Utah skiers, resorts enjoy big October storm, but trouble could be on the way

Avalanches still a risk as skiers and snowboarders head into the mountains, with more snowfall expected this week.

(Matt Chi | Park City Mountain) Fresh snow blankets the ground at Park City Mountain Resort, which reported receiving 11 inches near the summit of the Bonanza lift as of Tuesday morning from the first storm of the season, which began Saturday, Oct. 21, 2022.

Ben Snyder watched his social media feeds last weekend as anxiously as any zealous skier or snowboarder. Reports of thick drifts of snow forming in Utah’s mountains were proliferating almost as quickly as the flakes. His splitboard was at the ready, but he stayed put in his Millcreek home. He was waiting for a sign.

Snyder saw it when Craig Gordon, a forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, posted Sunday afternoon about how perfectly the season’s first snowstorm had set up conditions for “a designer snowpack.” First thing Monday morning, Snyder was steering his snowboard through fresh powder near Alta Ski Area.

“As long as there’s about two feet up there and Craig Gordon’s saying it’s OK,” Snyder said, “I feel pretty good about going up.”

He wasn’t alone. Despite road closures due to icy conditions, risk of early season avalanches and the chance of dinging their boards on rocks and tree stumps hiding under the unpacked snow, many of Utah’s skiers and snowboarders flocked to the mountains to enjoy one of the most plentiful October snowstorms in recent memory.

Fall quickly took on the appearance of winter as all the Cottonwood Canyon resorts recorded more than a foot of fresh powder. That includes 25 inches at Snowbird Resort, 18 inches at Solitude and 14 at the base of Brighton. In Park City, Deer Valley Resort claimed to have received a foot of snow, while Park City Mountain reported 11 inches as of Monday at its Summit Patrol House, near the top of the Bonanza lift. Even Eagle Point, nestled in the Tushar Mountains near Beaver, could boast 20 inches at mid-mountain on Tuesday.

Alta got hit with 25 inches of snow between Saturday and Monday, according to the National Weather Service’s Salt Lake City branch. That is more for that area, the agency said, than the average for the entire month (24.4 inches).

And more is on the way.

The website Open Snow predicts a smaller storm entering the area Tuesday and Wednesday will drop between 7-10 inches in the Wasatch Mountains. Southern Utah ski areas will see an inch or three more. Resorts, meanwhile, will be able to fire up their snowmaking equipment as overnight temperatures dip well below freezing at higher elevations.

That combination is like a siren song to local snowboarders and skiers who are antsy for the season to start. Four resorts — Alta, Brian Head, PCMR and Solitude — have set Nov. 18 as their opening date. Others, namely Brighton and Powder, are willing to forge ahead and fire up their lifts even earlier if conditions are right.

For backcountry skiers and splitboarders, though, the season is underway right now. Which means snowboarders like Snyder get a rare chance to ride the terrain around Alta, a ski-only resort when lifts are running.

“It’s awesome to get to snowboard up there,” said Snyder, 29, who moved to Utah from Pennsylvania for the snow seven years ago. “And part of what I really enjoy is just getting out with the locals, you know? It’s primarily just a local scene up there right now, and [we’re all] kind of just on the same wavelength….

“So yeah, it’s a lot of fun.”

The avalanche center cautioned, however, that anyone going into the snow right now, whether to ski or hike, should be wary of slides. Indeed, the agency reported the first human-caused avalanche of the season in the Wasatch on Sunday near Mount Baldy. No one was injured in the slide.

“The main issue will be fresh deposits of wind-drifted snow that could produce slab avalanches,” forecaster Mark Staples posted on the UAC site Saturday. “However, in some places where 2-3 feet of snow may accumulate, the new snow alone may produce soft slab avalanches or sluffs [sic] of new snow.”

The good news is that the weekend’s storm set out the ingredients for what Gordon called a “designer snowpack” — one that is more resistant to slides. The first wave of the storm, he said, left “dense, spongey snow on warm, bare ground.” That was covered with a layer containing a high moisture content and topped off with a top layer of the dry powder Utah is known for.

A stable base layer like that could equate to fewer avalanches later in the season, but only if the cold temperatures hold. Evan Thayer, a Utah forecaster for Open Snow, warned of the issues a big October storm can bring via a meme on his Twitter account Sunday.

The NWS forecasts the cold temperatures will hold in the mountains through the end of the month, but highs are expected to reach into the 60s during the first week of November.

Yet even if the powder doesn’t last and the snowpack becomes avalanche prone, the storms can be considered a net positive for the state. If nothing else, the snowpack will melt into much needed moisture next year.

In fact, Thayer pointed out that the central Wasatch snowpack is currently at 6,600% of normal. In the Weber and Ogden area, it’s 7,750% above normal.

“It’s unlikely,” Thayer said in a tweet, “we’ll be able to maintain this level throughout the entire season.”

That’s probably for the best. As much as Utah skiers and snowboarders have been praying for snow, getting 30,000 inches in places like Snowbird that average around 500 per year would be more than an abundance of riches.