Joel Gratz of OpenSnow dishes on what it takes to ski pow at your favorite mountain
COPPER MOUNTAIN RESORT — After recapping last winter’s epic snow year, powder snow forecaster Joel Gratz pivoted to what he described as “the No. 1 question for this season’s outlook.”
“Ready for this?” the founder of OpenSnow.com asked the audience at Thursday’s Summit Chamber of Commerce Ski Area COO Breakfast.
“Drumroll please,” Gratz said before the crowd made cutlery clang together atop white tableclothes.
“There will be snow,” Gratz’s next slide read, to a laugh from the assembled crowd.
“Both due to time restrictions and science restrictions that’s the only slide,” Gratz said, “and all I’m going to say.”
“Here’s the deal,” Gratz continued, breaking from his humor. “Last season, no one predicted it. We just wrote an article a couple of weeks ago looking at 10 forecasts for last season nationwide versus what actually happened with snow and temperatures. Nothing was really that close. Maybe a seasonal forecast was right in one region, but wrong in a lot of regions. There was no consistency in any one organization or forecast model getting a forecast right for a winter — a three-month season — year-in and year-out consistently.
“It’s just not there.”
Rather than freaking out over long-range predictions, Gratz educated COO Breakfast attendees about what to pay attention to when chasing powder. Gratz said last year was so good not because of the volume of snow, but rather the consistency of the precipitation.
“We can go weeks and weeks and weeks without snow,” Gratz said. “That’s normal. It can happen. But it didn’t happen last year, which is awesome.”
In terms of what to pay attention to in specific forecasts, Gratz discouraged powder hounds from paying attention to most anything longer than 14 days out. Eight to 10 days out, Gratz said to give credence to the general temperature and weather pattern outlooks. Six to seven days out, Gratz said that’s when it begins to crystallize for him that a storm is coming. Then, three to five days out, Gratz says he dials in specific storm details.
Gratz also said there is no correlation between early-season snowfall and the rest of the season.
As for the most important variable to big pow days, Gratz zeroed in on wind direction.
“You want to be on the slopes that the wind is blowing the snow to, where it’s depositing,” Gratz said. “And that varies across every different run at every different mountain. So, partially, there is some work involved. You look at Google Maps. You zoom around, and you look up on the hill and you start thinking through this a little bit and, like most things, if you love this — love powder and love to find the best powder — you’ll do a little extra work.”
For Summit County, he said east, south and southwest winds aren’t ideal, as mountain ranges block ideal airflow needed for precipitation in those situations. In terms of ideal wind directions, northwest wind is ideal for Loveland Ski Area, Copper Mountain Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, while west winds are ideal for Keystone Resort, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Loveland.
“If you get the wind direction right with the forecast,” Gratz said, “you’ll be in the ballpark of the best powder two-thirds of the time.”
Gratz clarified that wind direction isn’t the only variable, as moisture and energy are crucial to not get skunked. Following his presentation, Gratz said hard work on the part of individual powder chasers is also crucial to skiing the best pow. Rather than waking up and just looking for the biggest snow report, Gratz said to spend time researching what has happened at spots over the last few days, namely what its surface has been looking like.
“Every day is a little bit different,” Gratz said. “I try to challenge people to think, not just follow somebody else.”
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