Weather will become more unsettled next week with the chance for accumulating mountain snowfall. Season's not completely over yet!
Short Term Forecast
Season Wrap-Up below...
Our season has come (mostly) to a close as far as lift-served skiing is concerned. Sure, Snowbird will remain open for a bit longer and Alta and Solitude have bonus weekends. The vast majority of lifts, however, are done spinning for the season and therefore we must embark on winter's eulogy.
From a meteorological perspective, we came into this season with a moderate La Nina. What did that mean for Utah? Very little. As I've said a million times over the years, ENSO (El Nino/La Nina) has very little correlation to Utah snowfall. We can very easily see both good and bad years on each end of the spectrum. At best, we can perhaps say that it ever so slightly loads the odds in the favor of north vs. south to do better. For example, La Nina generally favors areas farther north in the western US, so we expected that perhaps they would stand a better chance to do better this year. Such was the case in Utah, where I mentioned prior to the season that perhaps Northern Utah would be more likely to do better relative to normal than southern Utah.
From a societal standpoint, we came into this season with a lot of questions as to how a global pandemic would play out in the ski industry. As we all know, last year the resorts abruptly closed in March and the ski season was cut short. We were all quite worried that the same would happen again and we wouldn't have a ski season this year. Or that it could end at any minute. Even if we did have a ski season, how would it look with so many safety measures in place to guard against the transmission of a virus? There were a lot of questions, and very few answers.
I am going to use the Snotel Snowbird site as a general guide to our season. Why that site? Because it would take me forever to break down every individual site and Snowbird is one of the snowiest locations in the state. It also has reliable data and is centrally located to 8 of the state's 15 resorts. Here is a detailed breakdown of the snowpack at this site this season:
Let's start on November 1, we had seen a few October storms as per usual that had put down some modest accumulation which remained on protected north aspects. But otherwise, it was a dry start to November for the first week and it was looking like resorts would possibly have to push back opening dates again. Things changed with a strong storm and long-duration NW flow during the second week of November. Over 3 feet of new snowfall fell in Upper LCC with 12-20" in other parts of the Wasatch. You can see this clearly in the graph above. This storm, along with subsequent cold airmass, allowed most resorts to open on time with a combination of natural and man-made snow by Thanksgiving.
Unfortunately, we had a very long strong stretch from mid-November through mid-December with very little snowfall and mostly sunny, warm days. This was the first period in which we saw almost the entire state fall substantially below normal snowpack. It was also a period in which the existing snowpack was left to "rot" and develop persistent weak layers. I think these 3 weeks or so were the cause of so much backcountry snowpack instability that really didn't go away until at least February.
In late December, the tempo picked up again with a series of mostly weak systems. Much of these systems were heavily orographic in nature so areas that do well in NW flow received some decent amounts, but elsewhere, we only saw a few inches at a time. Overall, the snowpack continued to dip further below normal through the start of 2021.
Again, in mid-January we saw another thaw period where we went completely dry for a stretch of 10 days or so. This was when we reached our lowest point of the season, both in terms of snowpack and skier/rider morale. Here is the statewide snowpack numbers on January 15th:
Even looking at this today gives me a case of the "yikes". Needless-to-say, things were not going well from a snowpack standpoint. This was the point in the season that I was receiving message from readers asking if I needed mental help as my forecasts strongly reflected my disappointment, to put it mildly.
However, things started to change during the third week of January. We entered a much more favorable pattern for storms and the numbers began to improve. We saw storm after storm for a solid 5-week period and as you can clearly see in the graph above, our snowpack shot up as a result. This period included the infamous 70-hour interlodge in LCC where 65" fell in 2 days and 100" fell in 5 days. It really was a "season-saving" storm cycle period in that it took us from being in dire straights to being relatively close to normal. We went from having one of our worst ever seasons to having just a slightly below average season. You can see the difference that period made in this comparison in snowpack from January 20th to February 20th:
Again, we were still below normal, but relatively modestly so. We finally saw another break to start March before the tempo picked up again. In general, we've been "holding serve" ever since in which we've seen occasional storms that are fairly close to climatology, or what we should expect to see this time of year.
If we look at the entire state as a summary of all snow sites, we can see that our peak average SWE was 12.6" on March 27th (black line):
The median snowpack (green line) peaks around April 1 at 15.6". That means that our peak this season was just over 80% of median and slightly early. You can see how that compares to last year (gold line) where we also peaked slightly early, but were a bit above the median.
Overall, from a metrics standpoint, this year was certainly below normal statewide. Very few, if any, major snotel sites peaked above their median. Our stormy late January and February almost certainly saved us from an abysmal season such as the one we endured in 2014-15. The good news is that we live in a very snowy place in Utah. That means that a 80% season such as the one we had still means we saw up to 473" (Alta) of snow (so far). This is considerably more snow than most other popular ski regions in the west average. It's nice that our "below average" is above average almost anywhere else.
What parts of the Western US did well? Basically, the pacific northwest.
If you were to pick one area to do well in a La Nina season, it would be the Pac NW. Sure enough, they saw generally well-above average snowpack this season. The Northern Rockies were close to average whereas the Wasatch and Colorado Rockies were a bit below normal. The Sierra Nevada and southwestern US were significantly below normal. In general, the farther south you went, the worst the snowpack.
While the numbers this year were not terrible here in Utah, they are coming off the back of a very dry summer and fall in 2020. If anything, our drought has been exacerbated this season. With a growing population, our water resources continue to be more scarce and while I'm not a hydrologist, what I have read from our water experts is not good. We are going to need a damp spring and strong monsoon summer to prevent a rough fire season and stringent water restrictions.
That's how we fared from a snowpack and metrics standpoint, but the other way to gauge the season is by our perspectives as skiers/riders. For me personally, this season was very different than any other. This was my first winter as a father. My wife works so I was often on full-time dad duty and did not ski as much as I typically do. With that being said, I still managed over 50 days and 26 of those were what I would consider "powder days" -- so I'm not complaining. Due to the uncertainties of the pandemic and fatherhood, I entered the season with somewhat reserved expectations. Any good days I could get, I would be thankful for them. If I missed a good powder day or two, no big deal. I think this mentality made it a bit easier to deal with our poor start to the season. When the good snow finally did arrive, I felt so appreciative to live in a place that allowed me to escape into the mountains at a moment's notice to enjoy it.
A lot of the talk this season was about the crowds. It's a topic that is unavoidable. For me, there's no question the skiing in this regard has changed in the years I've been here. You used to be able to leave your house at 8am on a powder day with no fear of not being able to make it up the canyon. Now, the red snake looms large in our psyches. This is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to Utah, as growing crowds have become a talking point all over the west, including my friends in Colorado and Tahoe.
From my perspective, there are several reasons for this. In Utah, we've see a ballooning population. A large percentage of those who have moved here did so to enjoy the outdoors, so we have considerably more locals skiing than we did 20 years ago. We have also seen a move towards more "mega passes" that give users access to many mountains for cheaper prices than we the previous individual resort passes. While this is great for accessibility and getting more people on the hill, it means that folks who used to not purchase season passes and instead buy a few lift tickets each season, are instead opting to buy a season pass and then ski more days to get more value out of the pass.
We have also seen are shift in how users want to ski the mountain. Previously, powder hounds were a relatively small segment of the population. Now, with the advent of new technology that makes powder skiing easier, along with better forecasting of powder days and social media spreading FOMO, powder skiers are a much broader segment of the overall ski populace. This is, for the most part, the reason OpenSnow has been successful. While it is great that forecasting has improved and so many want to enjoy the magic of riding powder, it certainly creates havoc when so many folks are all after the same thing.
While I don't think any of the above factors are going to change, we did have some special circumstances this season that exacerbated the problems. The first is that we are in a pandemic, there are far fewer options of activities for people to do. Being outdoors and skiing is a relatively safe activity and many people skied far more often this season than previous seasons. People were also far less likely to carpool or take public transportation this season, which increased the number of vehicles on the road. Once at the resorts, chairlifts weren't being loaded to capacity due to protocol and therefore increased the length of lines.
If that weren't enough, we had a season in which the storms seemed to always hit on the weekend. If it seemed like every powder day was falling on a Saturday, that wasn't just your imagination. Saturday and Sunday had more new snow reported than any other days of the week this season. We truly had a remarkable run of weekend storms which were great for weekend warriors, but added to the headache of trying to get to and from resorts all season long.
Hopefully, next season we at least don't have to deal with pandemic related issues and maybe a bit more parity with regard to which days of the week the snow falls. My hope is that alleviates at least some of the issues we saw this year with crowding. However, it will still be an issue and we all know that. I'm sure we've all seen the proposals UDOT and others have made to improve canyon transportation. It's imperative that we as a community are involved to help solve the problem.
Even with the above issues and our below normal snowpack, I still feel like I had a satisfying season. I love skiing as much as ever and I savor every day I'm able to spend on the mountain. Thank you so much for your readership this season. I know forecasts weren't always as detailed as they have been in the past. I blame parenthood for significantly cutting into the amount of time I have to write forecasts in the morning. Hopefully next winter I won't have quite as many mid-forecast diaper changes to perform.
Thanks again! Have a great summer!
Evan | OpenSnow