Early Season Recommendations Revisited

In July 1997 we published our recommendations for the most reliable areas for early season skiing. We based these picks upon long-term snowfall history and other relevant characteristics. The prior season of 1996-97 was one of the two best western seasons of the past 20 years, with all destination resorts in full operation by December 20. The ensuing 3 seasons have been more challenging, with nearly all resorts suffering through at least one Christmas holiday of low coverage and limited operation.

El Nino And La Nina

Some of the recent unusual weather can be attributed to the El Nino of 1997-98 and the La Ninas of 1998-99 and 1999-2000. The long-term records we have analyzed back to 1971 do not show the dramatic impacts one might infer from the past 3 years.

La Nina increases snowfall about 20% at most areas north of Utah and California, so we recommend early season bookings in Canada, the Northwest and Northern Rockies during predicted La Nina seasons. Snowfall is reduced substantially in Southern California and Arizona, but only mildly (10% or so) at Mammoth, Brian Head and in New Mexico.

El Nino predictions are less helpful to skiers. The positives are in the same locations which are negative for La Nina, but the extra snow tends to be late in the season with negligible impact upon early season reliability. Only in interior Canada and Montana is El Nino snowfall reduced as much as 10%.

Long-term data shows no significant El Nino or La Nina trend in Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, Utah, Colorado or the Northeast. Those who tout the huge 1983 and 1998 El Nino seasons in the Sierra often forget the poor 1988 and 1992 El Ninos.

Early Seasons 1997-1999: Let’s Look at the Record

We examined closely the performance of our 1997 picks via Internet reports over the past 3 years and present our revised picks (1997 ranking in parentheses) below. We distinguish both those areas which tend to build a consistent base gradually by Christmas and those which often get big powder dumps in late November and early December.


1. (2) Grand Targhee, Wyo.
Targhee remains the only area in North America with a 100% Christmas reliability record over the past 25 years. 1997-98 was particularly impressive, when Grand Targhee had a 50-60 inch base in mid-December while its Northern Rockies neighbors were in terrible shape. In the last two seasons Targhee’s early December base was a bit thin, but fresh snow arrived in time for the holidays.


2. (1) Mt. Baker, Wash.
The Pacific Northwest’s early season of 1997-98 was not dry as in the Northern Rockies, but there was a lot of low-elevation rain. Mt. Baker had its share, but still attained a 6-foot snow base before Christmas. The last two seasons brought huge dumps in December and a 10+ foot base by Christmas. Mt. Baker remains North America’s best bet for pre-Christmas deep powder.


3. (12) Whistler/Blackcomb, B. C.
We underestimated Whistler’s early season reliability in 1997 by focusing upon the rain-vulnerable lower mountain. A poor start to Whistler (as in 1997-98) just means that the lower 1,000-2,000 feet aren’t covered and you must download at the end of the day. The Whistler and Blackcomb alpine regions got about 100 inches of snow in November/December 1997 (average is more like 150), and 5,000+ acres of terrain were open at Christmas. There have been only two early seasons in the past 20 years (77 inches in 1989-90 and 91 inches in 1992-93) with less snow. Whistler’s early December World Cup downhills were cancelled 3 years in a row due to too much snow. Whistler/Blackcomb is the best big mountain choice in North America before Christmas, but beware of exorbitant prices during the peak holiday season.


4. (3) Mt. Bachelor, Ore.
Mt. Bachelor received only 50 inches of snow in November/December 1997 and was about 70% open for the holidays. The next year there was a 100+ inch base by the end of November, and Christmas 1999 was also excellent. Bachelor’s snow accumulation is more gradual than Whistler’s, but it is a better holiday choice due to lack of crowds and reasonable cost.


5-7. (4-6) Alta, Utah
Brighton, Utah
Powder Mt., Utah
The last 3 early seasons were all below average in Utah, with 1997-98 being the best. The fall of 1998 saw major dumps, but snowfall was the less than half normal from mid-November to mid-January. In 1999 October and November were very dry and Alta did not open until the second week of December. In all 3 seasons Alta had 75-90% of terrain open for Christmas. Utah is somewhat speculative for holiday skiing. The Park City region is often not completely open, and when visiting skiers flock to Alta for its better snow, the crowds can be overwhelming. Before Christmas, Alta, Brighton and Powder Mt. can rival Mt. Baker as a powder destination, with better snow quality.


8. (11) Fernie Snow Valley
Island Lake Snowcat, B. C.
In 1997-98 and 1999-2000 Fernie was sketchy in mid-December but got major dumps by Christmas. 1998-99 was better, with powder days in early December. As there is no large city nearby (Calgary, 3 1/2 hours), these areas are conservative about opening until they can ensure close to full operation (mid-December in below average years). Shortly after this article was published Fernie suffered the record drought of 2000-01. Unlike Wolf Creek (see below) long-term Canadian weather records indicate that this was a once in 50 to 100 year event. So I'm not inclined to change the rating. I suspect next-rated Steamboat was no better in 1976-77.


9. (8) Steamboat, Colo.
The last 3 years had fair-to-poor starts in Colorado, but Steamboat clearly suffered the least. In 1997-98 the area was 80% open for Christmas and into mid-January. The past two years brought isolated storms to Steamboat right at Christmas, so it was 70% open for the holidays when most Colorado areas were less than half open. Steamboat’s location away from the busy Denver/I-70 corridor also makes it a good holiday choice.


16. (7) Wolf Creek, Colo.
Wolf Creek still deserves its powder stash reputation, but snowfall volatility comparable to California’s can make the early season more speculative. In 1997-98 there was a comfortable 6-foot holiday base. In 1998-99 Wolf Creek got 82 inches snow in October and 56 in November, which had to last through a lean December and January. 1999-2000 saw less than 2 feet snow before New Year’s, so Wolf Creek was less than 10% open until late January. Other southern and western Colorado areas are very poor early season choices. None of Crested Butte’s North Face or Snowmass’ Hanging Valley/Cirque was open before mid-January in 1998 or February in the last 2 years. I have obtained more detailed early season history for Wolf Creek since this article was published in Inside Tracks. While the area will suffer a totally dry Christmas about once a decade, Wolf Creek in normal years is completely covered at Thanksgiving and probably ranks in the top 3 in North America for likelihood of quality November skiing. So an overall ranking should balance the outstanding overall record against the modest risk of extreme drought.


10. (13) Vail, Colo.
In 1997 we assumed that Vail’s Back Bowls would require more snow to open than most Colorado terrain. However, some of them opened before Christmas in 1997-98 and 1999-2000 despite below average snowfall. 1998-99 was a terrible year for Vail (the bowls opened January 7 and lost their base in late March), but it was an aberration in the context of Vail’s long-term snow record.


11. (9) Winter Park, Colo.
Winter Park has a similar snowfall history to Vail. However, with nearly identical snow in 1997-98 and 1999-2000, a lower proportion of terrain was open than at Vail in December and January. The new Vasquez Cirque is particularly unreliable, as it did not open at all in 1999-2000 despite 340 inches of season snowfall.


12 (10) Loveland, Colo.
Loveland has similar snowfall to nearby Winter Park and Vail, but windy exposures delay coverage of much of the above timberline terrain.


13-14. (15-16) Snowbird, Utah
Solitude, Utah

We noted in 1997 that Snowbird needs a 6-foot base to ensure good overall coverage, and it's difficult to avoid lower mountain rocks with a base less than 4 feet. Snowbird was 90% open for Christmas 1997 but only half open on a 4-foot base the past 2 holiday seasons. Solitude had similar proportions of runs open as Snowbird in all 3 early seasons.


15. (17) Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Jackson has similar coverage requirements as Snowbird but fared somewhat better the past 3 years. All 3 seasons had marginal mid-December openings but got big storms during the holidays. We still rate Snowbird/Solitude a bit higher for their past history of several big powder early Decembers.


17. (18) Sierra Nevada resorts, Calif. and Nev.
Sierra snow tends to arrive in massive dumps, with sustained stretches of sunny and mild weather in between. In 1997-98 Mammoth had the best holiday conditions with a 5-7 foot base, while Tahoe areas had 4-5 feet with some of the expert runs at Squaw and Heavenly not yet open. 1998-99 had a big storm in early December but no snow at all from mid-December to mid-January. Pre-Christmas skiing was good, especially at high-snow Sugar Bowl and Kirkwood, but holiday crowds chewed up the base. 1999-2000 was the driest early season in a decade, with most areas only 10% open for the holidays. Snowmaking leaders Heavenly and Northstar were about 30% open.


18. (14) Summit County, Colo.
These areas were dependent on snowmaking (850 acres in the case of Keystone), which is very reliable with base elevations over 9,000 feet. Still, only about 1/3 of acreage was open for the holidays the past two years. About 2/3 of acreage was open for Christmas 1997. Summit County is also within day commute distance of Winter Park, Loveland and Vail.