It is time for us to wrap up this season and file it away into the history books. How will this season be remembered? Perhaps not too fondly. It was a season that started slow, then didn't really pick up at all thru December or even January. At the end of January, we were still rocking mid-December snowpack levels and wondering if winter would ever arrive. It did finally arrive in February and March, but it was a little bit too little and too late to make up any serious ground. Our deficit was already too great and while an active late season helped us to avoid the infamy of the worst season ever, we will still be looking back on 2017-18 as one to generally forget.
Of course, Utah is a big state and not all locations are the same. So let's start by looking at the snowpacks of a few individual locations.
Cottonwood Canyons (Snowbird):
The dark blue line is average. The green line is this year. As you can see, we were well below average, peaking at less than 70% of our normal peak annual snowpack. We've already started a precipitous decline as very warm weather is already doing a number on our snowpack, a couple weeks earlier than normal. The light blue line is 2011-12 season. You can seem how similar this year has been to 2012. Both had slow starts, then made modest comebacks. We finished just behind 2012, but I must say I was stunned to see how similar the spring patterns have been. We've even seen the same storm timings and warm cycles thru the spring. Really interesting... The red line is 2014-2015 season. For me, that has the distinction of being the worst Utah season since at least 76-77. We were running well behind that season for the early part of the year, but 2015 went bone dry after January 1, which meant that we were able to catch up and pass that season by mid-March of this year and finished almost 10" of SWE above 2015. More than anything, this highlights just how bad the second half of 2015 was.
It's going to be painful, but let's look at Snowbird compared to last year:
Our peak SWE of ~30" this year was reached last year by the third week of January on the way to a peak of ~60". Basically, double the snowpack last year of this year. Ouch!
Park City (Thaynes Canyon):
Park City generally receives 30-40% less snow than the Cottonwoods, even at the higher elevations. So the effects of a poor snow year are often amplified on that side of the Crest. If we look at this year's snowpack compared to average, and also throw in the recent poor seasons of 2011-12 and 2014-15, you can see how this year stacked up:
Like Snowbird, this year paralleled 2011-12 season extremely closely, but we finished just a touch better this year. We were well ahead of 2015, but well behind average. A bad season, but not as bad as some other years.
Southern Utah (Brian Head):
Generally speaking, the farther south you went this season, the worse it got. Arizona, the San Juans of Colorado, and New Mexico all had historically awful seasons. The type of awful that should make us Wasatch skiers count our blessings. The situation in Southern Utah wasn't quite as dire as those locations, but it was still pretty miserable. Brian Head has difficulty all season with low snow amounts and Eagle Point was barely even able to open all season. Looking at the numbers for a snotel location close to Brian Head, we see the following:
Well below average as you can see with a peak snowpack that was slightly above 2015 and slightly below 2012.
Snowbasin/Powder Mountain (Ben Lomond):
As we head back up to northern Utah, we take a look at the snowpack around the Ogden Valley. Ben Lomond is about the closest snotel that is fairly good average of what Snowbasin and Powder Mountain are seeing. The season up there was also pretty terrible. At Snowbasin, which has a relatively low elevation base, it was difficult at times to keep trails open, especially when temps started to rise. Off-piste skiing at Snowbasin never really got going as many of the bushes and rocks that are typically covered by January remained exposed all season. At PowMow, the situation wasn't any better. Paradise Lift, which is lower in elevation, didn't open until late February. Powder Country never opened to my knowledge. Without snowmaking ability to aid early on, Powder Mountain had a rocky (literally) season that recovered just a bit toward the end. Unfortunately, Powder Mountain was forced to close a week early in April after we had a warm rain event that exposed many of the creeks that flow through its vast terrain -- making it too dangerous to stay open. It was a sad end to a sad season up there...
Here is a look at Ben Lomond's numbers...
Ben Lomond is traditionally one of the snowier locations in the Wasatch, so to see it peak at ~19" of SWE this year is depressing. The average, as you can see, is about 40". So we were less than half of normal up there. We did, however, better 2015 just barely. A late March surge gave this year the edge. We were noticeably behind 2012. Perhaps the most depressing statistic is that the recent heat wave has depleted the snowpack to almost nothing. As of yesterday, only 0.4" of liquid remained. That is 1% of normal. One. Freaking. Percent. Usually we enter May with more than 30" of SWE remaining. How's that for a bummer.... Ben Lomond Trail also has a snotel site at a lower elevation. If you think the numbers above are bad, the trail was even worse. It peaked at about 5" of SWE this year. Last year, the trail peaked at 30" of SWE. So Ben Lomond Trail was nearly 70% higher last year, than Ben Lomond Peak this year... Now that is a depressing statistic...
Tony Grove Lake (Beaver Mountain):
Aside from the northern Uintas, perhaps the only real bright spot in Utah this year was up by the Idaho border. Tony Grove Lake, near Beaver Mountain, actually saw somewhat respectable totals this season.
We peaked at 32" of SWE this year, which is not all that far off of the average of 35". The cool and active weather in mid-April actually gave us a later peak than normal. I commented on this a couple times of the years, but TGL has a remarkable consistency. When the rest of Utah is in dire straights, TGL seems to always pull in respectable numbers. Here are the same 3 bad seasons that were horrible virtually everywhere else in Utah. At TGL, the numbers were below normal, but not by all that much. I made a couple treks up to Beaver Mountain this year and it's always worth it. Such a fun and quaint resort with excellent people, food, and terrain.
For those of you who'd like to see this year in map form, here is a remind of what things looked like on February 1, 2018 when we were reeling from 3 straight dry months to start the winter season:
The numbers were pretty bad up north, very bad in the middle, and awful down south. Then, after more typical February and March patterns, the numbers on April 1, 2018:
The were still below normal everywhere, but we made some definite improvements throughout much of the state. It was at least enough to "stop the bleeding" and as I said earlier, avoid the infamy of the worst statistical season ever.
My Personal Take:
Of course, every season can be judged in the eye of each skier/snowboarder. One person's awful season, can be great for somebody else. For me personally, the season started terribly. I didn't get my first really good powder day until February, which is insane! Normal I've had a dozen really good powder days by the time we get to February. As a forecaster, it sucked beyond measure to have to wake up every morning and share more bad news with you guys. My sanity was tested and the results were not good. If you follow me on Twitter, you might have been concerned for my well-being there for awhile. I've forecasted bad seasons before, like 2015, but at least that year, we had a very good early season base and there was still snow to ski/snowboard on once we hit that dry spell. This year, we never really seemed to get out of early season mode until it was too late.
With that said, things really turned around for me starting in mid-February. I had a series of excellent powder days, several of which seemed bottomless. I ended up skiing 30 days with 6" or more of fresh snow and 14 of those were what I considered DEEP days of a foot or more. In total, I had 62 days skiing so far this winter. One of the victims of this season for me was days in the backcountry. Usually I get about a dozen solid days of touring per season. This year, the low snowpack and then touch-and-go avalanche conditions kept me out of the backcountry. By the time we finally did get snow, the more caustic sun angle was in play and the snow didn't stay in good shape for as long. I was also too lazy at that point in the season to get my touring legs back under me. In the end, I only did 2 days in the backcountry this year compared to 60 days in the resort. Sad.
The overall season was not a good one for me compared to most years, but at least there was 6-8 weeks of good, typical Utah winter there to remind me of how awesome it can be. I still skied more powder this year than a lot of people get to ski in their lifetime, so I'm not complaining one bit.
How was this season from your perspective?
Thank you all for your support and readership this year! It was a difficult one for me and your kind words of encouragement got me through those awful first few months when it seemed like it would never snow. There is nothing that makes me happier than when somebody has a great powder day and I helped them to score a day they won't soon forget. Skiing powder and weather are my passions and I love that I am able to share it with you guys. 8 seasons of this and I can't believe how many of you share these same passions.
Thanks to my wife for putting up with my terrible moods for much of this season. Thanks to the NRCS and CBRFC for the data and graphs used today and all season. To the University of Utah atmospheric science department for the excellent tools they have created for forecasting in Utah and throughout the western states. The National Weather Service and NOAA for continued excellence putting your tax dollars to work. Very few countries have anything close to as sophisticated weather forecasting as we do and it's largely thanks to our investment in the sciences. We can all be meteorologists with the publicly available forecasting data and models put out by our government.
Thank you to the entire Utah ski industry for being so rad and accommodating. Not all ski destinations work together like Utah does to maximize the experience for locals and visitors alike.