ALL SERIOUS SKIERS or snowboarders, in their mind’s eye, can envision that perfect powder day, the cold chill, the bold thrill. These are resplendent moments in the making. However, as recent winters have taught us, sufficient snow, let alone perfect powder, may be scarce in some locales. Perhaps skiers can learn something from big wave surfers. Think Mavericks. Powerful winter storms are needed to create the massive waves required for Mavericks Invitational to take place. Surfers go when conditions are right.
If you are an accomplished skier or snowboarder, following storms can prove to be a wise decision. Case in point: several Tahoe resorts received more than 800 inches of magical fluff on their upper peaks during the 2010–2011 season — with snowfall recorded on 66 days that winter. Can you count the powder days? The following year, Mother Nature delivered a near shutout, with as much dirt showing as snow well into ski season. That winter Mother Nature also snow-starved Colorado resorts, and they suffered one of the worst seasons in history. At the same time, powder hounds found phenomenal skiing in the Pacific Northwest in places such as Stevens Pass Resort in Washington, which received 561 inches of snow, more than double what Vail saw that year.
In virtually any year, abundant snow can be found somewhere in the West. Last year, for instance, weather patterns brought Jackson Hole 500 inches of dreamy white stuff, making many extraordinary, film-worthy days for skiers in Corbet’s Couloir.
Plentiful snow for a ski getaway is not merely about powder; diehards also want to know if a resort has had adequate cover to open steeper, more challenging terrain. So for planning a trip, what is the best course of action? One suggestion is to pay attention to websites like snowforecast.com or opensnow.com, which feature experts like Bryan Allegretto, a forecaster with OpenSnow. Like his counterparts at OpenSnow, Allegretto is not merely a weather predictor; he specializes in snow forecasts. A Tahoe local with a lifetime snow-obsession, he brings together all the big data science can muster along with in-depth knowledge of storm patterns, microclimates and nuances that make up Sierra weather.
Allegretto notes that significant pattern changes can be spotted two to three weeks out. But for actual powder predictions, his comfort zone is much shorter. “I usually won’t start talking about specific snowfall numbers until five days out,” he says. At that point, it’s time to wax the boards, book that room and lock in that plane flight if needed.
“I pay close attention to how each storm specifically affects each mountain,” Allegretto says. “Snow lines and snowfall amounts at different resorts can vary with each storm, and that can have a big impact on where skiers choose to go within the Tahoe region.” Along with Allegretto’s nearly daily updates, OpenSnow offers a Powder Finder, which highlights the deepest snow locations and provides a five-day powder forecast.
So it might be Granite Chief, Squaw Valley’s enviable tree, chute and cliff-drop powder playground, that delivers the prime cover for your vacation this year, or possibly Kirkwood’s vast Sentinel Bowl. Or maybe Big Sky Resort’s Dictator Chutes with its vivid sun-kissed, snow-sparkling days, or perhaps Whistler, Taos or Snowbird is the call. With a little flexibility and patience, follow the forecasts and you’ll considerably up your ante for a big payoff.
Granted, if any region is having a banner snow year, plan away. Also, beginner- or intermediate-level skiers won’t be taking that much of a gamble by reserving ahead, given the heaps of cash major resorts have poured into sophisticated snowmaking systems. And auxiliary pastimes like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, sledding or sipping hot chocolate next to the fire don’t require much snow.
Powder dream trip: If abundant snow hits Nevada’s remote Ruby Mountains this season, book a trip, or get on the standby list with Ruby Mountain Heli-Experience (helicopterskiing.com). This heli-ski operation, run by Marin native Joe Royer, services stunning open bowls, chutes and glades surrounded by crowns of minarets. Lucky standbys or last-minute takers may land a late-cancellation spot — often at half price, or they may find enough fee savings to pay their last-minute airfare into Elko.