Wouldn’t it be great if every snowstorm blanketed every part of Colorado?
Alas, that rarely happens. Our state has more than a dozen mountain ranges spanning 380 miles north to south, and when it dumps at Steamboat near the Wyoming border it may be sunny at Wolf Creek near the New Mexico border. It’s just a meteorological fact of life that not all storms are created equal.
That point has been driven home even more in the winter of 2017-18, when a strong La Nina pattern has meant huge differences in snow totals between northern, central and southern Colorado.
As skiers, we don’t have to like it. And there’s something we can do about it: Chase the powder.
Aside from finding the best snow, it’s a great way to explore new ski areas and experience what makes each part of Colorado unique. But there is an art to chasing powder and doing it without blowing your vacation budget for the year.
This is your guide.
Reciprocity is the name of the game in the ski industry today, so there has never been a better time to be a powder-chaser. Depending on which pass you buy, you may get free or discounted days at numerous other resorts in Colorado and beyond.
For example, in 2017-18, skiers with passes to Monarch Mountain also received three free days at Copper Mountain, Loveland, Cooper, Purgatory and Hesperus, two at Crested Butte, one at Silverton and discounts at Powderhorn and Sunlight, as well as five resorts in New Mexico and a few in other states.
Then there’s the new Ikon Pass from Alterra Mountain Company, which for the winter of 2018-19 is expected to include two dozen resorts, including Aspen-Snowmass, Copper Mountain, Eldora, Steamboat and Winter Park as well as renowned resorts like Big Sky and Jackson Hole.
A less-expensive option is the Colorado Gems Card, which in 2017-18 was good for either two 2-for-1 lift tickets or two 30% off lift tickets at each of the ten Colorado Gems Resorts, for only $25.
With one of these passes in-hand, your powder-chasing journey can begin. Because locals should never, ever pay full price for lift tickets.
Modern meteorology, with its computer models based on more factors than a human brain could compute in any one forecast, can predict precipitation trends with surprising accuracy.
Long-range forecasts issued by the National Weather Service are a good way to start planning. The 6-10 and 8-14 day forecasts provide a general sense of if precipitation will be above, equal to or lesser than average. It’s a useful guide for planning a vacation or time off work well in advance. Find them here: http://w2.weather.gov/climate/climate_prediction.php?wfo=pub
Of course, forecasting for the mountains more than a few days out is a crapshoot, and as the storm gets closer, each resort’s website a great resource. Many resorts’ websites feature forecasts from local meteorologists who are much better at predicting snow totals than national weather outlets.
And finally, as the storm nears, watch the National Weather Service (http://www.weather.gov) for weather alerts, typically issued 24-36 hours out. If where you plan to ski is pink (winter storm warning) or purple (winter weather advisory), then you’re probably going to have a good time.
If you have a specific resort in mind and the forecast looks favorable, then 36 hours out is a good time to pull the trigger on a room (unless, of course, you already live where it’s supposed to snow, then good for you.)
Websites like Hotwire (http://www.hotwire.com) and Expedia (http://www.expedia.com) are great options for booking a room on short notice, especially if you don’t care about how many stars or if the room comes with free breakfast but just need a place to sleep.
I like to book a room in a location that gives me flexibility. For example, if I’m not sure if Arapahoe Basin or Copper Mountain will get the most snow, I stay in Silverthorne or Dillon. Or if you’re trying to decide between Cooper or Monarch Mountain, book a place in Buena Vista.
Hostels are also a great way to get a cheap bunk. Forget what you think about dirty European bunk houses. Most Colorado hostels are clean, safe places to lay your head for the night and maybe make some new friends to ski with tomorrow.
And finally, once the flakes start falling, surf the webcams. Resorts have cameras all over the mountain, and many have snow stake cameras too, so you can follow the storm in real time and set your alarm appropriately.
It doesn’t always work. On more than one occasion I’ve been at Loveland when I should’ve trekked to Aspen, or raced to Crested Butte when I should’ve stayed home and skied my local hill Wolf Creek.
But when it does work, and you find yourself at the right place and right time with a foot of fresh powder waiting for you, there’s nothing better.