Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Monster Snow Week

Two to four feet of new snow fell since Monday... and there will probably be another two to four feet before the week ends. This has been an incredible snow season... and all indications are that the weather pattern won't change significantly coming up. The storniness will ease a bit as we head into the weekend... but overall, the dominant long range pattern continues to look snowy.

Below is a chart of the base depth at Mt. Hood Skibowl (at mid-mountain) on January 29th each winter back to 2001.

You can see that this year is the biggest snow year at Skibowl this decade... and it's a bigger snow year than most years in the 1980s and 1990s as well. I can't remember a year when Skibowl's base depth and Timberline's base depth were so near in total. That's a testiment to the low snow level that has persisted most of the winter.

One of the trade-off's of all the deep and fresh snow: it's very difficult for patrol crews to keep up with avalanche control work. This winter's snow has been more slide-prone than most winters' snow... and with the frequent stormy days, it's often been impossible to visibly survey slopes to asses the real avalanche threat. Here in the Pacific Northwest, because the humidity is relatively high most of the winter, the visibility is often much worse than in other mountain areas across the USA. For example, when I was in Montana, even when it was snowing heavily, the cloud base was above the peaks and the visibility remained quite good. That's because the air is much drier there than it is here... even when it's snowing. On Mount Hood, when it's snowing heavily, it's rare that the visibility isn't poor... mainly due to low clouds and fog. This makes a huge difference for patrol crews. They must be able to see. When they can't; the terrain stays closed... and for good reason.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Weather Outlook

We're headed back into a snowy pattern. Starting Saturday afternoon, the snow returns... and accumulating snow is likely every day in the foreseeable future. Some days will feature higher snow totals than other days, but I expect at least 6 inches every day... and as much as 18" of new snow possible on a couple of the days. The snow level should stay low -- 500 to 1,500 feet -- most of the week. It's going to be fantastic... enjoy!

TRIP REPORT: The Yellowstone Club

I just returned from spending several days near Big Sky, Montana, at the most exclusive ski mountain in North America -- The Yellowstone Club. It was a surreal experience.

The Yellowstone Club is a private club with strict financial and behavioral requirements of its members. In addition to annual dues and an initial six-figure joining fee, members are required to own real estate in the area. Potential members are screened, financially and morally, to ensure that those admitted are wealthy, humble and friendly. No garish people are invited.

Once in, skiing/boarding (winter) and golfing (summer) privileges are included in the membership cost. In other words; there are no lift tickets to buy or wear. In my case, as a guest of a member, I was free to ski at my leisure... and at no cost... once I was through the front security gate.

About the skiing...

While I don't have any actual numbers to support this claim, I honestly believe that there were more employees on the mountain than there were skiers and snowboarders. The main mountain has three high-speed quad lifts and two shorter, fixed-grip chairs, while some of the secondary mountains have additional lifts primarily dedicated to providing home access. Rarely would there be anyone waiting to board any lift. The lifts frequently run in circles with no one aboard.

The main mountain itself has a nice mix of steep pitches, glades, and carefully groomed runs. From the top, the front face features several steep chutes between cliffs and outcroppings. The chutes widen and level-out towards the bottom. The powder was incredible here -- apparently, not many of the Club members like dropping through the narrow chutes at the top.

The backside of the mountain has some of the longest glades I've ever skied. The pitch starts out fairly slight, but the terrain steepens with each turn. After nearly a mile and half, the glades empty to a long runout back to one of the lifts on the frontside. The runout is flat... too flat... such that a lot of pushing & skating is necessary. Snowboarders had to walk, and they were apprehensive about returning to that side of the mountain. This part of the mountain was literally deserted; partner skiing was an absolute necessity. If alone and injured, bears and mountain lions would find you far sooner than a human would.

It was VERY cold when I was there -- the coldest weather I've ever experienced, in fact. It was -23 F Monday morning. They delayed opening for an hour because of the extreme cold. I skied that afternoon, but the temperature never exceeded -10 F. I did OK... I covered my entire face and used hand & foot warmers in my gloves and boots. It was a beautiful sunny day with no wind (thankfully). Tuesday was slightly warmer, and it turned cloudy with snow increasing later in the day. Three inches of new snow greeted us Wednesday morning, along with bluebird skies again. The three inches easily turned into a foot in the bowls up top. The powder was the best I've ever skied. Interestingly, the snow was a bit slower than I would've guessed it to be. Apparently, when it gets THAT cold, there's such a lack of (liquid) water in the snow that it's not very lubricated and the snow crystals are more abrasive. The result is more friction on the base of the ski/snowboard.

Not all the runs were powder-filled; many are groomed nightly. Since most of the Club members join because of the allure of "Private Powder", the groomed runs aren't particularly popular. Much of the courderoy remains untouched well into each afternoon. One member I briefly skied with kept using the phrase "ABC" -- an acronym for "Anything But Courderoy'.

Big Sky ski area is adjacent to the Yellowstone Club, and there are connecting lifts and trails to and from. I didn't get a chance to venture over there; in part because the skiing was so good where I was... and in part because I didn't want to deal with the security guard stationed at each trail entrance back into the Yellowstone Club from Big Sky. Security is tight; a former director of the Secret Service is the current Director of Security for the Yellowstone Club.

As you can imagine, the homes in the Yellowstone Club area are large and spread out. The area is very large, spreading over a couple mountains and thousands of acres. There is no village core; it's more like a mountain neighborhood. Nearly every home there has ski-in, ski-out access, and there are several short feeder lifts to and from the homes. Those home-access lifts remain idle most of the day; once a member/guest approaches, a bored employee becomes excited to see an actual person and starts-up the lift.

I took some pictures; I'll post some of them later (my camera's batteries are dead at the moment).

Overall, this was an incredible opportunity that few get to experience. I am very grateful to my friends for inviting me to share it with them. They've invited me back; I intend to return sometime!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bits & Pieces

Trip Report (1/18/08 - Mt. Hood Meadows) - I was able to get up there for a few hours before I had to work Friday evening. It was sunny and warm (about 40 degrees); the groomed snow was nice and easy to carve, but the snow not groomed was frozen, choppy hardpack. After a couple hours of sunshine, Upper Heather Canyon (and other non-groomed areas with sun exposure) softened nicely -- a I had a great run down Silver Bowl in Upper Heather. And then I did another lap by dropping into A-Zone and traversing/hiking over into Clark Canyon. I was able to traverse across the huge, south-facing wall (which is often unskiable given its exposure) -- it was SO smooth and not too soft. Very nice! The top of that ridge was melting out, though, so there were quite a few small rocks rolling down the slope that I had to dodge. Overall, I had fantastic day.

New Ski Review - So I finally got to try my new Rossignol Zenith Z9 skis. In short, I LOVE them. They were so smooth on the groomed -- nice and stable even when I was flying down Boulevard as fast as I could. I have a pair of Salomon Scream X-hot skis that tend to chatter a lot on this type of snow; my Rossi's didn't chatter at all. The Z9s also did well in Heather Canyon, but not as well as on the smooth groomed. I have a pair of Rossi B2s that probably would've been better in the Canyon. Overall, I'm really happy with the Z9s -- they'll be a lot of fun in the spring when it's firm hardpack in the morning.

Weather Outlook - As you've probably heard, it's going to get very cold for a few days. There will be a little new snow Saturday afternoon/evening/night (maybe 4-8" at most), then after that it'll be dry again for several days. Temperatures will fall from the 30s into the 20s by later Saturday, and then into the teens by later Sunday. Monday's and Tuesday's temperatures will be 5-15 degrees. Brrr! And the wind will pick up too -- by later Sunday, it'll be blowing hard out of the northeast. Monday looks windy, but Tuesday and Wednesday look much calmer. Lots of sunshine, though... but with the extreme cold and wind, the snow surface will become boilerplate hardpack by Monday. The next chance for any new snow will be Thursday... but that weather system looks very weak.

I'm off to Montana - Ever hear of The Yellowstone Club? It's a private ski area (about the size of Mt. Hood Meadows) adjacent to Big Sky in southern Montana. I have friends who are members and have a house there -- and they've invited me to spend a few days with them enjoying the "private powder". The average number of people on the mountain each day is about 50! I'll be sure to write a trip report and post it here, as this should be quite an experience!

Have a great weekend...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Condition Reports, Snowphones and Websites

In the "old days" (before the internet), there was only one way to find out what conditions were like on the mounain. The snowphone. As a kid, I would call several of the resorts' snowphones so often that my parents had to put limits on the number of times I could call each day. (I believe the limit was three.) I still have the numbers memorized. And I still remember the names of some of the voices on the line -- Camille, Bill and Don at Timberline... also Jon at Timberline and Karen at Skibowl (both of whom are still there!). And on big snow days, I would call and call and call... only to get a busy signal. The volume of callers would frequently overwhelm the resorts' snowphone lines.

Today, the internet is trying its best to make the snowphone obsolete. It's rare that I call anymore. (Don't get me wrong; I am still obsessive-compulsive about checking the snow condition reports -- but now I use a computer instead of the telephone.) I am not alone... one resort official told me recently that the number of phone lines they now dedicate the snowphone is only a small fraction of the number they had during the pre-internet days. And jammed lines or busy signals are almost unheard of anymore.

Ski areas have long been accused of lying about their conditions on the snowphone. Alright, lying isn't the best word -- perhaps "omitting" or "exaggerating" are better word choices. Regardless, skiers and boarders had no way to knowing whether or not the voice on the phone was speaking the full truth, the complete truth, and nothing but the truth, unless they ventured up to the mountain to see for themselves what conditions were like. But not any more, thanks to the vast amount of weather data from automated weather sensors on the mountain. That's why, despite my nostalgia, the movement of the snow-reporting emphasis to the internet is a very good thing. Not only does it force accuracy, but it allows the resorts to disseminate SO much more information than a voice on the snowphone could ever deliver. But this is only true if the resorts choose to disseminate a lot of information. Unfortunately, many still don't.

The Mount Hood ski areas have made great progress with their on-line condition report web pages in the last couple years. Mt. Hood Meadows' page is the best of the batch -- they display more information on their site than Timberline and Skibowl display on their sites. But, when I surfed around other ski area sites around the USA, I saw some amazing web pages that put our Mt. Hood ski area sites to shame. My favorites:

Mammoth Mountain (California) ( What I like about this site: lift status is updated automatically, in real-time, with status indications of OPEN, CLOSED or STANDBY during operating hours, and indications of EXPECTED or CLOSED each morning before the mountain opens for the day. There are also detailed new-snow reports and live weather conditions with several LIVE web cameras scattered throughout the resort to view.

Okemo (Vermont) ( What I like about this site: The snow reporter writes a lengthy, detailed report about the conditions each morning. True, there's a lot of "selling" in the reports, but I still appreciate the effort. I really like the list of EVERY run on page, with indications about each run's open/closed status and symbols showing if the run has been groomed, had snow made on it, or is full of bumps.

And, my favorite: Sugar Bowl (California) ( What I like about this site: It's not a tradional snow report page; instead, it's an interractive trail map with real-time open/closed status of lifts, trails (with grooming information), lodges and facilities along with clickable views of webcams from various spots on the mountain. There are even clickable views of terrain parks and podcasts that describe the terrain.

Sugar Bowl is on the right track, and is headed in the information-dissemination direction that all resorts should be headed. My dream snow report page would indeed be in the form of an interractive map. I would hope to see numerous clickable information points on the map, with each point showing:
  • live weather conditions
  • 24 hours of weather history
  • snow accumulation information
  • a live/interractive camera view.

Each lift, when clicked on the map, would be indicated as open/closed/expected, the lift's operating hours would be shown, the current lift-line wait time would appear, and there would be a description of the terrain served. Each run, when clicked on the map, would be described and indicated as open or closed and there would be information about the current snow surface (groomed, bumpy, powder, bare spots, unskiable, etc.). Each terrain park area, when clicked on the map, would be described (in words and pictures) and a park status update would appear. And lodges & parking lots would be clickable on the map as well, allowing information to be displayed about facilities open/closed and how full the lots are with cars.

I realize that such an interractive map would require a tremendous computer programming effort and a large commitment to infrastructure so that the map could be highly detailed and updated in real (or near-real) time. But it's a target at which every resort should aim. Too-little, inaccurate and/or untimely/out-dated information are significant sources of guest complaints to ski areas. The resorts that hit the target with such a detailed, interractive map will benefit greatly, in my opinion, by being leaders in information dissemination and accuracy. I look forward to the day when a Mount Hood ski area overcomes the technology challenges to make it happen...

Monday, January 14, 2008

One Last Powder Day

It's been a great 6 weeks... deep snow and high-quality powder (for the most part). But this spell of big powder dumps will end after this last storm moves through Monday night. Beginning Tuesday, it looks dry for at least a week... and the dry pattern could last into next week as well.

First things first -- Monday night's storm. When the snow initially begins late Monday afternoon, the snow level will be relatively high -- between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. There could even be areas of freezing rain along the lower slopes. But shortly after the precipitation arrives, the snow level will plummet rapidly and the wind will really pick up. Before 10pm, I expect the snow level to be no higher than 1,000 feet. The moisture supply quickly disappears after midnight, however... so most of the new snow will fall between 4pm and 10pm. The storm total will be 4-6", with the newest snow on top being fairly light and dry. But it will be windblown, as strong northwest winds will mark the arrival of the increasingly cold air.

Tuesday looks beautiful -- new snow on the ground with plenty of sun during the day. It should stay fairly cold Tuesday, with temperatures at the higher elevations staying in the low-mid 20s. Lower down, the temperature will approach freezing.

From Wednesday through Saturday, the sun will shine each day. Temperatures will be climbing, as the freezing level will be above 8,000 feet. A temperature inversion will likely set up, however, and that means that some chilly air may get trapped in the low spots... especially each morning. Up high on the sun-exposed slopes, it'll probably be mild enough to turn the snow into wet, spring-like slush in spots each midday. Then, in the late-afternoon, the snow will set back up again, making for hard-packed conditions each evening through morning. The groomed runs will be nice, but non-groomed areas will feature an unpleasant hard-packed base except for a couple hours around midday. Spots that stay completely shaded could maintain some winter-like snow for a few days. Night skiers/boarders beware -- this isn't a very good pattern for night-riding. By the time the lights come on each evening, the groomed areas will be skied-out, choppy and slippery, and the off-groomed areas will have frozen back into a rough hard-pack. Overall, it'll be very icy at night this week.

Frankly, I'm looking forward to this change in the weather. The powder has been great, but I'm itching to get in some high-speed cruising on nicely groomed runs beneath the daytime sun. Each resort should have their grooming fleets working hard, laying down lots of courderoy all over the mountain. My new high-speed Rossignol Zenith Z9s will get a much-needed test drive coming up. Can't wait to get up there...

Enjoy the sunshine!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Weekend Update

It appears as if the "big snow pattern" may finally be ending -- at least temporarily. Our weather pattern is definitely shifting away from frequent cold storms and more towards occasional storms with more dry weather than wet weather. I see several sunny days on the mountain coming up.

As of now, here's the outlook:

Saturday -- Increasing light snow in the afternoon. Snow level around 4,000 feet... which is a little high. But it's low enough to keep the precipitation as snow, albeit a wet snow. Expect only 3-6" with this storm -- it's not very strong.

Sunday -- Becoming sunny. The freezing level will be 5,000-6,000 feet, so it'll be fairly mild in the afternoon with temperatures into the 30s. There shouldn't be much wind. Overall, a nice day on the mountain.

Monday -- Increasing snow again in the afternoon. Expect about 6-10" of new snow by Tuesday morning. As the snow begins, the snow level will be near 4,000 feet... but it should fall to below 2,000 feet by Tuesday morning.

Tuesday-- Becoming sunny. It'll be cold in the morning, but afternoon temperatures will be 25-30 degrees.

Wednesday through Friday -- Mostly sunny and milder. The freezing level should be above 6,000 feet... meaning that the runs exposed to the sun may enter a freeze/thaw pattern. That means firm conditions in the morning with some afternoon softening. It is January, however, so once the snow gets firm or icy, it can be difficult for it to soften unless it gets unusually warm. Higher-elevation areas with a northerly exposure (such as Heather Canyon and the bowls off of Shooting Star Ridge at Meadows and the Outback & Northwest territories at Mt. Bachelor) may maintain winter-like snow for several days since the sun angle is so low, however.

A major plus to this upcoming break in the weather: Crews will have lots of opportunities to build parks and pipes in the coming week.

Have a fun weekend!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A Little Warmer...

The past three weeks have been a real treat. The snow level has stayed low, and the temperature at the higher ski areas really hasn't been higher than 25 degrees. Much of the new snow fell at temperatures between 18 and 25 degrees -- which is cold for the Pacific Northwest (most of our snow falls between 25 and 30 degrees). So the quality of the snow has been excellent. (No complaints about the quantity either!) I was at Mt. Hood Meadows yesterday afternoon -- the snow was magnificent packed powder.

The weather pattern will be changing slightly as we head through this week... and not necessarily for the better. The storm moving through today is a little warmer. So the new snow won't be as dry & fluffy. And the Wednesday night & Thursday storm looks a little warmer yet... meaning that the new snow from that storm will be thicker and wetter. Avalanche danger will become very high this week with the denser snow overwhelming the deep, fluffy powder beneath it.

It appears as if we'll get a break from the storminess this weekend. A lot of high cloudiness will dim or block the sunshine, but I believe it will stay dry on Saturday and Sunday. It'll be milder yet, as the freezing level may rise above Timberline for the first time in weeks.

My day of choice this week is tomorrow (Wednesday). At least a foot of new snow will greet you in the morning, and the sun may make an appearance or two during the day. Friday doesn't look bad either, but the snow will be a bit thicker & wetter at the end of the week.


Friday, January 4, 2008

Snow Depth Comparison

So... how good of a year are we having so far? Well... in terms of the amount of snow on the ground, this year is up there with the good years so far this decade. The graphic above shows the settled snow, on the ground at Timberline and at Ski Bowl, on January 1st of each year. You can see that this year's snowpack isn't the highest... but it's close. It's even more impressive when you take into account that we've really only had one month of snowfall so far -- the base really didn't start climbing until around the 1st of December. In previous years, the base started building earlier... so this year's pace has been very impressive.

Looking ahead, there will be another 1-2 feet of snow this weekend. The snow level will start near 4,000 feet Friday, but by Sunday night, it will have steadily lowered to near 1,000 feet. There will be a little break between storms later Monday into early Tuesday, but then another powerful storm arrives later Tuesday and keeps the trees white through Thursday of next week.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Heather Canyon Opens

It's true... the Canyon opened Wednesday. The break from the storms Monday and Tuesday provided enough of a window for Meadows' patrol staff to finish their avalanche control work and to set up the necessary rope lines. Any first-hand accounts of what it was like?

Sorry for not posting for a while... I was in Orlando, Florida, during the past few days. But now I'm back... and I'm picking up my newest pair of skis today (Rossi Zenith Z9s -- high-speed cruisers!) following the binding-mount. (I bought them at the ski show two months ago... and just now got around to getting them ready.) But given the forecast for a snowy & stormy weather pattern to continue, those new Z9s of mine may sit in the garage for a while... as my Salomon 1080 Gun (fat) skis stay in the car.

More powder days are coming, but we'll have to wait until the weekend for the snow level to drop back down to below pass-level. Between now and then, it'll snow up at Meadows and Timberline... but it may rain at times at lower areas. From the weekend into early next week, the snow level shouldn't be any higher than 2,500 feet... meaning that a couple feet of additional medium-quality snow can be expected.

While still young, this winter is increasingly behaving like a classic La Winter winter; a little sluggish early, then an onslaught of Pacific storminess that results in deep snow and a rapidly growing base. I have every reason to believe that we're in for more of the same in the coming weeks... frequent snowstorms with only short, occasional breaks of drier and tranquil weather.