The first dusting of early season snow fell on the high summits of the Colorado Rockies last week. It was a welcome respite from August temps that barely dropped below the 90s and perpetually smoky skies thanks to four major wildfires burning across the state. Hopefully cooler, clearer, snowier days are ahead.
While the weather may be trending toward something that resembles seasonal stability, the rest of the world isn’t quite there yet. It seems we’re all hovering in a collective state of ‘wait and see’ in terms of what the ski season will bring. So here’s the latest on what we do know. Subject to change, of course.
Vail operating plan prompts backcountry crowd concerns
Last week, Vail announced its 20-21 operating procedures for its 34 North American resorts. A few things were unsurprising: Masks worn at all times, no more chairlift rides with strangers, less on-mountain dining, no more bellying up to the apres bar. But one big change is causing a stir: a reservation system.
As detailed in the letter written by Chief Operating Officer Rob Katz published on August 27 on Vail Resorts website, passholders will have early season access to Vail Resort slopes and get priority reservation throughout the season. Ticket counters will no longer operate and any ticket reservations can only be made online or via a call line. Day-of reservations will be possible only if there is space on the mountain, meaning those spontaneous powder days might be hard to plan for.
So, what’s a powderhound to do on a powder day? Probably go backcountry skiing instead. In response to the letter, Colorado’s Summit Daily published this article detailing how the reservation system is prompting concern among backcountry groups and forest service managers. If the crowds that rushed to the backcountry when the lifts stopped last spring are any indication, people will head off-piste when they can’t go on. That could lead to a lot of problems.
Here’s a question that’s been nagging me throughout this whole thing: most of the conversations I’ve had or overheard around the likelihood of more populated backcountry ski season are negative. There are good reasons — crowds track powder stashes fast, you aren’t really in the wilderness if you’re surrounded by other people, more uneducated newbs potentially equals more avalanche incidents, parking always seems to be an issue somewhere, etc. etc.
But my question is: Could a boom for ski touring actually be a good thing instead of all doom and gloom? Readers, your thoughts?
Utah Avalanche Center to offer trailhead education
In an effort to meet the growing need for backcountry safety, this winter the Utah Avalanche Center is bringing safety precautions to trailheads. Chad Brackelsberg, UAC Executive Director told me about it when I interviewed for a piece about avalanche forecasting budgets last week. Once there’s adequate snow for skiing, UAC members plan on posting up at popular early season trailheads to connect with backcountry users. “We are going to talk to them about avalanche safety, gear, offer beacon drills and rescue practice if they want it. We want to be there to show that we are looking out for the community.”
3-6 month winter snow forecast, or not
Speaking of winter, how is this one shaping up? A recent article on the ski resort forecasting website Open Snow, offered at least a headline promising the 20-21 long range winter forecast. There were plenty of colorful NOAA graphs illustrating where there could be warmer temps and more or less snow but in the end the conclusion was less than satisfying: It’s impossible to forecast accurately 3-6 months out. Noted.
Meanwhile, the Farmer’s Almanac is doing what it tries to do best every year: forecasting a season 3-6 months out. In keeping with the publication’s long-standing tradition of predicting weather patterns, the latest Almanac calls for dry weather in the northwest, cold and above average snow in the middle and northern rockies, and cold and snowy weather across New England. It’s worth noting that the sparse forecast for the Midwest is “Cold, very flakey”. Does that sound weird to anyone else? Let us know how that goes, skiers of the Midwest.
So, does that mean your region will have snow? Won’t have snow? As usual, it’s more than likely we won’t know until we get there. In the meantime you could look for any of these harbingers of a good winter I wrote about last year.
Scientist determine snow drought
In other snow related news, environmental engineers at the University of California Irvine recently developed a tool to determine long range snow droughts around the world. Research conducted with the tool found that much of the Western U.S. has experienced prolonged snow droughts, especially over the last 20 years. Studies found that Russia and Europe have experienced snow drought as well, but to a lesser extent.
According to this article published on UC Irvine’s website, the tool is the first of its kind. It will better enable researchers to monitor snow water equivalent deficiencies in specific regions of the world, useful both in the context of climate change and that snowfall can have direct impact on ecosystems, agriculture, socioeconomics and more.
How not to react to a grizzly bear
Since we’re still in the late days of summer, here’s a seasonal note to end on. A group of hikers in Glacier National Park demonstrated exactly what not to do when you spot a grizzly bear: Run like your life depends on it. Watch the video, and keep that bear spray handy.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.