The inexact science of snow reporting
VAIL, Colo. – When a ski resort that covers 5,289 acres – the largest in the United States – reports the snowfall that has occurred over the last 24 hours, there is and will always be areas of the mountain that don’t match up to what’s reported.
Some areas might have less snow, and other areas might have more. In the case of last week’s snow reporting debacle, in which Vail reported 12 inches the morning of Feb. 23 and later retracted that report and changed it to 2 inches, the reading of the mountain’s snow measuring stake was simply inaccurate because high winds had blown in too much snow, the resort reported.
Getting a snow measurement before 5 a.m., which is when the operator in the Vail Communications Center at the base of the mountain does the reading, can be tricky business. The situation last week was simply an anomaly, though, said Bob Norris, manager of Vail Mountain security.
Norris said talk of Vail Mountain intentionally inflating its snow reports is ridiculous.
“People say marketing does it to drive their skier numbers – well that’s crap, I’m sorry,” Norris said. “Reporting 12 inches when we’ve got 2 – nobody in their right mind would do that on purpose. … We want to be as accurate as we possibly can.”
Vail Mountain recently allowed the Vail Daily and meteorologist Joel Gratz, who runs opensnow.com, to look in on its snow reporting operations that begin in the wee hours of the morning to see just how the resort calculates its snowfall each day.
Steven Garbett works in the communications center on a 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m shift, and right around 4:30 a.m. is when his job becomes important to thousands of skiers and snowboarders looking for the best powder stashes that day. Garbett doesn’t snowmobile up the mountain to get the reading – he does it all right from the comfort of the office, by looking at a video picture from a mid-mountain camera.
The picture comes in clearly, showing the numbers on the measuring stake in inches and to where the snow reaches on that stake. Garbett then enters what he sees into a computer, which then generates a mass email report.
“Once I put these numbers in, and then it gives me a chance to check myself (for mistakes), they get emailed out to the whole world,” Garbett said. “I enter the numbers around 4:45 (a.m.).”
After that, he also generates an automated report that shows recent wind conditions. If the report shows that overnight wind events created the right recipe for avalanches, he calls in ski patrol to do avalanche control work. Sometimes the wind alone is enough to create the need for avalanche work, sometimes the snowfall combined with little to no wind is enough to create avalanche danger, and sometimes it’s the combination of wind and snowfall. Garbett has protocol that he follows to determine whether he needs to make the morning call to ski patrol or not.
Vail Mountain has been doing its snow reporting via video cameras since the 1998-99 season, just after radical environmentalists burned down the Two Elk restaurant while also damaging nearby chairlifts and the Patrol Headquarters apartment. A ski patroller used to sleep in that apartment and was responsible for measuring snowfall manually, but the fires changed that, Norris said.
Because Vail Mountain was installing cameras all over the mountain for security purposes following the arson attack, the resort decided to install a camera for the purposes of measuring snow.
The camera readings worked, and the communications center has been doing that morning snow report ever since, Norris said.
The early morning camera report is crucial for Front Range residents like Gratz, who often wake up early and decide where to ski based on morning snow reports.
“This is a big deal,” Gratz said. “If there’s a lot of snow and you want to be up here for anywhere near first chair, I need to leave my house by 5:30 (a.m.).”
Following that morning camera reading, Vail Ski Patrol also heads up the mountain for a manual reading. They get on snowmobiles around 6:30 a.m. and travel to the measuring site, which is located at mid-mountain in the vicinity of Eagle’s Nest. A different ski patroller does the manual reading each day of the week.
Because ski patrol isn’t looking at the snow stake until about two hours after the early-morning camera reading, sometimes more snow has fallen and the measurement is higher. When that happens, like it did on Tuesday morning, the additional snow is accounted for in the following day’s report.
Two inches of snow fell between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. Tuesday, with another 4 inches falling before Wednesday morning’s reading, for example, which meant that Vail Mountain reported 6 inches of snow Wednesday morning for its 24-hour report.
The stake, which looks like a large ruler, is attached to a wooden platform. The ski patroller is able to measure the snow that accumulates on top of that platform before lifting up the entire thing, wiping off the snow and placing it on top of the snow in another location. Any new snow that falls in the next 24 hours will be measured by how much is on top of that wooden platform.
When the 12-inch report that turned into 2 inches happened last week, both the camera reading at the base of the mountain and the manual ski patrol reading recorded 12 inches in the morning.
Vail Mountain spokeswoman Liz Biebl said word traveled around the mountain that the report couldn’t be right – including accusations via social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that Vail purposely inflated the report – so the resort decided to reassess.
The explanation was that wind had blown the snow around so much that it provided a false reading on the measuring stake. It had been so windy the day before, too, that Garbett suspects some of the previous day’s 11-inch report was also inaccurate.
“People love conspiracy theories,” Gratz said, adding that he skied Vail that day and there wasn’t a location he could find on the entire mountain that hadn’t been affected by the high winds.
Gratz said it’s easy to see how a snow reading on the front side of the mountain could read one thing, when the Back Bowls might be telling skiers another. The storm that passed through Tuesday night, for example, went slightly south of Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek, dropping more snow on Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, which are both slightly south of Vail.
Blue Sky Basin, which is also south, could have picked up more snow just from those southern storm cells, Gratz said. He said he often finds that Vail’s snow report is too low for what he finds in the Back Bowls.
Biebl said the point is that a snow measurement taken from one spot at such a large resort is merely a starting point for skiers and snowboarders.
“There could be 10 inches at Blue Sky and 1 at Lionshead,” Biebl said. “This is sort of an average way of looking at the whole thing. … There’s no better way to find out than to get out and ski it.”
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Don’t freak out if you see helicopters hovering over the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry or fixed-wing aircraft making repeated trips. It is part an annual wildlife study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.