The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where to find the world’s best ski conditions

Placeholder while article actions load

Jim Steenburgh is a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, an expert on mountain weather and climate, and a die-hard skier. Who better, then, to write a book exploring what ingredients make up the finest quality snow for skiing and where to find them?

The book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth: Weather, Climate Change, and Finding Deep Powder in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and around the World, is aimed at “powder-hounds” fixated on tracking down creme de la creme snow conditions.

Steenburgh breaks down what makes Utah’s snow so special while also investigating snow characteristics in locations all over the world.

Any snow lover and skier will enjoy geeking out on the expert commentary in Steenburgh’s book, which also contains compelling visuals.

Steenburgh graciously agreed to answer some questions about his book for the Capital Weather Gang. The transcript of his responses, lightly edited, follows…

1. What motivated you to write the book?

Whenever people ride with me on chairlifts and they find out that I’m a meteorologist, they pepper me with questions about snow, weather, avalanches, and when the next big storm is coming. I felt like there was a great story to tell for these snow lovers and winter weather enthusiasts that blended my passions for science and skiing.

2. What’s your elevator pitch as to why Utah powder is the best?

The Secrets to the Greatest Snow on Earth are pretty straightforward.

First, we get a lot of snow (more than 500 inches a year on average at Alta Ski Area).

Second, we get lots of what I call “Goldilocks storms.” These are storms that are not too big, not too small, but just right. Big storms are great for building up the snowpack, but they create all sorts of avalanche problems and can cause resorts to shut down entirely. Small storms don’t provide enough snow for true deep powder skiing in which the ski is floating in the new snow. You need at least 10 inches of new snow for the ski to float in a way that it is not riding on the underlying surface and you are experiencing what we call bottomless powder. Alta Ski Area averages 18 days with 10 inches or more of snow a year. That’s a lot of deep-powder days.

Finally, storms here tend to get colder over time, and this results in snowfalls that are “right-side-up” meaning that the driest, lowest density snow is on top. That’s just what you want for great deep powder skiing.

3. If you lived in the East, and were planning a Utah ski vacation, when would you say the best time is? And what resort offers the best snow and experience?

There isn’t much difference here in snowfall each month. We average almost the same in December as we do in March. As such, there isn’t any period where your odds of a big dump are significantly higher.

Early-to-mid February has the advantage of a mid-winter snowpack and a low angle sun which allows quality snow to linger for long stretches. Of course, that’s also the busiest time of year. When we get a lot of snow in November and early December, book for the periods right before Christmas or between New Years and Martin Luther King Day.

Utah’s snow reputation is based on the microclimate in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, which extend eastward into the Wasatch Mountains from just southeast of Salt Lake City. Alta, Snowbird, Solitude and Brighton ski areas are in these canyons and are the snowiest in Utah and, especially for Alta and Snowbird, offer up some of the best expert skiing in North America. The Park City resorts (Canyons, Park City, Deer Valley) and northern Wasatch resorts (Snowbasin, Powder Mountain) all can offer up great experiences too.

4. Outside Utah, what other ski resorts in the West do you like for the quality of snow and experience?

The snow climate of the Teton Range in Wyoming, which includes Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee ski areas, is very similar to Utah’s. Interior British Columbia has amazing terrain and great skiing as well.

5. Have you skied the Mid-Atlantic? If so, where,and what were your impressions?

Yes. I went to Penn State for four years. Let’s just say that I drove west a week after I graduated.

6. In the Mid-Atlantic and/or East Coast, what kind of storm scenario might offer skiers the closet thing to West Coast powder?

If you want western powder, the best place to find it in the east is the Tug Hill Plateau in New York, and upland region east of Lake Ontario. They should coin the phrase “Greatest Snow in the East.” They get tons of lake effect and most of this snow is high quality. Unfortunately, they lack an essential ingredient for powder skiing: mountains! There is, however, one ski area on the Tug Hill Plateau’s steeper eastern face, Snow Ridge, which offers up about 400 vertical feet of skiing. As a kid growing up in upstate NY, my first true deep-powder experiences were at Snow Ridge.

The challenge in the East is that the snow is often falling on hard, icy snow, many of the storms are warm aloft [at high altitudes] even when they are colder at the surface, and they are often windy. All of these things make it difficult to get good western powder.

You need to be an opportunist in the East. If it snows, go. Ski it if it’s white.

7. Describe the perfect snow, at the perfect place, and under the perfect conditions. What’s your heavenly ski scenario?

My heaven ski scenario is to be in a remote location backcountry skiing with a few friends, blue skies, no wind, thigh deep powder, and stable avalanche conditions. Skiing a day like that, finishing exhausted but elated, and eating a 4000 calorie dinner is my dream day.

8. Your book talks about some of the fine powder that can be found in international destinations. Give us a sneak preview.

My favorite snow climate is in western Japan, either on the main island (Honshu) or Hokkaido Island to the north. During what they call the winter monsoon, cold air spills off the Asian continent and over the Sea of Japan, producing “sea-effect” snowstorms that generate huge amounts of snow. The snowiest major cities in the world are in Japan. People think Boston has had a lot of snow this year. Sapporo has a population of nearly 2,000,000 and AVERAGES 235 inches of snow a year. The mountains get more. The surest place for deep powder skiing in the world is Hokkaido Island in January when the winter monsoon peaks. More nuggets like this can be found in chapter 3.

9. There are some people who are “powder snobs” – who won’t ski in the East due to the inconsistent, frequently underwhelming conditions. Are you “one of them” or are you a ski anywhere as along as there’s something to ski on kind of guy?

I grew up in the East and spent 6 years in Seattle skiing the Cascades.

I used to consider myself an “all terrain all conditions” skier, but no more. I am definitely a powder snob. I like to ski powder and I actually spend most of my spare time backcountry skiing to get it.

I saw a bumper sticker this weekend that said “you are not hard core if you only ski on powder days.” By that definition, I’m not hard core anymore.

10. Anything else you’d like to mention about your book?

My favorite chapter is “Alta Goes to War,” which examines avalanche history and mitigation efforts in Little Cottonwood Canyon in which Alta ski area resides. There are 50 avalanche paths that bisect the 8-mile long highway that goes up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta. In the 1800s, more than 100 people were killed in snow slides at Alta and there is a remarkable effort today to reduce avalanche hazard in the canyon. There’s nothing like this in the East!

Steenburgh’s book is available via Amazon and Barnes and Noble.