Where is winter? The million-dollar question for west coast skiers this year. The answer, according to northwest weather forecaster Larry Schick, “we don’t know.” The 2014-2015 winter has been particularly rough for most, if not all ski areas on the west coast, with high temperatures and a lack of significant snowfall. Schick, a forecaster with the ski-specific weather site Opensnow.com, continues “I personally think that this winter has been [bad] because of natural variation. So we can have winters like this. We’ve had worse winters, but this is going to go down maybe as one of the worst.”
Photo: Drew Hurter
A lack of moisture has not, however, been the main issue; high temperatures have kept the precipitation falling as rain rather than snow. While the rain may not melt the snow completely it further compacts and stresses the already thin snowpack. These weather patterns are known colloquially in the PNW as ‘Pineapple Express.’ Coupled with high snow levels the Pineapple Express storms have pushed local ski areas to the brink of closure, or of several areas, actual closure.
My graphical representation of Pineapple Express
While this poor season has limited operations at many areas in the PNW and California, the areas have been “…working their tails off trying to maintain and keep our runs together.” As explained by Guy Lawrence of The Summit at Snoqualmie, who has seen only 67” of snowfall so far this year compared to their average 435.” Yet still, some areas have managed better than others, like Crystal Mountain, as said by marketing director Tiana Anderson, “Two words.... Elevation matters. Our base area sits at 4,400 feet which is the highest in WA. Sure we've gotten our fair share of rain this winter but we've been able to maintain the snowpack… We've scaled our operations back to a sustainable level. The lack of snow and skier visits simply means we'll have to hold off on some of the bigger improvements we wanted to tackle this summer.” Thus despite sub-optimal conditions, locals and ski areas remain positive, hoping for a turnaround in the season.
Despite the efforts, The Summit at Snoqualmie has closed until further notice as of February 11th, and Crystal Mountain is running limited operations. In a statement today Lawrence said, "Let's face it, you don't work in the ski industry for the money, you do it for the love of the sport and it's tough for them -- a lot of people disappointed in this, we're all in the boat - our skiing and snowboarding customers, our staff, our crew here -- we're all suffering the same treatment. There are no winners in a season like this."
January 31st by Ingrid Backstrom, Crystal Freeride Coach and Ambassador of Stoke. The skier: Anna Sajer
The skiing has not been all that bad, but conditions have been much more like spring than winter.
Many are blaming El Niño and climate change for the bad weather, yet Schick maintains that the cause is most likely just a natural variation. Despite early predictions, the El Niño pattern has not fully evolved this winter, and has only done so weakly. Schick explains “I think El Niño and La Niña are the best predictors [of the winter snowfall], but I only think they are good predictors when they’re strong. When they’re the weak variety [like this year] they’re not that good of a predictor.” As for climate change, a reliable conclusion cannot be drawn from this singular bad season in the larger macro environment, however, experts like Schick say that seasons like this could become “the rule, not the exception” in 20-50 years.
Optimism may help to keep skiers sane, as mountain bikes are being ridden more than skis. The Northwest has seen some remarkable late winter comebacks, like last year when Crystal Mountain received “nearly 100” in just one week in March” but Larry Schick cautions skiers “Any kind of comeback is going to be meager if it happens at all.“ So hang in there west coast skiers, and pray for that late season comeback! In the meantime, I’ll be getting my mountain bike back up and running.
UPDATE: Since writing this, last week, The Summit at Snoqualmie, in Washington, has closed for the time being.