Utah’s ski resorts are growing in popularity, as documented by a steady increase in skier days since the 2002 Olympics. While numbers are down slightly to just under 4 million last year, the last 7 seasons have all been in the top 10 in skier visits of all time, with 2007/08 the biggest year ever. While traffic at resorts increases, so to does backcountry travel for skiers and snowboarders searching for the ever more elusive first tracks. Add to that the helicopters which give lift to even more powderhounds, along with faster access, and the Wasatch indeed does at times maintain it’s derogatory nickname- Wasangeles.
While the search for powder becomes more and more competitive, has the focus become too narrow- why is everyone centered on the central Wasatch? How can powder be scarce- Alta got nearly 700 inches last year for crying out loud…
We posed the question to our selected experts for debate: Utah Powder- Precious or Plentiful?
By Mike Matson
Skiers in Salt Lake are spoiled. Like ice climbers scaling frozen waterfalls in Banff, or surfers riding waves in Hawaii, we have some of the best, most consistent conditions for our chosen sport on the planet. We take it for granted that year in, year out, winter will deliver its precious goods. Every season Utah’s mountains get hit by big storms cart-wheeling in from the Pacific. Sometimes they’ll track across from California, previewing their delivery in the Sierras. Or when the jet stream shifts north, we’ll catch low pressure systems spinning down from the Pacific Northwest, sucking up moisture and energy as they pass over the Great Salt Lake. But regardless of where these storms come from, they deliver some of the coldest, lightest, most enjoyable snow for skiing and boarding you’ll experience anywhere in North America. That’s one of the magical parts of winter in Utah.
Appreciating a good thing is all about perspective. I grew up in the Northwest and went to college in Bellingham, a little town on the US-Canada border midway between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Our local mountain was Mt. Baker, another spot known for its uniquely stellar snow conditions, copious powder, and fanatical local ski scene. In the winter of 1998-1999 Mt. Baker experienced an El Nino smack-down of unprecedented proportions. It was a dark, gloomy, wonderful winter. In Bellingham it rained 90 consecutive days, and Mt. Baker received an unbelievable 1,140 inches of snow. For three straight months we rode powder to our heart’s content. The storm track seemed to be permanently glued over the North Cascades and we focused our energy on soaking it all in. But by mid-February the endless powder had lost its allure. The sun had been absent for months. Mildew was starting to grow on our Gore-Tex, soggy boots that hadn’t been dry for weeks acquired a whole new level of ski locker stink, and our wind-burned faces longed for a calm day, if only so we could catch a glimpse of the volcano our ski-area was named after. We gladly would have exchanged a day of sun for another storm. But that didn’t last long. As the season wound down and the sun finally poked through the clouds, it only took a few days before we were ready for another storm. Ten years later, that season at Mt. Baker is still my measuring stick for epic winters. I don’t think I’ll see another one like it, ever. But the lesson I learned there stuck: powder is precious, so enjoy it while you can!
In Utah, it’s easy to lose perspective. The past two winters have both ranked in the top ten in the last 50 years for snowfall totals. The state of Utah has 14 ski resorts with annual snowfall averages ranging between 547 inches at Alta, to 300 inches at Wolf Creek. Total snowfall at many of Utah’s resorts rank among the highest in country. And it’s not just the quantity of Utah powder that makes it special, it’s the quality. Average water content, the all-important factor contributing to the light, fluffy character of Utah powder, is about 7 percent, and is often even lower. Compare that to 30-40 percent in maritime environments like the mountains found on the West Coast and it’s easy to understand why Utah is the skiing haven it is.
The fact that we have it good, doesn’t make it any less precious. While ski industry hype makes it sound like Utah’s supply of powder is endless, reality on the slopes is quite different. The best powder conditions are rare and short lived, regardless of where you ski. If you ski at the resorts, especially in the Wasatch, expect to share your powder days with armies of other skiers and boarders. Utah’s riders are both knowledgeable and motivated. If there’s powder to be had, they will find it, and find it quickly. It’s only a matter of hours after the lifts start running before the major resorts are all but skied off. That’s one of the reasons the Wasatch has such a vibrant backcountry scene. Touring in the backcountry vastly reduces the competition for your turns, but it is still very condition specific. Even when the powder isn’t being skied, it is being melted by the sun, scoured by the wind, or simply settling down into a consolidated snowpack. With each passing day, the best conditions slip quickly away. Leaving only a memory of how good it was. Leaving us longing for the next storm, with a deeper appreciation of how precious those bottomless, over the head, blissful turns really are.
By Craig Dostie
Whether Utah powder is any more precious a resource than powder in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Wyoming or Montana, California’s Sierra, or the Cascades of Washington is only a worthwhile debate among inebriated skiers and snowboarders. Nonetheless, so you may be prepared for your next debate with kindred spirits, I suggest it is less scarce in Utah than elsewhere. This view is definitely contrary to local opinion, but only because of Salt Lake City’s proximity to the Wasatch range.
From the purely meteorological perspective, indeed, powder is precious. The conditions that must combine in just the right measure to create the type of snow that meets the criteria to be called powder are limited. However, compared to coastal mountain ranges, Utah powder is far more plentiful because the conditions that create the billowy, champagne bubbly that every skier dreams about are more common in Utah than just about any place else on the planet. Resorts regularly log over 400” annually and it almost always falls lightly. Predominantly cold temperatures and dry air tend to keep it that way, especially on steep northern slopes protected from the warm rays of the sun.
One can argue that even though powder snow is more typical in Utah’s mountains, due to the proximity of the teeming metropolis called Salt Lake City, powder is paradoxically even more rare, and therefore more precious, because it is tracked up so quickly. This is true of any resort, but in Utah it extends into the backcountry as well. Except this condition is only true within the small geographic area defined by Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. To be sure, 99% of the tracks made in Utah are concentrated in this area. So of course powder is rare when you ski where everybody else skis. Duh!
If you want powder, you need to escape the crowds. That means you must be willing to head into the backcountry. Though less pummeled than resort slopes, pristine runs in the Cottonwoods don’t last long either. One could argue that even earning your turns in the Cottonwoods is more like skiing backcountry suburbia than true wilderness. Every day hundreds of sidecountry, backcountry, and skiers hiring helicopters spread out on the slopes of the Cottonwoods, leaving their mark.
Part of the experience that makes true powder skiing so sublime is the solitude that extends beyond being enveloped in a cloud of ice chimes. To be sure, that fluffy ride down is quite exhilarating. But so too is immersing yourself in the immensity of the mountains and their still, sparkling, deep blue silence.
For that, you need to leave the crowds far behind, which simply means skiing somewhere other than the Cottonwoods. North towards Ogden, or south towards Beaver are but two obvious options. Few travel that road, which makes the powder you find there even more precious. Not because it isn’t copious. In fact, once you do leave the Cottonwoods arguments that powder is precious because it is scarce cease to be valid since there are so many thousands of acres of untracked snow available. After you abandon the Cottonwoods the predominance of real powder skiing, where the depth and immensity stirs even your soul, is more due to the lack of an adventuring spirit than scarcity of powder snow, making it a precious experience indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be a powder snob or that there isn’t some value in convenience or that it isn’t my most common choice because the record will show, it is. However, to complain about the scarcity of powder when there is so much to be had outside the Cottonwood canyons is simply an admission the whiner isn’t up for the challenge true powder skiing demands. But if you are, at least in Utah, there’s plenty of powder to be had.