Storm an early season boost |

Storm an early season boost

Melanie Wong
A balcony in Vail on Tuesday illustrates the end of fall and the beginning of a snowy winter. Vail has reported 23 inches from the last storm.
Townsend Bessent | |

Snow water equivalent

What does 1 inch of water look like in real snow?

“There are lots of rules of thumb people swear by,” said Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. “Mostly you’ll hear 10 inches or 12 inches of snow to 1 inch of snow water equivalent, but it’s always a matter of how much water content is in the snow. Super light, fluffy powder takes a lot of snow depth to equal 1 inch of water.”

Here’s how local snowpack is doing compared to the 30-year SWE average:

Vail Mountain: 44 percent of average

Copper Mountain: 90 percent of average

Fremont Pass: 116 percent of average

Source: Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service

EAGLE COUNTY — On Tuesday afternoon, Donny Shefchik was taking his second ski day of the season — and he didn’t even need the help of lifts and snowmaking machinery.

Mother Nature gave a boost to enthusiasts like Shefchik, a guide with Paragon Guides in Edwards, during the past week, with 2 to 3 feet of snow reported in areas throughout the Vail Valley.

“I got about a dozen very mellow powder turns. The snow was beautifully cold and dry, fine-grained and you didn’t sink very deep,” he said. “It was about 12 to 20 inches where I was skiing.”

The great snow bodes well for opening days at Vail and Beaver Creek mountains. After the storms last week, Vail Mountain reported 23 inches of snow while Beaver Creek reported 24 inches.

The temperatures and natural snow have allowed snowmaking crews to be hard at work. Vail Mountain announced Tuesday that it will open both Vail and Lionshead villages on Friday. Specific terrain and lifts open will be announced today, according to the resort.

“We know that we’ll be opening both base areas, but we’re going to give our snowmakers, groomers and patrollers one more night to confirm exactly what we’ll be able to open on Friday morning for Vail’s opening day,” said Chris Jarnot, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. “Stay tuned for an update.”

Snowpack count begins

The snow not only gives skiers and riders something to enjoy for the beginning of the season, but it got the area started in building up its winter snowpack.

The amount of water in the snow, referred to as the snow water equivalent, or SWE, affects stream flows in the spring, wildfire outlook in the summer and whether the mountains will be dry or green and lush next year.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District both track snowpack levels, and after the second storm of the season, they are able to start tracking levels for the water year, which starts in October.

So far, early season snow measured on Vail Mountain has the snow water equivalent of 1.6 inches, which is well below the 30-year average. The 30-year median average for Nov. 18 is 3.6 inches SWE, putting the current total at 44 percent of normal. However, it’s far to early in the season to extrapolate any predictions from those numbers, said Diane Johnson of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District.


“It’s too early to worry about it in November and December. There’s just so much that could happen,” she said. “No year is average. You could get a whole bunch of snow early in the year and have a dry February and March, then we’re worried going into spring. We’ve had years where we’ve been slow all winter and then pulled out of it by late March and April with some big snowstorms.”

What’s positive, she said, is that October snow brought some measurable snow water equivalent that got soaked into the ground, allowing the new snow from last week to pile up quickly. Also, other measurement sites from Copper Mountain (which indicate how snow build-up is doing on Vail Pass) and from Fremont Pass (which feeds into the Eagle River) are all above average as of mid-November.

The snow also means that avalanche danger is possible, said the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The 2 to 3 feet of snow sitting on top of old snow that came in October creates unstable slabs, said Colorado Avalanche Information Center avalanche forecaster Spencer Logan.

“We started seeing avalanches breaking, some big enough to certainly injure a person, and a few were big enough to break trees and bury a car,” he said. “Right now that problem is confined to areas with that October snow, so watch out for higher elevation shady slopes that face west or northeast.”

Forecasters say it’s yet to be seen whether this winter will be a dangerous one for avalanches. That depends on the weather patterns — whether snow falls regularly, or if there are cycles of warm weather, then heavy snow.

“Right now it’s actually better than we’ve seen in the last few years because the problem is confined to those areas with October snow. If we get another dry spell in January, followed by lots of snow, we’ll have a more widespread problem.”

Preseason bustle

The blanket of snow that covered the Vail Valley also brought a buzz to many local ski and guiding shops and everyone began kicking into gear for the season.

At Venture Sports, many locals were taking advantage of half-off preseason tunes and getting their alpine touring equipment ready for some preseason laps.

“People are going to Keystone and Breckenridge. We’re definitely seeing a lot of touring gear coming in since it’s really popular to lap the mountain before the lifts start running. There have been quite a few Nordic skis as well,” said Peter Schramm, of Venture Sports.

At Paragon Guides, Karen Peck said there has been a definite uptick in interest and calls for tours and trips after the snow began to fall.

“Word has gotten out about our recent snow and our reservations for both day tours and hut trips have jumped in the past week,” she said. “Watching it snow is a great motivator for getting those winter plans together.”

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

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