Recent storms post challenge for resorts, but skiers enjoying conditions of a lifetime
On the morning of Jan. 11, the official snow report at Colorado's Monarch Mountain was 6 inches.
Snow reports are usually accurate. This was a lie.
That's because the day before, the lifts never ran. So much heavy, wet snow fell in such a short time, 46 inches in 48 hours, that the Colorado Department of Transportation couldn't keep up and on Jan. 10 never opened U.S. Highway 50, the only access to the ski area.
"The snow continued unabated Monday night into Tuesday morning. At 8am on Tuesday, the CDOT estimate for re-opening the pass was early afternoon, so we made the decision not to open on Tuesday," said Jeff Martin, Monarch's vice president for sales and marketing.
So was it disappointing to not open with so much snow?
"No way! This is what we live for! Conditions are epic," Martin said.
Indeed. Skiers and riders who came Wednesday morning found a wild, wind-blown wilderness of powder untouched by human skis or snowboards. Imagine opening day, only with an 87-inch base and heaps of natural snow everywhere. Judging by the full parking lot and the smiles all over the lodge, any disappointment over Tuesday disappeared in a puff of cold smoke as skiers enjoyed a powder day for the ages.
It's been a similar story around ski country this year, as a dry early season has given way to unprecedented amounts of snow in a very short time. A ski resort will never use the phrase "too much snow," but the past two weeks have pushed the limits.
Take Crested Butte Mountain Resort, for example.
On Jan. 9, the resort received two feet of snow in 24 hours. The heavy flakes fell so hard and fast the resort closed in the afternoon, as conditions made it tough to run the lifts and natural avalanches posed a safety risk. The nearby Gunnison Watershed School District closed for snow for the first time in 30 years. In Crested Butte, where snow is a way of life and powder a religion, tensions grew between neighbors as people wondered what to do with all this snow.
The resort opened the next day, gradually as ski patrol conducted avalanche mitigation, and by Wednesday the area had received 90 inches in 10 days. To call the powder skiing "amazing" would be an understatement. Maybe "snorkel-worthy" is a better description.
Arapahoe Basin also had to close because of the never-ending snow. On Jan. 10, CDOT officials grew concerned abou the avalanche potential along U.S. Highway 6, a 5-mile stretch of road to the resort that stays open even when the highway closes at Loveland Pass.
"We agreed that closing the ski area and getting people down the hill would be the safest option for our employees and guests, and we began to shut down skier services just before 1 pm. It all happened really fast, but it was the right call to make," said A-Basin spokeswoman Adrienne Saia Isaac.
A skeleton crew hunkered down at the ski area to weather the storm and mitigate for avalanches, but CDOT didn't open the highway the next day until 2:40 pm.
"Once people got up here, it cleared up and the snow was incredible. I heard more than one person say they were the 'best runs of their lives,'" she said. "For the small crew who waited out the closure, it was an incredible hour of skiing."
At Monarch, Martin echoed the sentiment. How crazy and deep was the snow that fell?
"I think about as crazy and deep as it get," he said.
Is there such a thing as too much snow?
Tips for Skiing in Really Deep Snow
When the fresh powder is measured by the feet, not the inches, it can be challenging as well as the best day of your life. Here are some tips for skiing and riding in such deep powder.
- Keep your speed up on the runout. Whether on skis or a snowboard, a flat spot will steal your speed quicker than molasses and you'll waste precious energy swimming out. On a day like this, a groomed run can be your friend.
- Fat skis are better. Modern powder skis are made for deep powder, and riding them can make even the intermediate skier feel like a hero. So ditch the skinny twin tips and rent some powder skis for the occasion.
- Ski with a buddy. You don't want to be alone if you get impossibly stuck or even partially buried in fresh, unconsolidated snow. Bring a friend or, if alone, ski conservatively.
- Avoid tree wells. The snow that collects around trees in big storm cycles can become a death trap if you fall into one.
- Be smart. Even in-bounds slopes can slide during extremely heavy snows, so be cautious on any slope with a 35-degree pitch. Ski such slopes one at a time and keep an eye on each other.