How to Predict Good Snow Conditions

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We’ve all been there. Sitting on the chairlift on our first ride up the hill, the guy next to us asks if we were here yesterday. “Dude!” He shakes his head. “It was epic. Yesterday was THE DAY. You should have been here.”

You remind yourself that today the conditions don’t look too bad. Even though the sky is leaden gray and the air is a bit too warm, the snow along the edges of the runs appears pretty soft. After a morning of “pretty good” you stop counting the number of times someone reminds you that yesterday, with a foot of fresh and clear blue skies, was probably the best day ever. And you missed it.

If you find yourself in this situation, of course the best method is to ignore yesterday’s perfection and enjoy the day you do have on the slopes. The mountains are always better than the city, any day in any conditions. I could write an entire post about finding pleasure in the current moment. And perhaps I will soon.

But today I’m offering some tips on predicting THE DAY. Let’s face it. We all want to be in the mountains under perfect conditions. Below are a few resources for sussing out the conditions, so that next time you get to be the smug guy saying, “You should have been here yesterday.”

Weather Forecast

A sunny day means good visibility (and not hitting that snowboarder)

The good old National Weather Service is a perfect place to start when planning your day on the slopes. Most of us like good visibility. All things being equal, a sunny day on the slopes is better than a cloudy day. The 7-day forecast is your best resource for finding the sun. Yesterday was a perfect case in point. With firm conditions, the groomers offered the best skiing yesterday. I found dry, chalky snow in Powder Bowl, but the north side of the King was a breakable crust over avalanche debris. Having said that, yesterday was FUN. The sky was that dark mountain blue, the snow was sparkly and pretty and the view went on for miles. So if you can choose a sunny day over a cloudy one, your fun-o-meter will reach a higher potential.

A sunny day and uncrowded slopes=FUN

Check the temperatures and snow levels on the forecast. Know the elevation of your favorite ski area. Crystal Mountain elevation is close to 7,000 ft at the summit and 4,400 at the base. That means when the forecast is calling for 5,000 ft snow levels, we could have wet conditions at the base and snow at the top. This is a good day for Gore-tex and fat skis. You will want to ride the gondola or stay on the upper mountain. However, if the forecast is calling for high winds, the upper mountain might be shut down. Your “Gore-tex and fat ski” day could turn into a “rain slicker and hot chocolate in the lodge” kind of day.

NWAC Mountain Weather Forecast

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) is a great resource for skiers. In addition to a detailed backcountry avalanche forecast–a valuable tool for anyone skiing or riding outside of a ski area–NWAC offers other important weather data. Every morning I check the telemetry at Crystal.

Screenshot of Crystal telemetry 11-27-12

Take a moment to check out this graph. There is much you can learn from it. For example, the temperature and relative humidity have increased since midnight. This tells me that the dry snow from yesterday is picking up moisture. The wind is starting to increase out of the south south-west. We have not gotten any precipitation in the past 24 hours. It is important to note that the precipitation always reads from the past 24 hours. It never “resets”.  However, the 24 hour snow totals do reset. That usually happens in the morning when a ski patroller clears off the stake and the reading returns to 0. We have two weather plots–one at the top of Discovery Chair and the other in Green Valley. The Green Valley telemetry only reads snow and temperature. Sometimes the snow totals can be way off because the trees don’t seem to protect the site as well as they once did. We are currently studying alternative plot sites in order to get the most accurate weather plot possible. However, just know that under consistent wind, the snow totals might be inaccurate.

Forecast Models

The University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Department is a goldmine of weather information. It can be a bit daunting at first, until you spend some time clicking on the various loops. One of my favorites is the Western Washington 24 hour snowfall model

To the right is a screen shot of the WRF-GFS 4km Domain snowfall totals for the next 24 hours initialized at 12 UTC Tuesday November 27th. The WRF-GFS is a version of the GFS model that is specially “formulated” by UW for our location. This model takes into account the mountains and water and convergence zones and tricky local conditions. The GFS is merely one of the models that forecasters look at to predict weather.

In fact, that snowfall prediction looks pretty nice for Crystal. Notice the purple on the east side of Mount Rainier? That’s us. Friday could be a good day, as long as the snow levels behave themselves.

Forecasters Talking to Forecasters

Finally I look at the Forecast Discussion on the NWS page. Several times a day, the NWS lead forecaster explains the forecast for the benefit of Weathermen and Weatherwomen across the region. He or she explains in narrative what the models are predicting, compares the various models and explains why. It is a great resource, very similar to the NWAC forecast, but another perspective from someone looking at the same models. It is also a “look behind the curtain” that offers short term, long term, aviation, maritime and hydrology predictions. While not focussed primarily on the mountains, the forecast discussion offers a valuable look at the big picture.

Website and Social Media

Like all of the local ski areas, Crystal Mountain’s website has a weather page that offers links to many of the resources listed above as well as webcams. Crystal’s Ski Patrol Blog often displays a Photo of the Day to give a sense of the current conditions and weather. The ski patrol Twitter and Crystal Twitter offer updates on openings, closures and weather conditions. Crystal also uploads current photos to Facebook.

Now that you know when to go (hint, hint Friday is starting to look pretty good) all you need is to start feigning a cough. That way when you call in sick just when the conditions turn epic it won’t look so obvious. My advice is to pretend like you’re always “on the verge” of the latest cold. You probably shouldn’t let anyone at the office see you washing your hands or eating a salad for lunch either. You wouldn’t want them to think you have an immune system of steel.

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19 responses »

  1. Part of the guessing game is trying to figure out what language the marketing department is speaking when describing snow conditions. Having kept an eye on the forecasts and snow levels, I knew yesterday morning that “firm” meant a couple inches on top of rained on glacier. Brought the old GS rock skis, and Bert and I had a lovely time. Feeling a chip tug on the base doesn’t cause angst with old boards.
    With all due respect, since I do love you guys, could you PLEASE be more accurate and descriptive without spinning snow conditions? Old timers like Founder Bert and I pretty much know how to decode the buzz words, and can follow the freezing level, but most of your customers can’t.
    That said, kudos to Scotty and the grooming crew. Very nice skiing, especially considering the lack of snow. We ran laps on the groomed up top until lunch.
    Best to you and John. Just found out you’ve hired my favorite band for the 50th party,almost tempted to drive up.

    • Thanks for your feedback Scott. I’ve always felt like our marketing department was pretty spot on regarding conditions. Remember the first conditions report goes out at 4:30 AM. The department consults the telemetry as well as the ski patroller staying at the Summit House in order to describe the conditions. At other well-known ski destinations that I won’t name (ahem our friends to the North, rhymes with Ristler) the marketing department isn’t allowed to use the word “rain” in their report. Now that’s what I call spin. I have to say that I would have called the conditions “firm” on Sunday. To me, that means it could be icy, it could be hard and dry, but no matter what I will want my edges sharp. At least, now you have a few more resources to consult to know what the day’s conditions will bring. Hope it helps.

      • I speaka da language, So do you. The problem is that most casual skiers do not. So when I played tennis yesterday and the guys were asking about the conditions, “firm” was not a description I used. Not complaining myself, I got exactly what I expected and I thoroughly enjoyed being out in the sunshine. Given what they had to work with, the groomers did a great job. I’m passing on the complaints of the people who ski the hill three times a year. Who own one pair of skis, not six (gawd only knows how many you guys own). A couple of them are up today on my recommendation, knowing what to expect. But nich spreken de ski report lingo.
        You guys are going to have a blast with Freddy Pink. I get to work with the keyboard player quite frequently, he’s phenomenal and they sure put on a show.

  2. Great write up. Trying to find something similar to the 24 hour snowfall model for eastern Washington / north Idaho. We also pay attention to the Kootenay forecasts since those can influence our mountain weather as well.

  3. Hi Kim –

    Good post. “How to Predict Good Snow Conditions” is quite an art that took me years to learn. I recently shared some of my routine, which are similar to yours, with a friend and he was fascinated with how much thought and research I put into preparing for a fun ski day. If you don’t mind I’d like to add a few more comments here:

    1. Most of the big decisions about which lift or which runs to ski can and should be made at home before arriving at the resort. I have a routine of turning off the audiobook at the base of CMB, and as I drive the Boulevard, start to plan out my day based on the telemetry I read that morning. It’s important to make decisions based on the numbers (telemetry, etc.), before I arrive and stick to those decisions, or else I know I’m gonna get lured away by the brosiff next to me on the lift who is spraying about “yesterday.” Or how many times have we ridden the gondola in the early morning on what we thought was a powder day, and felt the Siren call of Exterminator, such beautiful, irresistible music, so we tuck Green Valley, skate the traverse ridge, catch our breath, drop in, make three decent turns, and then it turns to dust on crusty roller balls for 1300 feet of hell that ruins our legs for the rest of the day. By making our decisions based on the numbers, we can avoid these mistakes. Because it’s hard to not let the emotions get the best of you when looking at an untracked Exterminator, and the brosiff next to you saying to each other ‘dude we got to beat everyone there.” That creates hype, and can result in disappointment. But if we study and plan, we could have seen the temperatures did not get low enough for top to bottoms, so we might have made a better decision to stay high, and head straight to HC that morning.

    2. There is a ton of stuff to do on “crappy days.” This might be worth its own post, but even when conditions are not ideal, prepare for when they are ideal. For example, on a rainy day, memorize which tree marks your favorite line on Brand X. Familiarize yourself with the best exits from Bear Pitts. Time whether it’s faster to hike the King or skate to Silver Basin. Don’t waste time getting stuck or lost on powder days, do this work ahead of time so that when it’s good, you can just rip, rip, rip, non stop. Also on crappy days learn equipment. Swap out footbeds on the gondola and see if different ones really make a difference (I’ve never done this, but should). Demo skis. Learn the difference between sidecut, rocker, camber. length, and width, and how they affect the way you ski in different conditions. Work on technique. Work on ski fitness. Practice breathing while you ski. Make non stop top to bottom runs. Teach your kids to ski on the bunny hill ! Discovery is good almost any day, if it’s crappy off piste I try to spend time with my kids on Discovery or Forest Queen.

    3. Develop a good ski quiver. Buy used gear. Equipment is to the point where it’s like golf clubs, and as long as you understand good technique, the right choice of club can make a world of difference. You would not step up to the tee box with a sand wedge, nor would you putt with a driver. If we can read the greens (like you described above), we’ll know which club to choose for those conditions.

    4. As you said, we can have fun in any conditions. But I’m pretty sure deep down we all love and crave powder, so a few of these tips will make sure we don’t waste a second when it’s good.

    • Wow John. This is the best comment I’ve read here. Thanks for your input. Maybe when I write that follow up post about “not so good days” I’ll use some of your suggestions. If you don’t mind being quoted, of course.

      • No don’t mind being quoted! Wouldn’t mind if you or some folks added to the list of making the most of a not so good day.

        I’d like to connect with you for a gondola ride sometime soon and have you look at a short story I’ve been working on, and that partly inspired my thoughts above, but I’m not sure what to do with.

  4. I like the post, like the comments, like the fact that I hardly bother paying attention to the micro details anymore – cause to often you just never know what it really will be like (lots of folks might have expected the worst on Tuesday, turned out pretty sweet). I like that I’m lucky and can mostly know what yesterday was like from personal experience, I like that I always manage to find something fun, I really like that I always have fun when I’m skiing (especially if I suffer a bad wet rainy day and have at least 4 pairs of gloves to make it through the day). I couldn’t tell you the last time that the marketing team had an effect on my skiing day. I cant tell you the last time I did not have a great day skiing…maybe the last broken leg, but that was a while ago.

    • Good points Dan. Certainly we can’t fully know what it will be like until our skis are on the snow, and luck is often a big part of it, but I like Suunto’s tagline “Replacing Luck.” (Suunto manufactures those great altimeter watches and all kinds of helpful instruments and gadgets to help us know we’re making the right decision, rather than just depend on luck). But you can knock out a lot of your big decisions before your skis touch snow, such as which “zone” will probably be best. Crystal is a big mountain, with good terrain at lots of different elevations and aspects. Also, what is particularly unique about Crystal, is the freezing line often hovers and fluctuates between the summit and the base. Compare that to Mammoth, where I grew up skiing, and the mountain is between 8,000 and 11,000 feet, you rarely have to worry about rain at those high elevations. The snow is pretty consistent from base to summit (the issues there is wind). But at Crystal, by watching the Telemetry, if it got cold really low, you might hit up some Brand X or C Gates off Northway, or Niagaras or O Meadows, but if the freezing was mid mountain, you’ll want to play in High Campbell zone and Southback. Also, the wind direction will tell you which aspects will be better than others. Our south wind usually deposits into northern bowls, but if winds were calm or Northern, this might give you a chance to hit good conditions on south facing aspects like Sunnyside (which is my favorite skiing when it’s good, because you can get so many runs on direct fall line with no traversing and a fast chair).

      Having said that, it is also important to have a few favorite secret stashes that are your Old Faithfuls, when nothing else is good, they are good no matter what. I have a few of those, I’m sure Kim does, and so do you probably. But these cannot be shared in writing :).

  5. I really appreciate your post! It still leaves me wondering quite a bit about how to actually get the relevant infomation from NWAC and the UW site. I wonder if you might do a more in-depth discusson that would make a bit more clear how to utilize them. Now my only question is Friday or Saturday ?!?!

    • Friday will be less crowded. Snow levels should lower by Saturday. Keep an eye on the telemetry today and see what it looks like for tomorrow. I’m expecting snow up high but maybe rain or wet snow in the base today. Hopefully that changes. I’ll keep you posted on another post with more specifics on these tools. I suggest following the links and seeing how they correlate to your skiing experience. Enjoy the weekend.

    • Ed –

      I really learned how to read the telemetry data when I took the IMG Level 1 Avalanche Course at Crystal two years ago. The instructor spent about an hour going over each column and how it affects our decision making. It was extremely helpful to me!

      • Thanks John and Kim. I have spent more time with the telemetry and the temp, wind and relative humidity trends are not hard to follow and very informative. It is those resets and the 24 hour and hourly precip columns that do not always make sense. The UW snowfall model still amounts to pretty gibberish to me. Thanks and share more in the future if possible. Kim, are you possibly related to Everett Kircher, who I undersand started Boyne resorts ??

        • Ed,
          Glad it’s starting to make sense. If you ever consider taking an Avalanche Course at Crystal with Northwest Avalanche Institute, they go over the models and the telemetry more extensively. My husband is the son of Everett Kircher. Since Everett’s passing, John and his brother and sisters run the company, which has expanded to 10 ski areas in N. America.

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