Viva la Niña 

Taking the temperature of the state's epic ski season

For the first time in years, the buzz started early. Ski hills opened on Thanksgiving. By December, there were freshies in the bowls as deep as a foot. Before New Year's, the usually nondescript trees off of Snowbowl's Lavelle lift resembled the snowghosts that make Whitefish Mountain Resort's summit famous (and spurred the name of Great Northern Brewing's Snow Ghost Winter Lager).

In January, champagne powder continued to flow. Lost Trail reported over 40 inches of new snow in 10 days; "the conditions are AMAZING," gushed the online update. Snowbowl's auxiliary parking lot overflowed at least once, prompting late-arriving shredders to park along the road hundreds of yards away from the base area. The snow was so good people witnessed two guys actually ski back to their car in the auxiliary lot from off-area, down a roadside slope that is normally dirt and rock.

As evidenced by the past week, the weather—and the ski season—hasn't let up in February. Locally, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) data shows that the current 116-inch snow depth on Stuart Peak, a mountain adjacent to Snowbowl, is greater right now than during the same week in any year since at least 2004, the last year for which corresponding data is available. Discovery Ski Area tallied 1,800 skiers last Saturday and expected just as many on Sunday and President's Day; owner Peter Pitcher says slightly warmer temperatures could've pushed the numbers over 2,000 each day and set a Discovery record. Whitefish recorded its second-busiest weekend of the year last week (first is always during the Christmas-New Year's break), and, even more promising, has strong projections into March.

"According to lodging reservations," says Whitefish Public Relations Manager Donnie Clap, "this week is going to be very, very busy—almost as busy as this past weekend, and that is definitely a different story than we've seen in years past."

Industry representatives are wary of pointing to one specific reason for this season's sick conditions—in part because, so far, snow pack data and sales have yet to break any records. But even the most superstitious onlookers recognize that after last year's resounding dud, this year—a celebrated "La Niña" year—has rejuvenated the state's ski industry.

"Right from the get-go we had a lot of snow, so that's always a good thing," says Doug Wales, marketing director of Bridger Bowl and a board member of the Montana Ski Area Association. "I think it's been that way through the entire Rockies...Certainly when you hear a La Niña year's in the forecast, it's always encouraging."

According to NOAA, La Niña refers to a weather pattern that occurs every two to five years and is marked by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the eastern Pacific. The pattern can influence weather across most of the country, creating wetter conditions in the Pacific Northwest and dryer conditions across the southern United States. But in the Northern Rockies, La Niña can be a fickle thing.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"In the Rocky Mountains, it's really difficult to predict exactly what will happen, where jet streams split and where things go," says Wales. "Different areas of the state can have markedly different snowfalls at different times. I guess if there's any pattern at all, it's no pattern."

Regardless of whether it's La Nina or dumb luck, the result has been a strong year that started early and has the potential to last late into March. Already the season's sparked renewed interest and investments in the sport (see "Park rats"), as well as emboldened veteran powder hounds always looking for ways to test the state's terrain (see "Pushing the limits"). Above all, it's erased the sour taste of last year.

"The biggest difference for us from last year to this year is really that things started earlier," says Pitcher. "Last year we had to wait and wait for good snow, and this year we got it right away. It puts everyone in the right mindset."

That mindset deserves to be maintained. So, work on your sick-day speeches, save extra cash for another lift ticket, explore some of the late-season events (see "Your turn") and get out there. La Niña won't last forever.

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