November 16, 1997
With all due respect to Vail Associates’ empire-builder Adam Aron, the star of this season’s ski season is without question the incomparable El Niño. The hoary breath of this now-famous media star is already being felt in Colorado, as several major storms have passed through during the month of November, leaving Denver dwellers unseasonably chilled. While El Niño himself was unavailable for an interview, we were able to peek inside the soul of this planet’s most lovable weather phenomenon.
As El Niño whips itself into a full-fledged force to be reckoned with, it’s being blamed, or credited, with every conceivable act of Nature. In the ever-competitive world of the ski industry, where snowfall can make or break the bottom line, El Niño’s return this year is being heralded as nothing less than a religious event. Memories of the last glorious El Niño event, in 1982-83, are still fresh in many skiers’ memories. That season, you couldn’t help but ski deep powder every single time you bought a lift ticket.
There can never be enough snow in ski country, and if El Niño chooses to bless us with record snowfalls, we won’t mind. In fact, for those who have considered turning their backs on “the real world” and becoming a ski bum, this could be the year to make the leap.
Faith aside, science dictates a slightly less heavenly scenario this winter. Jerry Meehl, scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., responded to our query via email. “The strongest El Niño signals for winter and spring climate anomalies are warmer/drier in the Pacific Northwest, and cooler/wetter for the southeast U.S.,” he wrote. The Rocky Mountains, of course, fall somewhere in between, making forecasting less of a science.
Based on the 1982-83 El Niño event and averages taken over many past events, said Meehl, “we would expect somewhat greater-than-normal snowfall amounts in the mountains, especially in the spring.” Meehl is quick to point out that this is only an average indication, “and since every event is different, there has to be a big qualification when talking about winter and spring snowfall.”
The 1976-77 El Niño event, Meehl reminded us, left virtually no snow in Colorado at Thanksgiving, and “Colorado ski areas were in a panic to try and open at least one slope.” This caused many ski areas to invest mightily in snow-making machines to offset the vagaries of Mother Nature.
As if to demonstrate a little nervousness about whether or not El Niño will step to the plate this winter, the Telluride Ski & Golf Club has recently negotiated a permit to engage in cloud seeding to increase snowfall (as reported in The Denver Post). Faith, after all, only goes so far.
Based on our deeply held beliefs in El Niño and the righteousness of skiing outrageous powder, we’ll offer our own prediction about snowfall. Because the west-to-east jet stream often dictates the path of Pacific storms during the winter, sending them either to the north or south of I-70, this is the year southern Rocky Mountain resorts will be blessed with tons of powder. This means Telluride, Crested Butte, Wolf Creek and Taos will be the 1997-98 powder shrines. (These resorts just happen to be on our editorial schedule this winter. Also, as of December 4, Taos Ski Valley was reporting a 55-inch base.)
It’s not clear if El Niño has taken up snowboarding since his last appearance in 1982-83, but we’d be glad to show him the ropes of barreling down a hill on a board – for a price of course. How about 95-inch bases at the above resorts by December 12?
Story and photos by David Iler