What makes Steamboat’s snow ‘Champagne’?

Dylan Anderson
Steamboat Pilot & Today
This graphic shows the relationship between moisture and temperature when snowflakes are formed.
Kenneth G. Libbrecht/California Institute of Technology

The snow that fell over Steamboat Springs this past week was the trademarked Champagne Powder.

A barrage of adjectives describe it: airy, fluffy, floaty, and dry. The name comes from the 1950s, when rancher Joe McElroy was skiing where the resort eventually would be and remarked that the snow “tickled his nose like Champagne,” per Steamboat Resort.

“This morning, I realized it was the perfect Champagne Powder snow day when I didn’t need a shovel,” said Loryn Duke, director of communications for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. “I used a broom …. I don’t know many ski resorts where you can remove snow with a broom.”

But, what actually happened up in the clouds to drop this fluffy snow?

Gannet Hallar, director of Storm Peak Laboratory at the top of Mount Werner and a professor with the University of Utah, said it starts with the snowflakes.

“If you have the perfect snowflake, which we tend to call a stellar dendrite, it has a lot of air and not so much water in its formation,” she said. “What allows for those types of snowflakes to form is both the temperature and the amount of water in the air, as the snowflake forms within the cloud itself.”

Snow often starts as dust, which then forms ice. As the ice builds outward, its shape is based on the amount of water and the temperature.

Hallar said warmer temperatures allow for higher water content, while colder temperatures often bring lighter, drier snow.

Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth said this relationship can be seen by looking at data from Storm Peak Lab from this past week. At about 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 12, as the storm front moved in, the temperature started dropping.

“When the front came through, it started relatively warm, and the crystals were not the dendrites, so they kind of pack together, and you had relatively dense snow to start the storm out,” said Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website “By 6 a.m. on (Tuesday, Dec. 13), the temperature had fallen below zero and bottomed out at minus 3, so the snow got progressively lighter.”

He said those low temperatures, combined with the right amount of moisture, put Steamboat in the center of the dendritic growth zone, which allowed the flakes to quickly pile up a fresh blanket of low density snow.

The snow’s density is lower because the bigger the dendrites, the looser the snow packs and the more air is mixed in. While snow elsewhere can have a 15% water content, the powder in Steamboat tends to be closer to 7%, Hallar said.

Another key factor in Steamboat’s snow is the geographic location, right next to a large wall that is the Park Mountains. She said this process of wringing moisture out of the clouds as they rise is called orographic lift and puts Steamboat in prime powder position. 

“What’s great about Steamboat and allows for this very strong orthographic lift is that the Park Range runs north to south, so it provides a distinct barrier,” she said. “When the clouds hit that barrier, then they lift upwards rapidly, allowing for a strong cloud formations, which can help promote snow formation.”

Weissbluth said he expected the snow to continue falling on Thursday, Dec. 15, potentially dropping at inch an hour like it was Wednesday morning.

“I feel like this week has been Steamboat’s Christmas present,” he said. “We’ve just got outstanding quality snow before the tourists arrive.”