Getting a good weather forecast that can be interpreted for mountaineering is a challenge in many areas of the country. Recently I’ve been intrigued by the National Weather Service’s point forecasts. These are fine tuned to work on a 2.5 kilometer grid (except for Alaska), and have potential to yield the kind of weather prediction that we climbers and backcountry skiers need to practice our sports.
This morning I checked the point forecast system at the National Weather Service website. After clicking my way into the point forecast map, the first frustration was not having enough map detail to really know what or where I was clicking in terms of specific mountain areas. The towns are obvious, but the map doesn’t have enough detail to help identify things like specific valleys or mountains — to utilize a 2.5 K grid one needs to see at least a few such features. I assume if you know your latitude and longitude you can actually enter them into a URL string and get an exact pinpoint, so that could be useful, but a more detailed map would be intuitive and easy.
For example, here is a link that gets a pinpoint forecast for a specific location based on longitude and latitude, just substitute your coordinates (edit in browser address bar and save to favorites if you like) and you’ll end up with a point forecast for an exact area of your choice:
Since I didn’t know my lon and lat, by repeated clicking on the map I eventually got the forecast pinpointed enough to know it was for the mountains we are interested in skiing, and the forecast had adequate detail to help determine the day’s conditions. But such information does a poor job of helping predict the weather “window” days between storms. For that type of prediction, info about what I call “air mass weather” is the key.
Details about what the atmosphere’s air masses are actually doing to create our weather is buried under a link on the same page as the point forecast, under “Additional Forecasts and Information.” The link is titled “Weather Synopsis.” For example, here is a direct link to today’s west central Colorado synopsis.
Here it is copy/pasted from the website:
FOR EASTERN UTAH AND WESTERN COLORADO, HERE IS THE LATEST WEATHER SYNOPSIS…
THE STORM SYSTEM WAS NEAR THE FOUR CORNERS THIS MORNING, WITH WIDESPREAD RAIN AND SNOW WRAPPING AROUND THE LOW, AND IMPACTING MUCH OF WESTERN COLORADO. AS THIS SYSTEM SLIDES SLOWLY EAST, INTO EASTERN COLORADO, WRAP AROUND MOISTURE WILL CONTINUE TO WORK BACK WEST OVER THE DIVIDE. THE CENTRAL AND SOUTHWEST MOUNTAINS WILL BE MOST EFFECTED TODAY, WITH AFTERNOON THUNDERSTORMS DEVELOPING ACROSS THE REGION. TEMPERATURES TODAY WILL AGAIN BE BELOW NORMAL, DUE TO CLOUD COVER AND SHOWERS THROUGHOUT THE FORECAST AREA. HIGH PRESSURE WILL MOVE IN ON WEDNESDAY, FOR SUNNY CONDITIONS AND WARMER TEMPERATURES.
For today and the next few days the weather synopsis tells the tale about our Colorado area of interest. In less than a minute of reading I easily determined that Wednesday will be a window of opportunity, and spring powder might be a possibility that morning.
Over the past decades I’ve had some amazing success in using the Synopsis to pick off peaks between storms. A good example of this is the time Bob Perlmutter and I skied fourteener Wetterhorn Peak in 1988 for my “ski the ‘teeners” project. The weather was stormy and looked iffy. We considered just driving home as we’d already skied a few peaks. But the Synopsis we got on my radio told us that one storm was moving out the next morning, and another coming in later that day. So we hit Wetterhorn in the morning and sure enough had a brief window with just enough visibility to climb the peak and ski it before the clouds dropped. Sometimes the Synopsis is off, (usually when storms move slower or faster than predicted), but it’s almost always a spot-on way of really knowing when the good days are going to happen.
Used to be the only way to get the Weather Synopsis for our area was to listen to NOAA weather radio’s rather lengthy repeating broadcast. Weather radio is still available and works okay while driving, but it’s nice to have the Synopsis on the web for quick viewing. As for the pinpoint forecasts, they’re somewhat useful and most certainly have potential as they’re improved.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.