Snow Report Equals Part Art and Science

From powder, crust and corn to mashed potatoes,
corduroy and crud, skiers probably have more descriptive terms for snow than
anyone except the tundra-dwelling Inuit of northern Alaska and Canada.


But when it comes to the morning snow report you hear on the radio or read
in the paper, some of that creativity goes by the wayside, replaced by generic
terms like powder, packed powder and hardpack – all in the name of consistency
and accuracy.

The trade-off is that some skiers and snowboarders say snow reports have been
watered down to the point that they are almost meaningless. The solution could
be a grassroots report, done independently of the resorts and trade groups –
perhaps by locally based skiers and disseminated via the Internet, such as First
Tracks!! Online’s No-Bull
Ski Reports

While it’s easy to find fault with the system, it does generally help steer
skiers toward the goods.

“We usually call around on the cell phone heading up I-70,” says Aurora snowboarder
Stacy Duvall. “Wherever reports the most snow is where we go,” Duvall says,
adding that she and her boyfriend have passes at several resorts, but will buy
tickets elsewhere if conditions warrant.

A series of informal chairlift interviews conducted during the past week confirms
that Front Range skiers and snowboarders are a savvy bunch who know better than
to rely on the reports verbatim. People realize that, unless there’s been a
recent snowfall, they’re likely to find bony, hardpack conditions on many runs
early in the season when man-made snow prevails – reports of “packed powder”

They use the reports as a general guide to conditions, filling the gaps based
on their own experience. Taken together, the information on open terrain, number
of lifts operating and total snowfall for the previous several days does help
frame the scene.

The problem is that, if resorts routinely report powder and packed-powder conditions,
there is little room for improvement – call it the snow report equivalent of
grade inflation.

It can
also work the other way, says Rob Linde, marketing director for the National
Ski Areas Association.

“Snow reporting can be a negative,” Linde says. “Take last season, for example.
There were periods when there wasn’t a lot of new snow, and resorts were reporting
base depths that were not up to par for that time of the year.” 

That created a perception that conditions weren’t good,” Linde explains. ”But
it was sunny and gorgeous. The ski areas were doing the best they could with
snowmaking and grooming and conditions were actually pretty good.”

But all gripes aside, getting the report out to the public is one of the most
important jobs at any ski area, and while some skiers and snowboarders may be
a little skeptical of the reports, the people behind the scenes take their responsibility
very seriously.

“We like to be as accurate as possible,” says long-time Arapahoe Basin ski
patroller Tim Finnigan, explaining that the on-duty patroller arrives at 4:30
a.m. to take the required readings. The area has an automated sonar system that
measures the base depth, and also uses so-called “storm boards” to manually
verify the readings, Finnigan says, adding that A-Basin has been measuring snow
at the same spot for 20 years.

Along with numerous other ski areas, A-Basin submits weather, snowfall and
snowpack data to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, where forecasters
use the information to help rate avalanche hazards for backcountry travelers
and highway crews – just another reason to ensure the information is good as

At every ski area, the process begins when someone – usually a patroller or
a groomer – heads up the hill, braving the pitch-black chill of winter every
single morning during the season to measure the base depth as well as any new
snow that may have fallen since the day before.

Those totals show up when you call the snow hotline at your favorite ski area
before heading for the slopes, or when you surf to the Colorado Ski Country
USA (CSCUSA) snow report on the Web, updated at 6 a.m.

“You’ve got to have an appreciation for the folks getting that information
to us by 5:30 a.m.,” says CSCUSA’s Evan Smith, who coordinates the trade group’s
snow reporting effort.

The resorts also take a second reading in the afternoon, which is reflected
in the morning snow reports in the daily papers. It’s important to remember
that conditions can change dramatically overnight, Smith says. For example,
plenty of fresh snow can – and often does – accumulate in the four hours between
the 4:30 a.m. report and the time the lifts open.

The measurements are taken at a mid-mountain snow stake located in a flat area
that’s sheltered from the wind by tall trees. The daily base depth is the amount
of natural snow that falls and accumulates over the course of the season, taking
into account the fact that snow settles under its own weight, evaporates or
sometimes simply blows away.

The base depth report also does not take into account the man-made snow that
covers slopes at many resorts during the early season, even if there hasn’t
been a single flake of snow from the heavens. Smith says the CSCUSA guidelines
allow some leeway for reporting in the early season, when many areas report
an 18-inch base of man-made.

The second element is for each resort to report surface conditions. Although
there are some general guidelines, Smith says, there is also some room for the
snow reporters to use discretion and common sense.

“I think what try to do is condense the predominant conditions,” Smith says.
“It should be as accurate as possible. It doesn’t help anybody to fudge.”

That subjective element can sometimes be misleading. A recent snow report,
for example (Nov. 14) saw Copper, Breckenridge and Keystone all reporting man-made/packed
powder conditions, while Loveland was reporting man-made/hardpack. It’s questionable
whether conditions were really that much different at Loveland.

The reports also don’t reflect the fact that on big mountains – Vail or Copper,
for example – conditions can vary widely from top to bottom and across the various
aspects. A moderate mid-winter day could bring crisp powder in the north-facing
glades, Icy hardpack on heavily traveled blue runs and even crud and glop on
south-facing terrain.

But keeping
in mind that the idea is to report predominant conditions the areas generally
report “powder” with three or more inches of fresh snow, Smith says.

“A lot of times they’ll say powder/packed powder just to indicated that there
are groomed runs available, even it it’s been snowing hard for a few days,”
Smith says, explaining that some people might be intimidated by the thought
of a ski area covered with deep, untracked snow.

Copper communication director Ben Friedland says his resort reports powder
conditions whenever there are five inches or more of fresh. But it can also
depend on when the storm hits and how quickly the snow gets tracked out, he
qualifies. If a storm rolls in during the day and the mountain gets skied off,
conditions might be reported as packed powder the following day, depending on
how much fresh snow is left.

Friedland says it’s important to report accurately so that, when the big dumps
do come, the report is credible.

“Packed powder” conditions prevail if it hasn’t snowed in a few days, according
to Smith. “Ice” doesn’t exist out here in the West, he adds, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Smith says the “hardpack” category is infrequently used – only early in the
season when densely packed man-made snow covers the trails, and sometimes in
the spring, when the typical melt-freeze cycle leads to a bony surface early
in the day, quickly changing to corn, then slush, as the sun does its work.
Resorts often characterize the melt-freeze cycle as “spring” conditions.

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