How Colorado snowmakers battled warm temps to bring skiing to the High Country

Phil Lindeman

Warm October?

October is notoriously fickle in the High Country: one day it’s summery and the next day it’s snowing. Here’s how temperatures in 2016 compare to the past five years, plus historical data from 1996.

Year High Low Average

2016 61F 13F 39F

2015 63F 13F 38F

2014 61F 17F 36F

2013 63F 12F 38F

2012 60F 5F 34F

2011 61F 6F 35F

2010 65F 4F 36F

1996 63F -7F 30F

Source: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration online database, Copper Mountain and Keystone stations.


October snowpack

These days, just about every ski area in Colorado gives Mother Nature a boost with snowmaking — once temperatures reach the sweet spot of 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Until then, resorts rely on the real thing. A look at the past five years of natural snowfall and how it boosted snowmaking operations (snow depth totals are cumulative through the end of the month).

Year Snowfall Snowfall total Snow depth

2016 2 days 3 inches 1 inch

2015 5 days 7 inches 3 inches

2014 4 days 3 inches N/A (no record)

2013 8 days 15 inches 4.5 inches

2012 3 days 3 inches 1.5 inches

2011 4 days 8 inches 6 inches

2010 5 days 11 inches 9.7 inches

Source: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration online database, Copper Mountain and Keystone stations.

Call it the world’s largest game of hurry up and wait.

For most of October, snowmakers at ski areas across Colorado were primed to give thousands of anxious skiers and snowboarders exactly what they wanted: just enough coverage for early season turns before winter truly got started. Crews at Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area turned their guns on for the first time Oct. 3 — the second day of the month when temperatures at night dropped below freezing — and then something odd happened.

While Denver baked in near-record temperatures into the low 80s, Summit County saw a string of days when temps hovered right around freezing. From Oct. 9 to Oct. 18 — just a day before the first round of snow helped A-Basin confirm opening day on Oct. 21 — the nighttime lows never dipped below 29 degrees and daytime highs soared into the 60s, with bright, brilliant sunshine just about every day. Temps dipped into the teens just once before opening day at A-Basin, and then crawled back into the high 50s for the final 10 days of the month.

For Summit County snowmakers, conditions were tantalizingly close but never quite perfect. At Keystone Resort, the crew won’t fire up the snowmaking system until temps drop to 27 degrees with little humidity, also known as the “wet bulb” temperature, according to the resort. At A-Basin, the wet bulb temperature is around 25 degrees. Last month, only four days hit the sweet spot: Oct. 6-7 and Oct. 19-20.

“We can make snow almost anytime the temperature is below freezing,” said Bill Miller, the director of snow surfaces for A-Basin and the man in charge of snowmaking. “Ideally, we would like to see temperatures in the teens. Day or night doesn’t matter, as long as it’s cold.”

A balmy October forced Miller and other snowmaking crews across the state to wait for better conditions, which in turn has forced Loveland, Keystone and Wolf Creek near Pagosa Springs to delay their opening days. All three originally expected to be open by this weekend, and now, all three are tentatively scheduled to open with no more than two or three runs by Nov. 11 — the same day Breckenridge Ski Resort and Copper Mountain Resort also plan to open for the 2016-17 season. Loveland and Keystone have both been making snow consistently at night since Nov. 1, officials with both ski areas said, but that means they’re already two weeks behind schedule.

“Our top priority at Keystone is to provide our guests with the best early season ski and ride experience possible,” said Mike Goar, chief operating officer for Keystone, when the resort announced on Nov. 1 it would delay opening day. “While Mother Nature has not made it easy for recent snowmaking operations, our team is ready to fire up the snow guns at every opportunity as weather gets cooler this week and next.”

Cause for concern?

A full month of warm, dry conditions has put a damper on the Colorado ski season, but that hasn’t been the case for resorts across the U.S. and North America. At Sunshine Village in Alberta, Canada, record-low temperatures and regular snowfall helped the resort open with a 29-inch on Nov. 2 — the earliest opening day in 30 years.

To the south, precipitation at ski areas in the Pacific Northwest are 100 to 200 percent above average, according to Joel Gratz of the snow-forecasting website Open Snow, and Tahoe-area resorts are about the same. Colorado ski areas are a measly 20 to 70 percent below average, Gratz continued, but, as usual, early season snow totals don’t always make for better snowpack when the ski season kicks into high gear.

“For current snowpack, the picture is not as clear,” Gratz wrote in a post on Friday. “While many areas to the west and north of Colorado have seen a lot of precipitation, the recent spell of warmer temperatures has melted some of the snow and/or kept snow levels high. In Colorado, snowpack is meager … just about 10-percent of average, or really just a few patches of snow at higher-elevation, north-facing slopes.”

In late October, Gratz said almost exactly the same thing: After digging through historical data, he found that October snowfall rarely (if ever) correlates to below-average snowpack during the high months of February, March and April.

This October was one of the driest and warmest in recent history, but it’s not exactly an extreme outlier — more like a perfect storm of unfavorable conditions. In 2013, temperatures and snowfall were similarly warm and light, but the nighttime lows stayed in the snowmaking sweet spot of 25 degrees or less from Oct. 14 to November, according to data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. As far back as 1996, Summit saw a string of highs in the 60s through mid-October, but lows were less than 30 degrees for most of the month and temps quickly dipped into the 20s by late October. For the past five years, the final five days of October have been consistently cold, with temps reaching into the teens and single digits every year — except for this one. It snowed just twice during the month, and so far November has been just as dry. But there’s hope on the horizon, Gratz said, even if it’s the distant horizon.

“Snow will fall over all mountains between Friday afternoon and Sunday, with the heaviest amounts in the southern mountains,” Gratz wrote. “The weather for next week will be benign, but then a change to stormier weather is likely during the last 10 days of November.”

A better November

While Keystone, Loveland and the remaining Summit County resorts hope for snow and cool temps in time for opening day on Nov. 11, skiers and snowboarders are making the most of a prolonged fall season. At Loveland, the Loveland Ski Club has been on the snow almost daily for early season practice.

“I’ll tell you, the snow is phenomenal for us,” said John Hale, executive director for the club. “We’re in a freeze-thaw pattern, and for racing that’s one of the best situations you can have — in the morning it’s rock hard, just like we like it.”

Even the ski club is getting creative with the conditions. Coaches had plenty of salt left over from the spring season, Hale said, and they’ve been using it to harden the snow surface this fall when afternoon temps start to soar.

With any luck, Loveland snowmakers hope to cover three runs — Homerun, Catwalk and Mambo — for top-to-bottom service on Lift 1 by Nov. 11. At A-Basin, High Noon is still the sole open run as crews blow snow on Ramrod en route to the summit, while Keystone crews are busy filling out Schoolmarm, The Alley, Silver Spoon, Paymaster, Last Chance, the west side of Montezuma Express, the mid-load station for River Run Gondola and the summit at Dercum Peak. There will be no top-to-bottom service on opening day, officials said.

In the meantime, recreational skiers and snowboarders are still making turns at A-Basin with dozens of ski club athletes from across the nation. Many ski clubs plan to train at Loveland as soon as the area opens, and Hale says simply the ability to be on snow of any sort — natural or manmade — is invaluable for the team.

“This is very important for us,” Hale said. “We shoot to have at least 60 days of training prior to the first race of the season, and typically a program will have to go to Mammoth, Mount Hood, the southern hemisphere, and then into Europe for October to get that many days on snow. A big cornerstone of our program is providing that training right here at home.”

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