Do low snow totals bode ill for Utah skiing in 2018?

New Year’s Day snowpack was the thinnest since 1977, but skiers and snowboarders aren’t complaining.<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) A snowboarder rides a lift at Brighton ski area in Salt Lake City Monday January 1, 2018.

Brighton • On a typical New Year’s Day, David Lind would be surfing the South Pacific, but this year he found himself on the slopes of a Utah ski area that is facing some of its thinnest snow cover in decades.

Yet the skiing has been surprisingly good, and Lind has been returning to the slopes day after day for the past week, when he had planned to be wiring a Dominican mine. What was supposed to be a quick pass through Salt Lake City turned into a two-week layover, which the Australian parlayed into an unplanned ski vacation, his first time on skis in 18 years.

“I’m slowly improving, getting back to where I was all those years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever get to where I was when I was younger and fitter,” said Lind, who works as a “sparky,” or electrician in Aussie-speak.

He was under calm blue skies at Brighton on Monday, his sixth day on skis while waiting for his employer to ship him to a job that has been delayed in the Dominican Republic.

While Lind enjoyed his New Year’s outing, regulars of Utah slopes are getting impatient to see significant snow, and avalanche experts fear a dangerous cycle of snow slides could mar the rest of the ski season.

The beginning of the 2017-18 snow window has been among the driest in seven decades of record-keeping, and that could set the stage for slide-inducing conditions until spring, according to forecaster Drew Hardesty of the U.S. Forest Service’s Utah Avalanche Center.

Utah’s Cottonwood ski resorts reported 82 inches of snowfall from midfall (when they begin tallying such data for the ski year), but the weather gauge at Alta Guard Station, just across Catherine’s Pass from Brighton, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, has yet to notch 50 inches, according to Hardesty. This ski year is seeing the second leanest snow totals since systematic measurements began at Alta in 1944. Only 1977’s 30½ inches was a lower mark by New Year’s Day.

Poor early season snowfall poses a risk because a thin snowpack accelerates degradation in the snowpack.

“When the snowpack is thin early [in the] season and it’s cold and clear with the low sun angle,” Hardesty said, “that thin snow on the ground rapidly changes into what we call weak, sugary, faceted snow. You can shake it in your hand like salt crystals.”

Forecasters are urging backcountry travelers to use extra caution this winter. While avalanches haven’t claimed lives in Utah this ski year, the snowpack appears to be extremely unstable.

To illustrate why he is worried, Hardesty points to the past three winters in which the Alta Guard snow totals did not reach 100 inches by Jan. 1. In those three ski years — 2009-10, 2011-12 and 2013-14 — Utah’s backcountry avalanche fatalities exceeded the 10-year average of 2.8. No one died in a Utah avalanche during last year’s heavy-snowfall ski year, in which Alta far exceeded its average of 497 inches.

“The key thing here is, if people approach the backcountry with last year’s mindset,” Hardesty said,“ they are in for a surprise.”

Avalanches were probably the last thing skiers and boarders at Brighton were thinking about Monday, though the occasional artillery shot rang through the resort, an explosive assault on a potential avalanche somewhere in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Minimal snow had fallen in the preceding week, and some of the most challenging terrain showed nearly as much granite as snow.

Skier Scott Elder could hardly recognize the usually inviting runs under Mt. Millicent, where angular knobs of talus stuck though the snow, rendering the steeper runs unskiable. He could see a hazard that would be hidden if another 8 inches of snow fell.

“It makes you a little cautious, thinking about the rest of the year, said Elder, who was doing laps on Milly Express while two of his children were taking Little Rippers ski lessons. “There’s a bunch of logs and rocks under it still.”

Across the Little Cottonwood divide, at Snowbird, the holiday season was less busy than usual but still a success, according to Dave Fields, the resort’s general manager.

“The folks who came had a really good time, enjoying good weather and groomers. A lot of the locals are waiting for Mother Nature to deliver to come out and ski,” Fields said. “The hotels were nearly full. We had additional activities that we don’t normally do.”

Like at Brighton, many Snowbird runs were closed, such as Mineral Basin and the lower-mountain Baby Thunder area, which doesn’t have snowmaking equipment.

“The true MVPs of this season are the snowmakers,” Fields said. “They are getting us through this patch.”

Brighton’s six lifts were open Monday, with 45 of 66 runs available, although the Great Western lift may close for the week. Guests said the conditions were pleasant, at least on the groomed runs.

“The trees are dangerous right now,” said Brighton passholder Rachel Lofgren. “There’s a lot of fallen trees that aren’t covered and rocks you have to dodge. But for the conditions, I feel it’s pretty soft. It could be worse; any day up here is a good day.”

Ropes and signs reminded guests that off-trail roaming was not safe.

“They have made as much snow as they can, and have groomed as much as they can, and if ski patrol says this area is out of bounds, it’s out of bounds for a reason,” said snowboarder Peter Ryan.