This year, we luxuriated in an extended Indian summer and glorious, dry fall that had everyone hiking, biking, and otherwise enjoying Aspen’s warm-season offerings well into November. But luckily for us, visitors who’ve planned a ski vacation, and all those businesses that rely on winter, it started snowing. So what can you expect weather-wise and on the mountains, this month and into the holidays?
As of this writing, both Aspen Mountain and Snowmass have limited terrain open on fairly thin bases (13 inches and 18 inches, respectively). But although the traditional Thanksgiving opening had us schussing on just a handful of easy runs for a couple days, things can change (and have already changed) rapidly. Coverage is excellent on Aspen Mountain, with top to bottom skiing now available mostly on groomed runs, and nary a twig sticking out. With the gondola, Ajax Express, and Gent’s Ridge lifts spinning, more terrain is likely to open in the days ahead, according to the Aspen Skiing Co’s website.
Weather-wise, the pattern has shifted since Thanksgiving. One week since opening, over a foot of snow has fallen on local slopes, even allowing for some powder turns. Meteorologist Joel Gratz of OpenSnow is calling for three storms in the week ahead, which will continue to improve conditions. (As an example of how quickly things can and do change, the Aspen-area snowpack went from 9% of average in mid-November to over 50% of average just two weeks later, with potential to reach near-average by the middle to end of December, according to Gratz.) Another forecaster, Powderchaser Steve Conney of Powderchasers.com, sees the current stormy pattern producing more “welcome moisture,” about 6-10 inches from a storm that should hit early to middle of next week.
“For the next week, it’ll be colder with a higher chance of snowfall — and you’ll have your first Arctic blast,” says the Powderchaser. “Then it looks like high pressure toward the middle of the month. It’s a toss-up what’s going to happen around Christmas.”
Both Conney and Gratz shy away from long-term forecasts (anything more than two weeks or so) because of the higher chance of inaccuracy of weather models that far out, and the opportunity for things to change, perhaps dramatically. As an example, Conney pointed out that none of the storms affecting the western states this week showed up on the weather models a month ago.
In early September, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) issued its seasonal forecast, which called for good chances for above-average precipitation and below-average temperatures for the northern parts of the United States. And while forecasters generally agree that we’re trending toward a La Niña winter (in which storms trending on a more northerly pattern are the result of colder-than-average Pacific Ocean temperatures near the equator), they disagree how strong this pattern could turn out to be.
Corey Gates and Ryan Boudreau, the local forecasting team behind Aspenweather.net, predicted season-long snowfall totals 10 to 20 percent above average. During a local presentation in September, Gates, a former NOAA forecaster, said the pattern is shaping up to be similar to that of 1983/’84, one of the snowiest winters in Aspen history. But, warns Gratz, with weather models showing only a 50-60% chance of a La Niña winter, “those are not compelling odds.” It could be a weak or moderate La Niña, he added.
“Don’t place too much confidence in these long-range forecasts,” wrote Gratz in his analysis of NOAA’s winter forecast. “The weather pattern that we expect from La Niña could easily shift a bit east or west compared to what the maps show above. Also, a three-month average of temperature and precipitation doesn’t tell you when to find the best powder days, so these long-range forecasts are of somewhat limited usefulness.”
Conney agrees, and tends to reserve his excitement of powder potential until closer in to a storm’s brewing. But, as he optimistically noted in an early November outlook, “I have never had a winter in the West where the skunk of POW has impacted all regions.”
Finally, it’s worth noting that Aspen is in the central Rockies, and thus just as susceptible to being affected by storms with more southern flows as storms that track north. (Last winter, Gates forecasted a big winter on account of El Niño; this winter the basis for the above-average predictions is La Niña. In this amateur weather watcher’s observations over the last decade and a half, Aspen/Snowmass seems to get blessed with at least some snow out of almost all the winter storms, if not always the highest amounts.) So whether it’s an El Niño or La Niña winter, odds are good it’s gonna be good.
(Most photos courtesy Aspen/Snowmass: Cover photo by Jeremy Swanson. From top of this page, second and fifth photos by Swanson; first and fourth by Jordan Curet.)