By Joel Gratz, Founding Meteorologist Posted 12 years ago February 23, 2012

Here's how to find powder

I was in Steamboat yesterday and Vail today, and the conditions and events leading up to these ski days reinforced a concept that I've been thinking about for a while. But before telling you about both of these cases, I'll give you the punch line right up front: To find powder, you have to ski a lot. To find perfect powder, you have to ski even more.

This all boils down to a numbers game. The more times you ski, the more times you have the potential to find good snow. And the more times you find good snow, the more times you'll have the chance to find perfect snow.

For example, think about the folks who chase tornadoes. It seems like magic as they leave their house, look at radar, make a left at Rt. 191, and boom - there's the tornado. In reality, the failure rate is very just don't hear about it. Failure of course is a relative term, because even when they don't see a tornado, there's something very satisfying about seeing the countryside, driving new roads, and taking beautiful pictures of amazing clouds. But the best storm chasers, the ones you hear about on TV and can make a living by selling their pictures, videos, or giving tours, these folks have a secret weapon aside from the skill that's inherently necessary to find tornadoes. Their secret is that they chase almost every day they possibly can.

That's it. It's a numbers game. The more times you chase storms, the more storms you see, and the more tornadoes that you can potentially find. Yes yes, there is predictability in the weather (an astounding amount of predictability compared to 30 years ago, actually), but there's still some randomness in the weather that we can't model with a computer and that we just don't fully understand. So to make up for this, the good storm chasers chase every storm that they can (or that looks promising) in hopes of landing on the correct side of the randomness of weather.

Ok, so back to the snow, and in this case, chasing powder.

After Steamboat's 34 inches in 24 hours on Monday (President's Day), I headed up there late on Tuesday night. Since predicting and chasing powder is my job, let me give you a little insight into how my brain was working at this time...

  • Yesssss! Snowwwww! Powderrrrrr!

  • Hmm, it snowed a lot on Monday, and I'm going on Wednesday. Am I too late?

  • But it's been snowing all afternoon on Tuesday and still dumping at 9pm Tuesday night.

  •'s going to be amazing.

  • Well, the temperatures are getting warmer (up from 5F to 18F). Is this an issue?

  • No...I heard the last few runs on Tuesday were amazing.

And so off we went. It was dumping on Tuesday night at midnight when we arrived, and although it was warm in town (25F), things still looked good.

In reality, things were good - just in a different way than expected. Steamboat called 12" for their 24hr total, and we found that the last two week's worth of snow gave them an amazing base. Almost all trees/rocks/stumps were totally buried and we could ski any line we wanted. Taking advantage of First Tracks, we boarded the Gondola at 8am and set off to find the powder. After our first turn, we realized that the warming temperatures did a number on the snow and made it much heavier. Not heavy in terms of not being able to ski it, but it turned Champagne Powder into Pacific Coast Powder (PCP...if you will). While there weren't a ton of faceshots to be had in this heavy snow, the upside was that it skied very "surfy" and made an incredible base so we could jump off of just about anything and there were no issues at all.

(skier: Tamra Malczyk, photographer: Joel Gratz)

This type of heavier snow was not what I had hoped for, but it also wasn't totally unexpected (warming temperatures were in the forecast). And because we went and skied it, we had some fun in a style of skiing that we normally wouldn't do and learned just a little bit more about how the weather affects the snow. And of course we learned some valuable lessons:

  • Lots of snow is good, even if it's heavy. Steamboat has an amazing base!

  • Any skiing is good skiing. Sure, it wasn't Champagne Powder, but skiing was better than any alternative activity I could conjure up.

  • Don't think that tomorrow will be like today (or yesterday). Things's hard to replicate videos taken two days ago.

  • It's a numbers game...the more you ski, the more great snow you have a chance to enjoy.

Oddly, we had another interesting experience just on the heels of Steamboat. Vail reported 12" of snow on Thursday morning and things looked good for a powder day, but with VERY strong winds, all of the snow was blown around and the conditions weren't as we expected. We did find some nice tracks here and there, though (note: picture taken out of bounds on lower-angle terrain), but again the weather threw us some curve balls.

Now you'd think that as a professional meteorologist, I could anticipate how the weather will impact the snow conditions. Sometimes I can, but other times even I'm surprised. The really fun part for me is that even in "failure", skiing is skiing, and it's still the most fun activity I could ever dream of regardless of conditions. Plus, if things go differently in real life than they do in my forecast, I have the opportunity to go back, investigate what happened, and try to make a better forecast next time.

So remember...if you can, go out and ski every chance you reasonably can. Sometimes conditions won't be what you expected, but it's just a numbers game, so sooner or later (and with some help from weather forecasters who understand the needs of a skier), you'll find your perfect powder day.*

* If you like sunny days or fast groomer days, those are easier to forecast:-)

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About The Author

Joel Gratz

Founding Meteorologist

Joel Gratz is the Founding Meteorologist of OpenSnow and has lived in Boulder, Colorado since 2003. Before moving to Colorado, he spent his childhood as a (not very fast) ski racer in eastern Pennsylvania.

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