Thursday, February 23, 2017

Is the 16/17 Ski Season as good as 10/11?

A buried upper White Pine Canyon on December 24, 2010.  Snow depth at Alta-Collins: 105"
While ski touring this weekend, one of my students had the audacity to ask me if this ski season is as good as 10/11.

Now, in my mind, the 10/11 ski season is the gold standard since I arrived in Utah in 1995 for a variety of reasons.  First, the season started fast, with 62" of snow at Alta-Collins on 1 December.  Second, we crested 100 inches at Alta-Collins before Christmas, opening up adventuring in rocky, high-elevation terrain very early in the season (see above).  Third, there was abundant low-elevation snowpack, greatly improving access to many backcountry areas.  Fourth, the snow just kept coming and, although Alta ski area does not measure snow after the end of the season, a reasonable case could be made that they reached near 800 inches by the end of May (see Alta 800!).

Professor Powder getting Memorial Day Weekend 2011 freshies.  Photo: Tyler Cruickshank.
That's a hell of a yardstick to match, but it turns out this season is close on a few accounts, at least in the Cottonwoods.  In particular, if we look at the snowpack water equivalent at Snowbird, this season (green line) is now neck and neck with 10/11 (cyan line).

Source: NRCS and NWS
Alternatively, if we look at snow depth at Alta-Collins, this morning we sit at 134 inches, whereas on 23 February, 2011, we sat at 141 inches.  Thus, if we base our argument on a snapshot taken this time of year at upper elevations, the two seasons are pretty comparable.

However, there are two other snow-related factors that tip the scales in favor of 10/11.  One is the deeper earlier season snowpack, as can be seen in the snowpack water equivalent above.  The other is the deeper lower elevation snowpack that existed in the Cottonwoods.  Of course, I don't have evidence for the latter except my memories. 

There is one non-snow-related factor that makes 10/11 the gold standard in my mind and it is a personal one.  My son was coming of age in 10/11 and aggressively seeking steep powder lines.  A father's dream!  We had a fantastic season.

Can this season eventually close the gap on 10/11?  That is a tall order.  The snow just kept coming in 10/11, with snowpack water equivalent eventually reaching 75 inches at Snowbird (see graph above).  It could happen, but it will take a hell of a March and April.  Remember in 10/11 how deep of a snowpack even well into June?  

Alta, June 11, 2011
Plus Snowbird stayed open through the 4th of July.

It would be wonderful to have a repeat, but really, does it matter?  Live in the here and now, and the here and now is serving up some great skiing.  

What do you think?


  1. 2010-2011 really can't be beat it can only be equaled and this year doesn't do it. It came early, we had good low elevation skiing, and it lasted late. I skied south facing almost to the road in LCC in JULY!!! My one quibble with 2010-2011 was that pesky MLK rain crust all the way to 11000' which resulted in huge slides during but not after the many many big precipitation events. This year has been very good but the lack of low elevation snow is a problem.

  2. March and April of 2011 were relentless - almost no breaks between storms. Complete reset of the slopes every night. I can remember getting to the bottom of a knee-deep Keyhole in mid-May and having a friend turn to me with a sigh and say "I think I'm ready for mountain biking." 10/11 ALMOST made deep powder boring. One month later, I'd spend a mid-June day alone skiing boot-deep fresh in Mineral Basin. 16/17 still needs 3 more strong months to clear the bar 10/11 set. Tall order.

  3. What about Ben Lomond Peak? The current (2/23) SWE there is 55.4 inches, whereas 2011 at that site was around 38 inches on 2/23, peaking at around 60 inches around 5/1. Of course that site is favored in SW flow as opposed to NW in the Cottonwoods, but maybe comparing ski seasons is more of an apples to oranges comparison.

    1. Time prevented me from doing a full scoping. Hence the Cottonwood focus. Apologies for dissing the northern Wasatch folks yet again.

  4. I really like this year so far. 2010-11 had a dry spell or two in January, if I recall correctly. This year had a great January. I have a thing for good Januaries.
    Also, we had good low elevation skiing until the rain started 3 weeks ago or so.
    Finally, this year comes on a heels of a fairly miserable 5 year stretch, making this year feel better.

  5. So which student was it?

  6. Whether it's a "gold standard" season or not, get out there and make hay while the sun is shining! It'll most likely be 5-10 more years until we get the luxury of comparing another season to 10/11 or 16/17.