Geeking Out About Snow Conditions

Sking the Great One in July
Avid skiers like to talk about skiing and if you’ve been at it long enough, the talk will go beyond deep powder and epic runs and will eventually take on a more technical nature. Yes, folks begin to “geek out” about snow conditions.

A perfect example of geeking out over snow conditions comes to us from Jim Steenburgh.  Dr. Steenburgh is a professor of atmospheric science at University of Utah so his ramblings take on a more technical aspect. If you’d like to get a science-y look at snow conditions, as opposed to just random opinions from those who ski often, check out his website, http://wasatchweatherweenies.blogspot.com/

Steenburgh Winter
Beartooth Pass, late June 2011

According to Dr. Steenburgh, “Many posts feature content or insights enabled by the support of the National Science Foundation, Office of Naval Research, and the NOAA/National Weather Service.” If you take a look at his publication list (http://www.inscc.utah.edu/~steenburgh/home/) you’ll find articles such as “Intermountain winter storm evolution during a 100-inch storm cycle,” The Avalanche Review; “Orographic influences on a Great Salt Lake-effect snowstorm,” Mountain Weather Review; and “Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. Wow! An avid backcountry skier with a PhD in atmospheric sciences. He’s the guy to chat with if you want the real beta on snow conditions!

One blog post that really caught my attention is here, http://wasatchweatherweenies.blogspot.com/2012/02/year-without-winter.html

Dr. Steenburgh explains the concept of the "Steenburgh Winter" and how it applies to skiing in the Wasatch mountains around Salt Lake City. I'll summarize using some excerpts from the post….

“Steenburgh winter begins the first day that the Alta-Collins snow stake reaches 100….It represents the approximate snow depth needed to transition from early season conditions to winter conditions in the Cottonwoods…. Steenburgh winter ends on February 10…. It seems to be around this time of year when the sun begins to have an increasingly caustic effect on powder…. Prior to February 10, powder can linger for many days on most aspects.  Even south facing slopes might survive without a melt-freeze cycle if it is really cold.  After February 10, the south aspects will almost always suffer a melt-freeze cycle if the sun comes out and, as the days go on, the sun becomes an increasingly formidable enemy to powder on an increasingly greater range of aspects.”

Apparently there was no Steenburgh winter in 2012 as Alta failed to reach the 100” mark before February 10. Bummer.

This got me thinking about what this means for other areas and luckily one person shared this in the post’s comments…. “A web page that is pretty useful in regard to sun angle, etc is http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/AltAz.php. On February 10, our (Wasatch area) maximum sun angle reaches 35 degrees above the horizon.”

Late June 2011, Beartooth Pass
Referring to that webpage I found out that the first day the maximum sun angle reaches 35 degrees above the horizon in the Bozeman/Big Sky area is February 24. Take another popular ski destination, Crested Butte, Colorado, and you’ll find that they reach the same point on February 4. Wow! What a difference a few degrees north in latitude makes. That’s several more days of prime winter conditions for Southwest Montana.

I’ve been skiing here for long enough and have heard about some of the chatter about when the skiing gets good. Last year I shared the lift with a Bridger Bowl old-timer who claims that skiing doesn’t really get good at Bridger until the snow base reaches 70”. For simplicities sake, let’s say that the same can be said for Big Sky. (In reality, given big pile of shale on Lone Mountains and the regular strong winds, I imagine it’s really hard to get an idea of snow depth on that mountain and how it affects the skiing.)

As of today, the base at Bridger Bowl is 76” and the Big Sky base is between 57” and 85” depending on elevation.  Given the thoughts of the above-mentioned Bridger Bowl skier and the research/opinions of Dr. Steenburgh, we have reached the Steenburgh winter in Southwest Montana and have just under two weeks left. Enjoy it but don’t stop skiing when the Steenburgh winter ends or when the lifts stop running.  As evidenced by the photos in the post, there is still plenty of good skiing to be had for weeks to come!

Update as of 4.10.2014 - My words ring true - there has been plenty of good skiing after I posted this entry. March ended up being a big month for snowfall and the ski areas around here will close for the season with a deep snowpack. Bridger Bowl was able to extend their season for a week and closes on April 14. Their website reported an 101" base this morning. Big Sky closes on April 20 and currently reports a lower mountain base depth of 75" and 114" at the upper mountain.  
I can report first hand that the skiing has been good at both Big Sky, where much of the rock if finally covered, and in the backcountry. Of course predicting exactly when and where the skiing will be good is a challenge this time of year. Get out and enjoy it. Lots of great turns to be had this spring and into the summer.

Beehive Basin, late April 2013
"Winter" camping in Beehive, late April 2013