WORDS: Eugene Buchanan
Blame it on climate change, El Nino, La Nina, or even the polar vortex, that swirling mass of cold air usually found around the poles but this year nudging its way into ski country. Wherever you point your finger, French soothsayer Nostradamus would have had a heyday with the rash of strange weather patterns throughout ski country this year, driving forecasters batty and skiers in either a frenzy or despair.
From a near-record drought in California to snow in Atlanta and one of the largest warm-weather avalanches outside of Valdez, Alaska, no one can deny that this year has been far from run-of-the-mill. And it's continued along that vein through early March. Just this week, a spike in temperatures created a wet, heavy snowpack at Revelstoke, British Columbia, prompting Freeride World Tour organizers to cancel the competition due to a massive slide on the Mac Daddy venue. And on Monday at Crystal Mountain, Washington, after 11 feet of snow in February and six inches of rain in the last five days that all fell on a faceted, low snowpack, ski patrol set off an inbounds slide during their control work that was so serious it snapped trees, caused a metal scraping sound, covered half of the High Campbell lift and its lift shack, and left a 30- to 40-foot-high debris pile that looks like a glacier devouring the base area. "We're calling it a R4D4, so the destructive power is a four out of five and a five is classified as something that takes out villages," says Crystal ski patroller Kim Kircher, who was on the control route yesterday afternoon after the ski area closed. Crystal old-timers are calling the 1,000-foot-vertical slide "historic."
"The main departure from normal over the last month or so is the warmer temperatures, due to the weather flow coming from the central Pacific," says Joel Gratz of OpenSnow.com. "This can mean lots of snow, but also warmer temperatures. It may not be average, but it’s far from freaky."
Gratz offers the following to characterize the seasons around the country: "Northwest: late start; California: well below average/drought conditions; Northern Rockies: fantastic season with well above average snowfall; Central Rockies: above average in northern Colorado and Utah, at or below average in southern parts of the states; Northeast: fantastic season with consistent cold and snow." And this doesn't even include the turbulent European winter that has seen record snow in Northern Italy and parts of Southeast France while other areas have been relatively average.
So while he maintains "freaky" might not be the right word to describe the season ("schizophrenic" might be more like it), no one can argue that this year's weather patterns haven't ruffled the feathers of everyone from forecasters to skiers trying to stormchase fresh turns.
"This season has been a bit of a challenge and rollercoaster," maintains Sugar Bowl, California, spokesperson John Monson. "We've had deep powder days followed by uncommonly warm-weather stretches."
Let's start in the East and work our way west. The East Coast and New England have grappled with one of the coldest winters in recent memory, making conditions great for snowmaking but not unleashing too many natural flakes. Storms have tracked the coast, dropping their goods on places like Atlanta and Philadelphia, instead. Of course, mid-February storms dumped a foot or more on most Northeastern resorts, setting them up for a bountiful President's Day weekend, with a second storm delivering an equal powder punch.
Skipping the Midwest, whose skiers are likely all booking tickets to Mexico right now to escape record cold, the Rockies have had rampant snowfall. Colorado is enjoying one of its best overall snowfall totals in years, with Breckenridge announcing this week that it will extend its season from April 21 to April 27. Wyoming has followed suit, with Jackson pretty much nailing it yet again, as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort reported this week that its upper mountain has not seen this much snow depth in 17 years. Bridger Bowl, Montana, meanwhile, has its best base (114 inches) in memory. At times this season, Bridger's weekend crowds have been so heavy that the little ski area hasn't been able to accommodate all the skiers seeking a parking spot to access the cold smoke.
In Utah, after a slow start that has now turned around to conditions you'd expect of "the greatest snow on earth," the snowpack is still far from Wasatch-like – especially concerning stability. On March 2, Snowbird ski patrol released a massive avalanche with just a two-pound charge on North Baldy, causing the Freeride World Tour to relocate to the smaller Silver Fox venue. The "historic event" slide ran 1,000 feet and left an eight-foot crown. Snowbird was just one weather-related incident of many that have plagued the Freeride World Tour this year. Whether the snowpack is too low tide, too sketchy, or too wet, competitors have been reeling from last minute decisions and three consecutive venue changes. Earlier this year, organizers moved Austira's Fieberbrunn stop to nearby Kappl after a five-foot crown released. And after rescheduling the Revelstoke stop from December to March because there wasn't enough snow to fill in the Mac Daddy venue, organizers announced yesterday that the fifth stop would be cancelled completely because conditions were too dangerous at any of the suitable FWT venues in the Revelstoke backcountry.
It's the West Coast, it seems, that's receiving the lion's share of the season's unpredictable weather, with patterns continuing to be hormonal. First came a record-setting drought throughout the state. Before February's storms hit, California was only at about 12 percent of its average snowpack. Then came a series of massive dumps, including a 54-incher at Mammoth, bringing statewide snowpack up to around 30 percent, followed by warmer temperatures—like the 64-degree highs recently recorded at Mammoth—which have uncharacteristically melted it away.
Meanwhile, SoCal resorts like Bear Mountain and Snow Summit are suffering. They recently reported a 12-inch storm, but it was only atop a base of just 18. And on the last day of February, heavy wind, rain, and even lightning closed down resorts in Big Bear Lake. Warm temps have also kept Mountain High at bay, with snowmaking suspended and the mountain opening only a day-to-day basis; while Mount Baldy has also remained closed.
In Tahoe, the freakish drought has led straight into epic dumps. Kirkwood, says spokesman Kevin Cooper, has had a huge up/down season. "After a slow start," he says, "we were blanketed by more than 15 feet in 30 days." Adds Ski Lake Tahoe spokesman Daniel Pistoresi: "We had two separate storms cresting the six-foot mark…The massive February snowstorms have resulted in mid-winter snowpacks, especially at summit elevations along the Pacific Crest, with the historically snowy months of March and April still ahead.”
At Sugar Bowl, Monson admits it's been a bit topsy-turvy. "Even with recent storms dropping three feet at a time, we're still well below our historical average of 500 inches each season," he says. "With such warm temps, snow levels have played a huge role in our accumulations. It's apparent the difference 600 vertical and a higher base elevation make in a season such as this. But while blower powder days have been few and far between, we've got a healthy base with a high water content, meaning we may see a great spring corn cycle."
Head north, and things are still upended. With a base depth of just five inches, Mount Shasta, California, lists its opening day as "still to be announced" (it's allowing pass holders to roll their passes over to next season). It's been a weird season farther north as well, which saw a slow start, followed by dumps, followed by recent rains leading to landslides, floods, and avalanches (roads to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park and Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass were recently closed for avalanche control). With 11 feet of snow in three weeks in February at Mount Hood, Oregon, the area went from 22 percent of average snowpack on December 31, to 76 percent in late February, according to the Oregonian. In the bigger picture, despite recently picking up steam, the Northwest has only seen about half of its average snowpack, with some sites in southern Oregon clocking in at just 22 percent of normal readings.
Two big storms bearing down on the Rockies and Pacific Northwest over the next few weeks should help rectify things with several more feet of snow, but they're also again expected to spike avalanche danger to historic highs.
So what's a skier to do with all this? Pick and choose, and shred wisely. And check out The Safe Zone for a direct link to every avalanche center in North America.