Great Expectations | Does Utah Really Have The Greatest Snow On Earth?
We took a mini-road trip around Utah's best ski resorts to find out
Words by Alf Alderson
There’s an urban myth that the Inuit have around a hundred words for snow, although a recent article in the Washington Post claims the figure is actually 50. But North American marketing men seem intent on pushing the number of English words for the white stuff even higher.
Steamboat Springs has its ‘champagne powder’ (a trademarked term), British Columbia skiers float through ‘white smoke’ while in Utah you’ll be skiing the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’.
Or will you? Last month my friend James and I decided to challenge this rather outlandish claim in the most practical way possible – we’d go and ski half-a-dozen of Utah’s best resorts on a mini-road trip and decide for ourselves.
But before I relate this traveller’s tale, some science…
Utah’s claim to enjoy the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ is based upon it having a combination of snow with a relative low moisture content, typically 8.5 per cent compared to over 10 per cent in the Alps, along with enough ‘body’ to allow you to float through it. This is the gift of storms passing over the Great Salt Lake to the west, which results in a phenomenon known as the ‘Lake Effect’.
That said, many Colorado and Wyoming resorts get snow with moisture content as low as 6 per cent, and in New Mexico it can be even lower. But Utah tends to enjoy more deep powder days and higher amounts of snowfall, an average of 547 inches a year at Alta, for example, compared to 338 inches at Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
"Scientifically, we can't show anywhere has the greatest snow on Earth," Jim Steenburgh, chairman of the University of Utah department of meteorology recently told the Salt Lake City Tribune. "But the combination of the amount of snow we get [in Utah], the quality and how it falls during storms is particularly special here. We get a lot of snow and its good snow. Other places get drier snow, but not as much. Other places in the world get more snow, but it's wetter snow than we see here."
"Utah’s claim to enjoy the ‘Greatest Snow on Earth’ is based upon it having a combination of snow with a relative low moisture content… along with enough ‘body’ to allow you to float through it."
But as with any ski area, it’s really all about hitting the place at the right time if you want to score that ‘greatest’ snow.
So, it’s perhaps just as well that James and I had agreed that our trip should be as much about ‘managing expectations’ as scoring the finest snow on planet Earth, for despite the fact that resorts such as Alta had enjoyed regular weekly snowfall totals of 250cm prior to our arrival, it was more than ten degrees the wrong side of zero as we hit the slopes at our first destinations, Park City and Deer Valley.
By day two, downtown Salt Lake City was suffering mid-winter temps of 21C, and on day three it was raining all the way to the top of Jupiter Bowl, which at 3,055m is Park City’s highest point.
However good your expectation management may be, it’s hard not to get despondent in such circumstances, particularly since my home in the French Alps was at the same time enjoying the best conditions all season.
So, as we gave up on Deer Valley and Park City and set off on the 60-minute drive to Alta, reports of an imminent storm were met with typical British cynicism: “More marketing bollocks, I expect," said James.
Ah, ye of little faith…
At 11.00 am we hop aboard the Collins chair from Alta’s Wildcat Base under milky white skies, and by the time we hop off the chair it’s snowing thick and fast and the rest of the day becomes a blur of nipping in and out of trees beneath the Supreme and Sugarloaf chairs and trying not to get lost as the snow falls ever thicker.
We finish the day thoroughly knackered, and check into the storied Alta Lodge (built in 1939, the same year as Alta’s first ski lift) more than a little pleased with ourselves for eventually scoring some of that ‘greatest snow on earth’.
Although it turns out we haven’t scored great pow at all. Locals inform us that this snow, by Utah standards, is quite heavy, having been deposited by a storm from the south rather than a ‘Lake Effect’ storm. Not the ‘greatest snow on Earth’ at all, in fact, though it felt pretty great to us.
We get a second go at this inferior quality snow the following day as we head across to the linked resort of Snowbird, and we both agree that if this is sloppy seconds then maybe there is something in the high-falutin’ claims about the primo precipitation that regularly falls on Utah. Admittedly, conditions are a bit wet and heavy at lower elevations, but few skiers would be underwhelmed by the boot top pow we enjoy higher up.
From Alta, James and I head north to ski Ogden’s satellite resorts of Snowbasin and Powder Mountain, faith restored in the snow gods. Here, expectation management becomes necessary once again, or to be more precise, we swallow a dose of reality.
"Although it turns out we haven’t scored great pow at all. Locals inform us that this snow, by Utah standards, is quite heavy…"
Snowbasin is sunny, offers spectacular panoramas of Ogden, the Great Salt Lake and four Rocky Mountain states from its 9465-foot high point of Allen Peak, but, of course, yesterday’s snow is pretty much tracked out.
So, when you do get a good dump in Utah, you’ve got to be on it pronto, just like anywhere else, ‘cos it don’t matter how ‘great’ the snow is, once it’s tracked out it ain’t so great anymore.
The following day, Powder Mountain reveals yet another aspect of expectation management, this time courtesy of the resort itself. ‘Pow Mow’ has the largest skiable acreage in the USA at over 8,000 acres, yet despite this immense amount of terrain the number of lift tickets sold each day is restricted to 2,000.
Skiers here have the option of piste, sidecountry, backcountry, cat- and heli-skiing and during our visit it felt at times like we were the only people on the mountain thanks to the resort’s enlightened approach to ticketing, which ensures it never gets too crowded and lift ‘lines’ never get too long (six people was the most we encountered in a lift queue).
By heading off-piste we could easily find virtually untracked powder on north-facing slopes, and in the afternoon we hit spring snow on south-facing slopes where it was easy to find your own line, despite the fact that it was now three days since the last dump.
As I stood outside the resort’s funky Hidden Peak Lodge with a hot coffee, enjoying an incredible view of Utah’s wild mountain country before my last run of the trip, I reflected on the experience.
The ‘challenge’ had been to ski the ‘greatest snow on Earth’. Had we? Perhaps not, but we’d still had some fantastic skiing as well as enjoying a mini-road trip through a fascinating US state. Not much wrong with that… though of course, two days after we left, Alta got 45cm of the actual ‘greatest snow on earth’.
Ski Solutions has a seven-night multi-centre ski trip to Utah from £1,725 per person. This includes three nights B&B in Park City at the Hyatt Place Hotel, two nights full-board in Alta at the Alta Peruvian Lodge and two-nights room only in Ogden at the Hilton Garden, return Delta flights from LHR to Salt Lake City and 4x4 car hire.
National Car Hire – ensure your vehicle comes with snow tyres and ideally 4WD and/or snow chains