Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Get High If You Want to Ski

Although Utah is home to the Greatest Snow on Earth during winter (except for perhaps this year), once spring rolls around, I'm more inclined to think about skiing elsewhere.  There are big lines and beautiful views to be had around the west, but this year, you might have to work a bit harder than usual to find some that are adequately snow covered.

Below is the basin-wide percent of average snowpack analysis for the western U.S. from the NRCS.  These numbers are simply heinous for most of the west.  Only portions of Colorado and SE Wyoming are near average (the high numbers in SE Utah are either spurious or the result of what we call the "statistics of small numbers" — there's very little snow there).

In the Sierra and Cascades, the snowpack is non-existent or <10% of average in most basins.  One plus is that with no low-elevation snow, access to higher elevation tours is much easier than it typically is in May.  For example, the road to the South Climb Trailhead on Mt. Adams is melted out.  The climber's report suggests you'll find snow starting at 6100 feet.

Averages can be deceiving.  Let's instead look at the actual water equivalent of the snowpack.  No matter where you are, given the warmth of this past winter, if you want to find snow, you need to get high.  Specifically, you need to look to the upper elevations of the North Cascades, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado.  The Cascade Volcanoes will probably work too, although those aren't sampled by SNOTEL.

Source: NRCS
The highest SWE in the west is at Easy Pass (5270 feet) in the North Cascades, which currently sits at 45 inches. Moving east, Noisy Basin (6040 ft) and Flattop Mountain (6300 ft) near or in Glacier National Park sit at 33.7 and 31.1 inches, respectively.  Moving south Grand Targhee on the west slope of the Tetons (9260 ft) is at 31.7 inches and the MedBow Snotel in the Medicine Bow Range sits at 32.4 inches.

In Colorado, the snowpack SWEs are not as high as found in other areas, but they have a healthy snowpack near or above average at upper elevations along the Continental Divide from Independence Pass to Niwot Ridge.  The plot below shows only only SNOTELs above 10,000 ft, with green signifying 90-110% of average, light blue 110-125% of average, medium blue 125-150% of average, and dark blue 150-175% of average.

Source: CBRFC
The Grizzly Peak Snotel at Arapohoe Basin didn't quite crest at average, but the cool and intermittently snowy weather in the recent past puts it a bit above average at present.

So, all is not lost.  There's not a lot of snow to be had in Utah.  Upper elevations of the Cottonwoods are about your best bet.  Road tripping and getting high will get you turns elsewhere.  In some instances, access may actually be easier than it typically is this time of year.

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