What’s to Be Done With 15 Feet of Snow in June? Utah Knows
By WINA STURGEON
Published: June 10, 2011
LITTLE COTTONWOOD CANYON, Utah — At the base of a slope that at this time of year usually tests the skills of mountain bikers, roughly 60 skiers and snowboarders, hoping to get first tracks on the mountain, waited for the 8 a.m. opening of the tram at Snowbird resort.
Tom Smart for The New York Times
These were not bitter-enders hoping to eke out runs on a thin swatch of snow. At this northern Utah resort, it is still winter. There is hardly a bare spot on the mountain. Piles of snow line the vast parking lot. With much of the country in the grip of record-high temperatures, it was 31 degrees here Friday morning. Snowbird has announced that it will be open for snow sports three days a week until July 4. And it could stay open even later.
An unusually heavy winter snowfall and a cold, wet spring have resulted in a record snowpack in much of the mountain regions of the West. Bob Bonar, the general manager at Snowbird, said the mountain received more than 775 inches of snow this season, well above its average of 500.
“We even got 20 inches of powder over Memorial Day weekend, and our current average base is more than 15 feet,” Bonar said. “The holiday may not even be the end. We may stay open a few weekends longer if the snow stays good.”
But if the giant snowpack remains a boon to skiers at Snowbird and atSnowbasin Resort about 70 miles to the north, it has been problematic to others.
Ed Chauner, director of the Intermountain Cup Mountain Bike Racing Series, said he had to change the site of a race last month because the original site, Sundance Resort, still had 10 feet of snow. A race planned at Snowbird on July 2 is also in jeopardy because, Chauner says, “there’s still 20 feet of snow on parts of the course.”
“All this weather is killing us,” Chauner said. “No one can get out and train during the week, because it’s been so cold and wet. If they can’t train, they don’t come out to race. Our rider numbers have been way down.”
The La Niña phenomenon is behind the weather anomaly, said Lindsay Storrs, a meteorologist at KUTV in Salt Lake City. In a La Niña year, she said, cooler than normal water temperatures in the Pacific off the coast of Chile leads to cooler and wetter weather in winter and spring in the western United States.
“Troughs develop along the West Coast of the U.S. when this occurs,” Storrs said. “That allows storms to continuously drop out of the Gulf of Alaska, giving the western U.S. above average precipitation.”
Snowbird’s full parking lot is testimony to the attraction of this season’s late snow.
“I have skied for 72 years, and I’ve never skied snow like this in June,” said Eric Jucker, 75, a Swiss citizen who travels back and forth from Laguna Beach, Calif., to Salt Lake City.
Martin Martinov, a Bulgarian biophysicist living in Park City, Utah, got off the tram Friday and said, “I’ve never seen snow like this that you didn’t have to hike to get to at this time of year.”
The record conditions are even attracting out-of-towners. Bradley Rieders of Woodbury, N.Y., traveled to Snowbird with his sons, 23 and 26.
“We came out here to ski and golf on the same day,” Rieders said. “We flew all the way out here just for that. The weather is beautiful, the skiing is fantastic; it’s paradise, just unbelievable.”
Snowbird has its large tram and two lifts operating, offering access to every run on the mountain. By extending the closing date to July 4, it will be open 202 days this season, a record by one day.
“There are places on the mountain that will probably retain snow all summer long,” said Emily Moench, the resort’s communications manager.
The fact that summer is still a long way off for Utah’s Wasatch Mountains works out well for the United States freestyle team, which is training at Snowbird. Scott Rawles, the moguls head coach, said the team was saving money by not having to travel to South America. Winter in the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t usually begin until August, and the only available snow in June and July is on glaciers crowded with the national teams of other countries.
“That is huge for us,” he said.
But just as the snow has hampered Chauner’s mountain bike series, it has even had an adverse effect on the overall operations at Snowbird, which likes to present itself as a four-season destination. The resort would normally be starting summer activities by now.
“Aside from the fact that the weather is cold and wet, the Alpine Slide track is buried under many feet of snow,” Moench said, referring to a popular summer attraction.
Jeff Robins, chief executive of the Utah Sports Commission, which works to attract major sporting events to the state, said the unusual weather had been particularly disruptive in the north.
“We’re seeing the golf season starting later this year,” he said, “and the weather has created issues for the spring sports that are typically played in high school and college — from tennis to track and field, soccer, baseball, softball, the weather has created challenges for competitions typically held in spring. It’s not just snow in the mountains, but rain that is affecting recreational activities like fishing, kayaking, camping, mountain biking and hiking.”
While the delay for northern Utah’s summer activities will have an economic impact on the state, it may be the least problematic of the overall weather effects.
“The snowpack we have right now is 525 percent of normal,” said Brian McInerney, the hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Utah. “The lower level snowpack from 7,500 to 6,000 feet is already gone, but the mid-elevation snow from about 7,500 to 9,000 feet is still there.”
He added: “Our soils were already saturated starting in March due to a heavy rainfall in early spring. Now, if you try to ride or hike on these soils, they will still be wet, still be saturated. If you use the trails at all, especially for mountain biking, it’s going to screw them up.”
The most serious consequence of the huge snowpack in the Wasatch Mountains may be lurking well below the summits, especially if the weather changes rapidly to the typically hot northern Utah temperatures of late June and July.
“Once it starts going, the inertia of melting snowpack goes pretty fast,” McInerney said.
The speed of the melt has state officials concerned about flooding. Some rivers have already breached their banks and inundated homes and hundreds of acres of farmland. And though snow-riders are still loving the snow, it remains a threat, a vast rush of water just waiting to pour down on the valleys below.