Though he’s no doctor, with one glance Nathan Rafferty can recognize those afflicted with powder fever. Both real and contagious, it presented as excessive fatigue combined with a hunger in the eyes and a snow forecasting app at the fingertips.
“Years like this, you see people around town and they’re just kind of exhausted because they’re looking at the snow report and they’re still thinking it could all end tomorrow: ‘We’ve gotta get it while you can,’” said Rafferty, the president of Ski Utah, the marketing arm of the Utah Ski & Snowboard Association. “That’s one of the things I love most about skiing is the conditions change day to day and you never know when it’s going to turn off. So it’s that scramble to get the best skiing, and it’s what makes it fun.”
This year, more people than ever came down with powder fever. Ski Utah announced in a report Thursday that it estimates visitation to the state’s resorts during the 2022-23 season will reach 7.1 million. — a 22% increase over last year’s record. It won’t know for sure until the season officially ends, however, and that won’t be for a couple of weeks. Though currently closed, Snowbird has promised it will reopen Father’s Day weekend, and hope abounds among skiers and snowboarders that it will stretch the season through July 4.
Visitation, it should be noted, is different than visitors. One person going to the mountains 50 times a season to ski or ride at a resort can boost the state’s visitation rate but still only counts as one visitor. Rafferty said Ski Utah has plans to track unique visitors but doesn’t right now.
Utah has set visitation records in four of the past five seasons. The one exception is the 2019-20 season, which was cut short by the COVID-19 virus. Previous jumps have been closer to 5-10%, though. Nationally, visitation jumped 6.6% in 2022-23 for a record 64.7 million visits, according to the National Ski Areas Association. The NSAA attributed most of that bump to the snow-rich resorts in the West and Rocky Mountain regions, the latter of which includes Utah and accounted for more than 40% of the visitation.
So why did people make an estimated 1.2 million more trips to Utah’s ski areas this year? The increased interest has been driven by a near perfect combination of factors. Among them are a long season, record-setting snowfall at most resorts and concern — after several feast-or-famine seasons — that the flakes could stop falling at any time.
“The bottom line is that our biggest driver of visitation here — we can be great marketers, have great services at the resorts, all these different things — but at the end of the day, snow drives visitation, especially in Utah,” Rafferty said. “There’s nothing scientific about it.
“It turns out people like skiing deep powder, and we had deep powder this year.”
More than half of Utah’s 15 resorts claimed their longest season on record. That group includes Brian Head Resort near Cedar City, which kicked off Utah’s season on Nov. 4, and Solitude, which shut down operations last weekend after offering 192 days of lift-served access. Deer Valley, Brighton, Snowbasin, Nordic Valley and Woodward Park City also are members of that club.
Alta Ski Area had seen a record 903 inches of snow, and nearly two weeks of interlodge, by the time it closed the book on the season April 30 (it halted lift operations April 21). Not only the most ever for a Utah resort, it also topped the previous mark, also held by Alta, by more than 150 inches.
Yet that’s not the statistic that boggles Rafferty’s mind. Nor is it that the Little Cottonwood resort got 229 inches in March, which is 244% above average for the month. No, he’s more impressed that, according to the Ski Utah report, Alta averaged 5.1 inches of snowfall per day during the ski season.
“That’s just insane,” he said.
Sundance Resort was buried under 10 more feet of snow than it had ever seen. Cherry Peak near Logan saw 60% more snow this year than at any other time in its five-year history. Brighton, Solitude, Snowbird, Snowbasin, Nordic Valley, Woodward Park City, Park City Mountain and Deer Valley also set snowfall records. Most saw record snowpack as well.
Rafferty said the state called so many official powder days, in which at least 12 inches fall in a 24-hour span, that it considered a sunshine alert during one of the rare times the clouds actually parted. In total, Ski Utah issued 44 powder alerts. The average for a season is 19.
And yet throughout the season, skiers and snowboarders fretted that the end might be near. Old Man Winter has historically been fickle, sometimes dropping piles of snow in November and December only to hold back for the resort of the season. Other times, skiers and boarders pack their gear away in March just to have a blizzard bear down in April.
So even as the snow kept falling, the powderhounds heeded the call. If they didn’t, they feared it could be 240 days or more before they got another faceful of powder. They had the fever.
When the last big storm hit in late April, Rafferty said “it kind of broke some people, I think.”
But when it’s all settled, 2022-23 will be a season to remember.
“I think it was really a once-in-a-generation season,” Rafferty said. “I’d love to be wrong on that. But it’s pretty special to be part of a season where, you know, this one is the one you’re going to tell your kids and your grandkids, ‘Nothing compares to back in 2022-23.’ It’s that year.”
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