Tips on Evaluating Early Season Ski Conditions

The leading factors affecting early ski conditions are as follows:

  • High average snowfall. A good rule of thumb is that an area should average at least 300 inches per season to have a better than even chance of having advanced natural snow terrain open by Christmas.
  • Consistency of snowfall: A high average does little good if you show up in a year when there was zero in November (i.e. 1995 in California)
  • Intermediate oriented terrain where a 3 to 4 foot base will get most runs covered. It takes a lot more at expert mountains like Squaw Valley, Snowbird and Taos.
  • Other factors being equal, heavier Pacific type snow will build a higher base than the dry snow of the Rockies.
  • Snowmaking is probably the number one factor in the East, but most destination skiers in the West are looking for more than the usually limited fraction of terrain which most western areas cover with man made snow.
  • By these criteria, let’s compare last year’s top choices for best early season skiing, Mt. Baker and Grand Targhee. Baker wins on points 1 and 4, while Targhee is superior on points 2 and 3. On balance, I would now give the nod to Grand Targhee, which is the only area with a perfect 100% record of full operation at Christmas over the past 22 years. Mt. Baker did have dry Christmases in 1976 and 1989, resulting in 90% reliability for the holidays.

    A similar comparison can be made for Alta and Mt. Bachelor. Alta is superior on the first two criteria, but Mt. Bachelor on 3 and 4. Both areas were dry in 1976, but Bachelor has had a few more marginal Decembers. In this case there is another important consideration. Alta has probably the worst peak season lift lines of any major western resort, while Bachelor has 6 high speed quads to make lift lines a rare occurrence. Therefore, Alta is preferable pre-Christmas and in January, but for the Dec. 26 to New Year’s crunch, most skiers would find Mt. Bachelor much more enjoyable.

    Analysis By Region:

    With high snowfall most Pacific Northwest areas are promising in December. The major risk is warmer storms which may bring rain instead of snow. Aside from Mt. Baker’s unique 600 inch average, the best bets are the higher altitudes of Mt. Bachelor and Whistler/Blackcomb’s alpine region.

    In the Northern Rockies Jackson Hole gets about 80% of Grand Targhee’s 450 inch snowfall but also has steeper terrain to cover. Sun Valley’s snowfall is very low, but it has top to bottom snowmaking covering about half its acreage. Most of the Kootenay areas near the U. S. / Canada border average around 300 inches per year, but Fernie and Whitewater are the best choices at close to 400 inches. The Okanagan areas are generally in the 200-250 range, which makes advanced terrain speculative in December. Big White has the highest altitude of this group. The Alberta Rockies are lower in snowfall than the Okanagan and also can be frigid in December and January. It’s better to wait until February/March for both better coverage and nicer weather.

    In Utah, the best early season areas are clearly Alta (500 inches) and Brighton (400), which have the highest base elevations and lower mountain terrain which is skiable on a 3-4 foot base. Snowbird needs at least 6 feet to avoid rock problems, and Park City’s base area is totally snowmaking dependent in the early season because the annual average snow is only 150 inches there. Fortunately, Park City’s expert Jupiter Bowl averages over 300 inches.

    In Northern and Central Colorado, Steamboat has similar virtues to Mt. Bachelor as a holiday destination: 350 inch snowfall, moderate terrain and high lift capacity relative to skier visits. Winter Park has similar snowfall with better consistency, but it can be more crowded with Denver day skiers. Vail is also similar in snow, but the Back Bowls require more coverage and are about 75% reliable by Christmas. The big Summit County areas all average under 300 inches, but Keystone in particular has a lot of snowmaking and all are within day commute distance of higher snow Vail, Loveland and Winter Park.

    In California, the volatility of snowfall makes flexible scheduling desirable. Holiday skiing is marginal in the worst 25% of seasons. On the other hand, in the best 25% of seasons, the Christmas base of 8 feet or more will likely be the best in North America. Kirkwood and Sugar Bowl have the highest snowfall (450 inches), and high altitude Mammoth (350) can have an advantage if warmer storms bring rain to the Tahoe region. In those dry years, Heavenly and Northstar have the most snowmaking coverage.

    In Southern and Western Colorado, only Wolf Creek (375) averages over 300 inches of snow per season. Elsewhere, only in well above average seasons will expert terrain such as Crested Butte’s North Face and Snowmass’ Cirque and Hanging Valley be adequately covered by Christmas. It’s more advisable to take advantage of the superb snow preservation and maximum base depths of February and later months in this region.

    With season natural snowfall in the 200-inch range and high rain incidence in November, Northeast ski areas are less likely to reach full operation of terrain than the areas listed above. However, I would agree that we should not overlook the impact of snowmaking, which covers about ľ of eastern trail mileage. A few areas have a trail or two open in October for marketing visibility, and there can be a meaningful variety of terrain for all abilities open by mid-November at areas with the highest capacity snowmaking systems. Killington and Sunday River are the traditional early season snowmaking leaders. If there is natural snow in New England, Jay Peak will usually have the most. A more remote but possibly even heavier natural snow pocket is Le Massif in Quebec, which overlooks the unfrozen part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Sugarbush is another area to consider, with good natural snowfall and a recent upgrade in snowmaking capacity.

    Eastern skiers must assess the tradeoff between the certainty of limited skiing close to home vs. the good but by no means certain chance of full operation at a western resort. Personally, if I lived in the East, I would utilize the eastern snowmaking frequently in November and December, and rarely take a more expensive trip west before New Year’s.