Sunday, May 13, 2012

Which Is Better, Sierra Snow Or Rocky Mountain Snow?

On the first day of October, 2011, I noticed that you could still ski over 1000 vertical feet of beautiful corn snow on the snowfields of the Crystal Range. (The Crystal Range is the group of mountains just behind Mt. Tallac, which is the famous mountain with the snow cross, on the southwest shore of Lake Tahoe.)
Even in a low snow year, the Crystal Range snowfields usually linger late into fall, sometimes never melting before the next season's storms cover them up again.
Having driven through the Rockies in late summer, I've noticed that Colorado and Wyoming's mountains, while bigger and as much as 3000+ feet higher than our mountains, often have less snow. That observation brought to mind the constant comparison that people make between Sierra snow and Rocky Mountain snow.
Okay, let's put this silly controversy to rest. When snow is fresh, and when it comes from a cold storm, it is the light, fluffy stuff that powers the dreams of skiers and boarders. Both the Sierra and the Rockies get such snow.
But in the Rockies, where the storms are usually colder, a greater percentage of their snow comes down in the light, fluffy version. Whereas, in the Sierra, the preponderance of warmer storms means that light, fluffy snow is less frequent. When we do get the light stuff, our warmer weather means that it doesn't last as long. That deep powder often warms up in a few days, then re-freezes and produces the famous, bullet-proof, Sierra Cement. Not to worry, though, because the hardpack is usually soon covered up by fresh snowfall. (Or chewed into perfect corduroy by the monster grooming dozers.)
So if Rocky Mountain snow is often lighter, why would anyone go to Tahoe to ski?
There are many reasons.
First, because Tahoe usually – not always – gets more snow, sometimes much more snow.
Shoveling the steps down to our front door 3-25-11
Several years ago, my wife and I met a woman who had a house overlooking Tahoe. She also had a house at Vail. We were visiting her at her Tahoe house, looking out her floor-to-ceiling windows at the vast, amazing blue of the lake, and our conversation turned to the differences between Tahoe and Vail. When we came to the subject of snow, she said, “In Tahoe, we measure our snowfall in feet. At Vail, we measure our snowfall in inches.” (Is this part of the reason that Vail recently bought both Heavenly and Northstar and Kirkwood, the latter of which is widely acknowledged to average more snow than any ski area in North America or Europe?)
So the truth of the controversy can be summed up in this way:
Rockies = Better snow (when they get it)
Tahoe = More snow, more often (usually)
In those years when the Rockies get lots of snow, they can't be beat. Want a hint about how often that happens? Just look up at the resort slopes during the summer. They are relatively manicured and free of debris so that they can open for skiing with just inches on the ground. Compare that to Sierra slopes, which are often peppered with big boulders and downed trees. Tahoe resorts don't worry so much about slope debris. It makes no difference after you've got ten feet on the ground and thirty more feet on the way.
A second reason to ski and board in Tahoe, is that the same warm winter weather that destroys fluffy snow also makes it much more comfortable to be outside. Much of the winter, a big portion of resort visitors in Tahoe eat their lunch outside. Tahoe resorts all have huge sundecks. People often ski and ride without hats, and sometimes without gloves. A really cold day in Colorado can be 25 below zero. In Wyoming, 30 below zero. In Montana, well, you get the idea.
Compare that to Tahoe, where the average high temp during January is 40 degrees.
Looking at those snowfields on the Crystal Range in October is a reminder of Tahoe's amazing snow.
Of course, this year, 2011-2012, was dry nearly everywhere. But Tahoe had over 700 inches of snow last year. We're waiting for you to come up the mountain and play in it!
Happy skiing and riding!

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