoned over their Gore-Tex jackets and Sierra Nevadas in hand. It was 8 a.m. A cheer erupted as lifties bumped the first chair. The old "no friends on a powder day" adage doesn't hold up on a two-seater with all your roommates, coworkers, and ski buddies in line with you. Ten of us traversed to the first pitch under the chair where cold, light snow flew over our shoulders with every turn.

Rather than standing in line to rip big, open faces and steep chutes on the upper mountain, we hit natural wind lips and pinned it through narrow chutes under the lift. We made jib laps, piled up above our favorite hits, and relished the soft landings.

On the way up for our next lap, patrol opened a stash that feeds into Snowbird. We raced up the bootpack and met another huge group of locals with ice-laden beards and rimed grins. We funneled into the few chutes that connect the wide meadows and open trees. Yips, hollers, and laughter echoed over the slopes. I cut first tracks through the trees as sluff raced below me, and my buddies hucked themselves off a 10-footer.

Once the crowds made their way to Sugarloaf, we hit the Collins lift line and skied steep, deep trees in Eagle's Nest, narrow drops in Garbage Chutes, and wide-open powder fields off Backside. You have to be strategic on an Alta powder day. The good stuff down low gets skied out fast. Unless you get out early and squeeze in as many laps as possible before your 2 p.m. shift.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort employees remove snow from Corbet’s Cabin. PHOTO: Jay Goodrich

593″
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, by Matt Hansen

By Christmas, I'd traded my old, tattered gloves for burly, warm ones. The sunny-day lens for my goggles remained buried deep in my gear bag. After a seemingly endless string of storm days, it was clear that something special was happening in Jackson Hole. You could feel it in the tramline and in the packed mid-mountain cafeteria. Meanwhile, laundry and dishes piled up at home as my wife and I traded mornings on the tram. We didn't have a choice. This was turning out to be the best winter in a decade, if not ever.

Locals started wondering how this season would stack up against the historic 1996-97 winter—96-Ninety-Heaven—when the resort saw 577 inches of total snowfall. People talk about that year the way old timers talk about Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle. You shoulda seen it.

I'll probably say the same about the snowbanks outside my front door, how night after night I stood in awe below the streetlamps as billions of snowflakes swirled in and out of the light. How moose climbed 10-foot piles of snow in town to reach willow branches. And how avalanche bombs started going off during après, as the resort attempted to destroy a wind lip that had grown so large it was obstructing the tram dock at the summit.

On February 4, Jackson Hole cancelled the Grand National Powder 8s due to too much snow and high avalanche danger at all elevations. That day I had my best inbounds run in years down "Bird in Hand," skiing the typically rocky and tree-filled glade like it was a groomer.

The storm raged on and made the next day even better. But nothing came close to Tuesday, February 7. With a Winter Storm Warning in effect, I put my ski boots on in my kitchen, trudged through massive drifts to my stop, and climbed aboard the bus to Teton Village at 7:30 a.m. More than a foot of snow had fallen the night before, with at least another foot on the way. Traffic moved so slowly that it took 45 minutes—about double the usual time—to drive the 11 miles to the village.

I headed straight for the singles line at the gondola and, at the top, bee-lined over the normally rocky Granny Chutes to the Thunder Chair. The queue was chaotic. A couple of old farts in the singles line, flustered by line-cutters, climbed over the metal maze with their skis on and caught a chair. I pushed through the crowd and for the next hour spooned my own tracks run after run. No one else was there. In an age of high-speed lifts, it was unbelievable.

Less than 12 hours later, it all fell apart. Gale-force winds snapped more than a dozen 80-foot steel utility poles on Teton Village Road, knocking out power for the resort, lifts, and 3,000 people. It was an unprecedented turn of events, a backbreaking blow that put a sudden stop to some of the best skiing of our lives. It rained for three days and closed the resort for five. There was no way in or out of the valley. Elk and deer got stuck in the snow and starved to death. Avalanches struck slopes right above town, including a slide on a mogul field at Snow King in the middle of the day. "It was like having the best drug you've ever had and then it not being available," said Jackson patroller AJ Cargill. "It was this amazing crest of a wave you could ride and then see it destroyed."

In the aftermath, we dug—or rather climbed—out. The high alpine continued to stack up. On the last day of Jackson Hole's season, April 9, the resort hit 593 inches of snow for the year. You shoulda seen it.

Dave Treadway. Whistler, BC. PHOTO: Blake Jorgenson

515″
Whistler, British Columbia, by Leslie Anthony

It's mid-April and a friend asks: What was the best day of the winter? I think it was yesterday. But it could also have been last week, or during March's 29 days of snow, or in the deep-freeze of light-as-a-feather December—hell, maybe even after that six-foot storm in November. What's clear is that I can't recall. During a winter like this, it doesn't matter.

Last summer was wet, autumn wetter, so when snow blushed the peaks of the Coast Range early, few paid heed. Of course there was snow. But as the freezing level crept down to the valley and lifts started turning, the scene up high was striking. The alpine, which typically opens in stages, was midwinter ready. Everything was skiable from the get-go.

But you get greedy fast, so even what many called the best opening day ever on Whistler Mountain wasn't good enough. Early in the afternoon, D-dog, Garage Sale Frank, and I crept out under the silent Symphony Chair to Boundary Bowl. Hugging the trees on the 40-degree rim, we dropped into thigh-deep November powder. We crept out again for the next run. And then again over the following weeks, cementing a de facto powder ritual for the season.

The Pacific snow-hose sprayed relentlessly up and down the coast and far into the interior, accompanied by unprecedented cold. Climate change weakened the jet stream, causing a polar vortex to sag south. In the Arctic, temperatures remained 68 degrees above normal while BC reveled in blower pow. Even in places known for scant snowfall, it dumped huge: Kimberley and Panorama ski areas set unofficial records for the biggest single-day snowfalls ever—then broke them the next day. The Vancouver area saw more than 10 feet of snow and Whistler went close to two months with valley temps below freezing. Snow piled so high on the roads you couldn't see around corners.

More routines evolved: the short climb to West Cirque as soon as Peak Chair opened, to catch anything the bombs had missed before hitting bowling-alley lines on Evergreens; the long traverse into Harvey's Trees when the rope at Harmony dropped; the bootpack up Chimney on Blackcomb, which was epic on so many occasions we stopped talking about it.

I couldn't pinpoint a specific best-day for my friend, but I shared a final recurrent theme: wading an hour through trees to get to Peak-to-Creek, a 5,000-vertical-foot run that was layered to the valley in thigh-deep, untracked, Colorado-esque blower. I skied it often, Trenchtown-style with hands gripped so hard on the steering wheel they turned white, along with my chest, shoulders, face, and beard that were caked with snow.

It snowed right through spring. And we kept skiing. It was a winter for the ages—not that I'll remember it.

Andy Weis. Mad River Glen, Green Mountains, Vermont. PHOTO: Brian Mohr


362″
Stowe, Vermont, by Nick Paumgarten

We couldn't put the perennial post-Christmas thaw behind us until a few half-footer storms in late January covered up the re-freeze and softened the hill. Then, before dawn on February 1, a good one snuck in—an auspiciously slow starter, a bit of a surprise.

All told, 48 hours later we had 13 inches at the top of the Quad. February 3 was the day. A Friday. Thin crowds, intermittent squalls, very little wind. My brother's no-friends powder morning went like this, according to his 12:44 p.m. email blast, which he sent from his truck on his way to work:

"Untracked Chin Clip
Woods off CC
Hayride Woods Tres Amigos
Again
Lift line/National! Wow.
Starr
Nosedive to bottom of Goat Woods
Etc. etc!"

"Etc. etc!"?! I was driving up from southern New Hampshire, a day late—and not alone, apparently. By 8 the next morning, the road to the base was backed up past the Matterhorn Bar, the Mansfield lot was nearly full, and the maze at the Quad spilled over with weekenders.

Sorry, folks. Everybody knows that New England pow is a one-day thing. At the resort, anyway. In the steeper sections and between powdery bumps, blue ice was back. Banana peels. "You shoulda been here yesterday," a guy in line said.

Time to go hunting. Off the gondola, into the woods, out past the Bench, in the birch-gladed area known as Angel Food. The going was soft and springy. If you committed to a little walk at the bottom and skied the last pitches into the Notch, it might as well have been Friday again.

On Sunday we hiked the Chin. A clipper came through that night and freshened up the leeward glades with another six inches. The sun came out. The weekenders were gone. Woods off CC. Etc. etc!

Mammoth, California. PHOTO: Christian Pondella

618″
Mammoth, California, by Hans Ludwig

A glacier fell out of the sky.

Between January 4 and February 28, it snowed 409 inches on the patrol's study plot at 9,000 feet. Double that number for the upper mountain, factor in wind-loading, and some aspects received 80 feet of snow in 34 days.

The first week was exhilarating. California had been in an extended drought, and we're skiers in a ski town. By the third week, the game had changed. If you didn't dig out your car, often twice a day, it was gone. For many of us, if you didn't dig out your house, it was also gone. (One apartment building suffered a total roof failure in February; tenants of several other residential buildings were forced to leave.)

The ambient hazard level was alarming. A cornice the size of a bus hung from the supermarket entrance for days. Tree wells were bottomless. Every roof and snowbank was an avalanche risk. The ski area took the unprecedented step of posting warnings about deep snow immersion danger all over town. At one point, the banks around my driveway were 20 feet tall.

The mountain was bananas. Lift towers, cables, and chairs had to be dug out with snowcats. The terrain became distorted and surreal with the huge pack. Twenty-foot cornices accumulated on ridges, steep chutes transformed into bowls, wind load and avalanche debris grew to 60-70 feet deep. Patrol set off wall-to-wall slides with 10-foot-plus crowns—that were then buried within days.

I got out on my skis during the mega-cycle, mostly to look at what was happening. I even skinned a little. But most days the good terrain was a no-go. So we shoveled. And kept shoveling.

After 104 inches in five days, the upper mountain opened on January 24 under blue skies. The cycle started wet but finished with several feet of light snow and almost no wind. I got in the gondy line early and had a killer lap on the Paranoids and then, out of sheer perversity, was the first to head out to the Dragon's Tail—the south end of the ski area where the deepest pockets collect.

Patrol had ski-cut and bombed the sheltered old growth of the Tail, but nothing had slid, just surface sluff. I traversed to the far end of the ridge, dropped into my favorite chute, and was immediately terrified. The snow was incredible, but it was too deep. The first turn was over my shoulders without hitting bottom. Something clicked as I came up for air—I was by myself, nobody knew I was out there, and it was so deep that you didn't need a tree well to die, you just had to fall over.

I went into emergency mode, skiing two-footed for maximum float, slithering instead of slashing, and didn't exhale until I finally shot onto the trail across the flats. I've spent my entire adult life chasing powder all over the world. That was the first time it was so deep that it scared me. It snowed almost every day for a month after that.

This story originally appeared in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.