"Skiers will eventually find that the Brighton Basin, or the heads of the [Cottonwood] canyons within a short radius of this winter paradise, offer the best skiing to be found in the Wasatch Mountains."
- S. D. Green, U.S. Weather Bureau Meteorologist, 1935
No. Or maybe better put given the uncertainties, probably not.
The S. D. Green quote above pretty much sums up the situation. Green was the original Wasatch Weather Weenie, a meteorologist and an avid backcountry skier. Some of his photographs are part of the ski archives in the University of Utah Marriott Library. He and the early ski pioneers recognized pretty quickly that there was something special in the upper Cottonwood Canyons.
|S. D. Green photo of skiers near the Wasatch Mountain Club lodge, |
We'll answer the question by looking at the available data. Since extensive snowfall observations are not collected throughout the Wasatch, we'll rely on the PRISM digital precipitation analyses produced by Oregon State University and SNOTEL observations.
The PRISM analyses suggest that the annual precipitation in the mountainous areas of northern Utah is greatest in two areas. One is in the Cottonwood Canyons (southernmost red box), the other is on Ben Lomond Peak in the northern Wasatch (northernmost red box).
|Average annual precipitation (inches) in the mountainous regions|
of northern Utah. Source: PRISM Climate Group, Oregon State University
This analysis is of course not perfect. It doesn't fully resolve terrain effects and their are data gaps, but we can say that it is likely that the Cottonwoods and Ben Lomond Peak (and adjoining Willard Peak) are the wettest locations in northern Utah. Further, while this is annual precipitation, most of the precipitation that falls over our mountains falls during the cool season. At Alta, for example, 70% of the precipitation falls from November to April. Therefore, the spatial pattern in the mountains above is strongly influenced by precipitation during the cool season.
Next, we'll bore into the climatology of the Cottonwoods and Ben Lomond. I'm going to use SNOTEL data, which isn't perfect, but should suffice. At the Snowbird SNOTEL, the snowpack SWE peaks at about 44", whereas at the Ben Lomond SNOTEL, it peaks at about 40".
|Source: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center|
But, Ben Lomond is not the undiscovered deep-powder Shangri-La for a few reasons. First, it only reaches to 9700 feet. The terrain around the Cottonwoods is higher, reaching over 11,000 feet in places), which helps make up for contrasts in precipitation at a given elevation and results in a colder climate that better preserves powder. Second, the storms at Ben Lomond are typically monsters that occur during southwesterly flow. This gives a big snowpack, but often creates high avalanche hazard and is not optimal for a high frequency of powder days. Finally, I've skied on Ben Lomond many times and it is an extremely windy place on the ridge and above timberline. Finding good powder in the alpine requires good fortune.
Thus, while there is good skiing to be had throughout northern Utah's mountains, the closest thing to powder Shangri-La really is the Cottonwood Canyons. As Don Henley sang for the Eagles in The Last Resort, "there are no more new frontiers, we have got to make it here."