How to Predict Good Snow Conditions

This is a re-post from a few years ago with updated weather forecast information. The Cascades are getting hit with some big storms in the next few days. Read on to know which days will have the best conditions.

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.”

Avery visiting Pow Town on the Frontside.
Avery visiting Pow Town on the Frontside.

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

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.

Michelle Parker getting after it in Southback.
Michelle Parker getting after it in Southback.

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

winterscience

Winterscience.com is a new forecast that uses machine learning to create a great pinpoint forecast for Crystal Mountain and several other locations around the Cascades. With four updates every day, this model has become my go-to forecast of choice.

The graph on the left shows both temperatures and SWE (snow water equivalent) for each hour. Notice that on Monday night the snow level will rise for a few hours, but will fall back down in the morning as precipitation continues. The temperature at 6830′ (top of the Gondola) will remain freezing. The next system will arrive Thursday morning. The horizontal lines in the upper right of the screenshot link to a model map that includes wind, temperature and precipitation.

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 left 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 (this page) often displays a Photo of the Day to give a sense of the current conditions and weather. I also post weather conditions updates and photos at personal blog at kimkircher.com. 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.

A Very Lucky Ski Season Comes to an End

One of the luckiest ski seasons in history ended at Crystal this past weekend. Lucky because of the fortunate timing of our weather events. Usually when it rains here we shrug our collective shoulders in disgust. We wonder why our ski areas can’t be 1000′ higher. We envy the cold temps of the Rockies and marvel at the light snow of the Wasatch. We know that with just a bit of luck, we could have the best skiing in the world. But alas, this is the Pacific Northwest–home of Cascade concrete and plastic-bag wearing locals and the birthplace of Gore-tex. We don’t expect perfect snow.

King_Chair6
The King getting filled in

But then we have a season like this one. We anticipated an El Niño; our imaginations were primed for groomers. Narrow-under-foot ski sales were up. Goggles sales were down. Everyone was picking out a good pair of sunglasses. And dusting off their foul weather gear.

 

We never knew that this season the stars would align for us. The ocean currents would fall into sync and we would get very, very lucky.

morning_meeting
Not a bad spot for a morning meeting

That’s not to say it didn’t rain this season. It rained like crazy. And that’s where we got lucky. It rained on Wednesdays. (I know this because Wednesdays are my day off.) In fact it rained eight Wednesdays in a row (I was counting). But each subsequent Friday, right before the weekend crowds arrived, it snowed deep and light and repaired the rain-soaked slopes with a glorious quilt of powder. Every Saturday for two months was a powder day.

As most of you know, when conditions at Crystal are good there’s no ski area like it. By March, the north-facing slopes were filled in like I haven’t seen in over a decade. Pinball resembled a fairway, just a slight undulation where normally a deep, narrow gash splits the north face of the King. At its prime this season, the upper mountain held over 10 feet of snow in places.

middle_ferks
Middle Ferk’s groomed to perfection

As winter turned the spring, the weather continued to cooperate. The last three weekends were legitimate spring conditions. The corn developed into large isothermal grains, creating slush bombs along the frontside and into Middle Ferk’s. The cat crew groomed these bumps every night back into corduroy, and the snow bar at the Summit House was a huge hit. We all came away with awesome goggle tans and bruised livers. The past few weeks were one long party, and the final closing was a little sad.

Now it looks like next season might be a La Niña, which means colder and wetter than usual. What do you all say? Isn’t it time for two lucky seasons in a row?

peter_dale
Peter Dale getting some well-deserved pow

As the Most Interesting Skier in the World would say, stay powder-hungry my friends.

Photo of the Day: Bluebird Powder

Fresh snow and now sun. It doesn’t get much better than this. Today is one of those days that make me want to pinch myself. The day started early with Avalanche Control in Southback. The snow was still falling  and the conditions were pristine in SE Trees, one of my favorite stashes on the mountain. Then about noon the sun came out. There were still some fresh lines on Exterminator. The forecast is calling for more sun tomorrow. Come and get it while it’s still good.  

The New Arrow in our Avalanche Control Quiver: Gazex

You may have noticed our three Gazex exploders in Powder Bowl. They are hard to miss. After a full season under our belt (2014/15 doesn’t count), it’s time to ask ourselves how effective these bad boys truly are.

exploders_powder bowl
Exploder #1 in the foreground, with #2 and #3 to the left

Just the other day someone on the chairlift asked me if they were winch cat anchors. While we do some serious high-angle grooming here at Crystal Mountain, that would be a bit extreme even for us. Nope. These are Gazex Exploders and they spit out a fiery boom to create avalanches.

These exploders work by mixing oxygen and propane and then lighting it on fire. The igniter is essentially a glorified BBQ lighter. You know that tick, tick, ticking sound that happens when you press the red button on the side of your Weber and then it ignites? Imagine that but about a gazillion times bigger. Let’s just say that the whoomph sound in Powder Bowl can be heard all the way down in A Lot.

Chet Mowbray, the Snow Safety Director at Crystal, calls Gazex “a very effective tool.” It allows us to fire the exploders remotely. This means we don’t have to be at the top of Powder Bowl to start avalanches. We can be in patrol dispatch. We have also fired Gazex at night, when the snowcat operators need to drive under Powder Bowl to get to the top of the mountain. During a heavy snowstorm or when the avalanche hazard is high, this allows our cat operators a safe way to move around the mountain.

Gazex is also fast. The current speed record at Crystal from start to finish is ten minutes. Any opportunity to shave off a few minutes on a powder morning so we can get the lifts spinning asap is a good thing.

gazex_powder bowl
Powder Bowl with Gazex Exploders

One Gazex explosion is the equivalent of 25 pounds of explosive in the air. Most of the explosives we use for avalanche control are 2 pounds. When an explosive is “in the air” that means it is hanging above rather than thrown onto the slope. By hanging a shot in the air, it affects a much larger area.

We hope to add to our quiver of exploders in the future. A few more in Powder Bowl would eliminate an entire Avalanche Control route, allowing us to open that much faster. Another location we are currently looking at is Rock Face–a permanently closed route with several trams and a cat track below it.

Gazex won’t eliminate hand routes, however. We will still need ski patrollers for AC here at Crystal. I, for one, am happy about that fact.

Gazex saves time, creates a bigger boom, makes it safer for our cat crew and shoots balls of fiery awesomeness onto the slope. What’s not to love?

Weather or Not: Hoping for another “Miracle Saturday”

For the past three weekends, Crystal Mountain has been blessed with miracles. Three Fridays in a row we’ve had rainy, soggy, extremely windy storms turn cold and calm just in time to lay down enough snow for a powder Saturday. The weather gods might be trying to tell us something here: they are still in charge, but they are ultimately benevolent. The way I see it, the weather gods love weekend skiers and riders. Or maybe it has more to do with Pacific storms circling around low pressure systems, but hey, a girl can dream.

Last week, the rain and wind came Friday and threatened to ruin the cold snow from earlier in the week. But again, the weather gods blessed us with a reprieve, and Saturday we woke to fresh snow and cold temps. Here’s a little video clip from last Friday when the wind was nuking at the top of Rainier Express. When the patrollers got on the chair, it was still fairly calm at the top. It quickly ramped up while we were on the lift. Needless to say, the lift quickly went on wind hold.

Today is Thursday and once again the rain has returned. Yesterday ended in a beautiful afternoon, but now it’s raining at the base and snowing (just barely) at the top. These are the days when we are glad to have the gondola. A dry ride up goes a long way to lengthen the ski day. Today is a day for the hearty souls born and bred in the PNW, who don’t mind a little rain (either that or we just don’t know any better).

The real question, however, is whether or not we will have another miracle Saturday. Will the weather gods, once again, bless us with a miracle?

This morning, I conferred with my most trusted source for weather: the magic 8 ball. I don’t know about you all, but whenever I have a high-stakes question of serious consequence, I head straight to this little black orb of wisdom. And guess what you guys? The signs point to yes!

My most trusted source for weather!
My most trusted source for weather!

While maybe not as accurate as the magic 8 ball, from time to time I still check in with the “professionals” in the weather forecasting biz. The weather gurus at UW Atmospheric Sciences department back up the magic 8 ball prediction, calling for a few inches of snow by Saturday morning and continuing throughout the day. The Sunday morning prediction is looking even better:

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 8.20.02 AMMonday looks to be a warm and wet day, with the long term models calling for more snow on Tuesday. We aren’t quite yet back into the earlier pattern where even when no snow was predicted, we’d still picked up a few inches every night as if those weather gods just couldn’t help themselves. But there are still good days ahead.

Only the magic 8 ball really knows.

I, for one, am hoping for a miracle.