These are antsy times in the Wasatch.
From resort operators to ski bums to weekend warriors, people are anxious about the slow start of winter, wondering when snow will begin falling in earnest.
Relax. It will. It almost always does.
"I've been accused of being the eternal optimist," admits Deer Valley Resort President Bob Wheaton, 56, a 41-year veteran in the ski industry. "Some years, Mother Nature is better than others in temperatures and natural snow. Some years, she just tests your mettle. After all these years, it doesn't do any good to stress about something you can't control."
Climatological records reinforce his confidence. Snowfall figures show that, sooner or later, storms will start rolling in off the desert, dumping loads of worship-worthy powder on the Wasatch Mountains.
All you have to do is look to last year for evidence that a slow start to the season has no bearing on how much snow will fall by spring. On this day a year ago, only 81.5 inches of snow had fallen at Alta. That is 4.5 inches less than this fall's total, through today (compacted into a 35-inch base).
But 39.5 inches of snow fell in the next three days last year, followed by measurable snow on 17 of the 19 days leading up to Jan. 1. By season's end, Alta had received a monstrous 701.5 inches.
Deer Valley's totals were lower. But the idea was the same.
"From a selfish standpoint, I'd be happy if we repeated that this season," said Wheaton, noting that he drove his pickup in two-wheel drive to the top of the new Lady Morgan lift the day after Thanksgiving last year. He couldn't do that in four-wheel drive by mid-November of this year because the snow was a little too deep.
"There are plenty of examples where we've turned it around in December," said National Weather Service meteorologist-in-charge Larry Dunn.
There are exceptions, of course.
Two years ago, 94 inches of snow had fallen by Dec. 1 at Alta (whose numbers are being used because they are the most comprehensive). But then there was a 10-day dry spell. Only little storms followed. There wasn't a double-digit dump again until Jan. 4, and then again until Feb. 11. In both cases, only 10 inches were recorded.
Still, Alta finished that winter with 401.5 inches. While piddly compared to last year or the 697.5 inches measured in the winter of 2004-05, it was a respectable amount.
Only the notorious winter of 1976-77 has been a complete downer. In that year, even Alta could not open for Christmas. Near season's end, then-Salt Lake Tribune business editor and ski devotee Bob Woody wrote that "the most snowless year on record" had cost Utah resorts about $25 million and was a "near disaster for small specialty shops." The downturn presented an opportunity for Salt Lake City businessman Earl Holding, who purchased the Sun Valley resort that spring. At the same time, Snowbird was forced to cut employment from 800 to 300.
"We are not going out of business, however," then-Snowbird President Ray Hixson told Woody, noting that there was no danger of losing access to credit.
Fast forward to December of 2008 and credit availability is a serious problem. But the resorts, and the skiers and boarders they serve, are breathing more comfortably because of snowmaking. It might not be snowing much, but the nights have been cold enough to make snow to supplement natural production.
Without snowmaking, it's unlikely Deer Valley could open as scheduled today, or Snowbasin on Friday, or Sundance next week.
"In the last 7-8 years, snowmaking technology has increased at the same rate as the technological advancements in skis," said Wheaton, noting that low humidity levels allowed Deer Valley to make snow recently when it was 35 degrees. "The dry climate not only makes for better natural snow, but it lets us make better manmade snow."
Artificial snow apparently will have to suffice for another week. But then a low pressure system that has been stuck over Hudson Bay is projected to dissipate. The low that replaces it looks likely to form farther west, a more traditional location that should direct storms Utah's way.
Once that happens, Dunn said, "you can turn it around in just a few weeks."
And people forget all about the slow start, especially if the threat of no snow is replaced by the hazards of too much snow. That could be the case this winter.
"We tend to have our worst avalanche conditions when we have a drought for a month, followed by a series of small storms," said Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Bruce Tremper. "The snowpack teeters on the edge after that."
Snowfall accumulation records at Alta the last five years show that a good start can benefit final totals, but don't foretell how wet or dry the season might end up. Measurements reflect the amount of snow that fell, not how much it built up on the ground.
Year » Dec. 5 Season Total*
2008 » 86
2007 » 81.5 701.5
2006 » 94 401.5
2005 » 132 637.5
2004 » 184.5 697.5
*(In inches. Seasonal average, 1980-2007, is 552.79
Source: Alta Ski Lifts