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Giving thanks for La Niña

11/25/2011
Liam Gallagher

Whether your home resort opens top-to-bottom, or with just a few sketchy frozen stripes of snow, it's hard not to get excited about opening day. Though a handful of ski areas, such as Wolf Creek resort in Colorado and Killington and Mt. Snow up in Vermont, have been open since late October, ski resort openings have just started cranking in the past couple of weeks. As Thanksgiving has signaled the traditional ramping up of openings coast-to-coast -- especially in the Pacific Northwest, where reports of all-time opening week faceshots are coming in. It looks like the rumors are true: La Niña is back.

Let The Fun Begin

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Joel Gratz, founder and meteorologist for opensnow.com, says this year's La Niña is only about two-thirds the strength of last year's. However, "that doesn't mean we'll only get two-thirds the snow," he says, "but the weaker the La Niña the less predictable the weather will be. The general rule is, the farther north the better off you are. The northern Rockies are favored. Jackson Hole looks interesting. Further East, Stowe and Jay Peak come to mind. And the Pacific Northwest typically does well in any type of La Niña."

Mount Baker, in Washington, opened on Nov. 18, and Utah freeskier Sam Cohen has skied there every day since. With 100-plus inches in the forecast this week, and the resort completely open, the season at Baker is off to a incredible start. "The conditions have been ridiculous," Cohen says. "Consistently deep and pretty good coverage. Lighter than usual snow. We even toured out to the Shuksan Arm and Hemispheres [backcountry] off of Chair 8."

Note: Due to the continued snowfall, avalanche danger in the Washington backcountry was rated "High-to-Extreme" as of Wednesday morning. As in, don't go out there right now.

Nov. 18 also marked Whistler's opening day up in Canada, and according to resort spokesman Peter Lornergan, "La Niña is a definite plus for us. It results in lower than normal temperatures and higher than normal amounts of precipitation for this geographical area. The alpine forecast is for over 100 [centimeters] of fresh new snow by week's end." Next door, Blackcomb opens on Thanksgiving.

Squaw, in California, saw record-breaking snowfall last season and opened on Wednesday for the first time since it merged with Alpine Meadows ski resort. Alpine opens Dec. 10. Meanwhile, farther south, at Mammoth Mountain, which saw its first snowfall in October, became the first resort to open a halfpipe. Mammoth's is an Olympic regulation-sized 22-foot superpipe.

With 44 inches on the ground, Colorado's reliable early-season powder hole, Wolf Creek, opened with a bang, claiming "first" bragging rights back in late October. Crested Butte Mountain Resort opened its slopes to everyone -- literally -- on Wednesday with an all-day "ski free" party to celebrate the resort's 50th anniversary. Breckenridge, which is celebrating 50 years of operation this season, opened Nov. 11. On the Front Range, Copper, Keystone, Vail and others are open for snow business. To the west, Utah's Alta, Brighton, Snowbird, Solitude and Park City have all been spinning lifts since mid-November.

Another word of caution for those crossing boundary lines in Colorado and Utah: According to the Utah Avalanche Center, 18 human-triggered slides have already been reported this month, including the one that ended the life of famed big-mountain skier Jamie Pierre. In Colorado, more than 50 avalanches have already been reported. Your home resort might not be running at full capacity just yet, but it is worth a moment of caution before you go hunting for powder out of bounds.

Up in Jackson, Wyo., the resort that reported 580 inches of snowfall by when the lifts stopped spinning last spring, and 720 inches total by June has plans to open on Nov. 26. Last winter, JHMR opened with top-to-bottom shredding. This year, according to JHMR communications manager Zahan Billimoria, "Over 74 inches of snow have fallen so far this year. … La Niña is producing generous snowfall and favorable forecasts for Jackson, and the forecast for the coming week could spell a lot more snow before opening day." Although the tram will not be running on opening day, the top of the mountain will be open, with lifts running.

Out East, lifts have been spinning in Vermont at Killington and Mount Snow since late October, Maine's Sugarloaf came on line Nov. 22 with $29 lift tickets and Okemo, Vt., launches its season on Thanksgiving Day. A storm warning is in effect for the entire Northeast this week. Bring it, La Niña.