Category Archives: winter activities

Colorado Prepares for Winter

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There is, perhaps, no place on earth that gets more excited about winter than Colorado. While people certainly have differing views about their favorite activities, preferred types of weather, and favorite season, there is no denying that winter means something here in Colorado that it doesn’t in many other parts of the world.

The primary reason is the ski/snowboard industry, which generates excitement among locals and tourists alike. Four of the five most visited ski resorts in America are in Colorado. Statewide, annual attendance now typically tops 7 million. The ski/snowboard industry is also important to Colorado’s economy, with an estimated economic impact close to $5 Billion annually.

It is around this time of year that conversations at social gatherings turn to forthcoming winter activities. People discussing which of Colorado’s multi-mountain ski passes (most commonly the Epic Pass or the Rocky Mountain Super Pass) they had purchased, where their abilities currently stand, what their favorite types of slopes are and what travel plans they have.

In fact, Colorado is so excited about this season, and what it means to the state, that Denver International Airport has an exhibit about snow and ice!

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This exhibit includes exhibits about many different topics related to Colorado snow, including the Snowsports Hall of Fame in Vail, which I visited two seasons ago.

Colorado’s ski/snowboard industry is quite large. All of the options and all the resorts can be a lot to sort through.

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Each resort is, in its own way unique, both with respect to the terrain itself, crowds, and amenities around it. For example, Breckenride is a thriving town, with everything from fancy restaurants to even night clubs. Other places suck as Monarch, nowhere near any shops, restaurants, etc., offer a much quieter experience.

Luckily, the people at Denver Party Ride produced a guide to all of Colorado’s ski resorts which is perfect for just this purpose. While I could (and have) write at length about each specific resort I’ve skied at, this guide provides a relatively short (half a page or so) description for each resort, making it relatively easy for visitors to chose an experience that is right for them.

I was a bit surprised when informed about this ski guide. I knew Denver Party Ride for providing party limo services for events downtown and concerts at Red Rocks, I had no idea that they also shuttled people to and from ski resorts. As someone who has combined the experience of skiing and partying before, I may have to try this experience out!

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Every year, sometimes as early as late September, I start receiving calls and texts asking about what to expect, with regards to snowfall, for the upcoming winter season.

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It is here, as a weather enthusiast, I wish I had better guidance for those anticipating the coming ski season, or a ski trip to Colorado. When anticipating winter, people are most likely to hear about El Nino vs. La Nina. This year, the mainstream news has reported that a La Nina winter is likely.

Unfortunately, the forecast itself does not provide too much insight into what to expect this coming winter for two reasons.

1. La Nina’s impact on Colorado is somewhat inconclusive

According to this diagram from the Climate Prediction Center, Colorado trends to be sandwiched between an area to the north, which receives more precipitation during La Nina years and an area to the south which receives more precipitation during an El Nino.

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Some local sources argue that, due to local topography, El Nino years favor snowfall in Denver and along the front range, while La Nina years favor snowfall up in the mountains, where most of the ski resorts are. However, official observations do not necessarily provide enough detail to reach that conclusion.

2. The La Nina is forecasted to be weak

Strong El Nino or La Nina events can be powerful predictors of winter weather. Weaker events are not as strong of predictors.

It is fun to speculate about the upcoming winter. However, after five yeas of living in Colorado, and several more of visiting annually to ski, I can’t help but think it is going to be good no matter what kind of winter we have. One of the main reasons it is safe to plan a trip to one of Colorado’s world class ski resorts is that, regardless of how each winter turns out, there is a period of time from roughly mid-January through mid-March where great snowpack and great conditions are all but guaranteed.

No matter what resort you visit, what pass you get, whether you ski or snowboard, get lost in the trees or stick to wide open groomed trails, get out there and enjoy the season. These resorts offer excellent opportunities to spend some time outside doing something that is both adventurous and gets the body moving. This is a reason to actually get excited about winter, a season many in other parts of the world dread.

Looking Forward to Winter

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No season is the subject of speculation quite the way winter is.  Sure, people anticipate all four seasons, planning activities such as vacations, sporting events, and outdoor activities around each one.  But, there is something about the way winter is anticipated, as experiences can vary year to year in winter more than in any other season.  Every October, speculation begins to intensify.  Fear and dread clearly radiate from the voices of some, while excitement and anticipation come from others.  Most likely, this depends on one’s location, as well as preferred activities.

I spent a lot of years in the Midwest, and completely sympathize with those who dread winter, and hope for nothing more than to have their pain be as minimal as possible for the season.  Here in Colorado, on the other hand, enthusiasts of outdoor snow sports, mostly skiing and snowboarding, anticipate winter with great excitement, typically hoping that the coming season’s snowfall and snowpacks will be at least in line with seasonal averages, if not more.

As an Epic Pass skier who lives in Denver, my ideal winter would be one with plenty of snow in the mountains, particularly the resorts I ski near the I-70 corridor, but generally milder east of the mountains, where Denver is.  And, given this year’s setup, I may actually get this kind of winter that I want!

I have received quite a few questions, both from people local to Colorado, and those considering traveling here to ski in the mountains, regarding what kind of winter to expect.  Now that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has released its outlook for the season, there is no better time to give my own take on how winter 2016-17 is looking.

First, I should note that, the NOAA forecast, as well as other forecasts already made for the winter season primarily focus on one phenomenon: La Nina.  This, of course is the inverse of El Nino.  So, while El Nino winters tend to be wet to the south and dry to the north, La Nina winters will tend to be the opposite.

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This is reflected in NOAA’s graphical precipitation outlook for the winter.

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However, this year’s La Nina is likely to be a weak one.  Both El Nino and La Nina can be strong, moderate, or weak, and the predictive power of the phenomenon is limited in cases when the anomalies are weak.  In these cases, I find it useful to look at other patterns that are beginning to emerge when speculating about long-range weather patterns.

Anomalies in Sea Surface Temperatures are the most commonly used data point when predicting weather long term.  This is because the ocean retains much more heat than land or air, making it more likely that the current pattern will persist for longer.  Ocean temperatures can also have a major impact on atmospheric circulation, as is evidenced by the El Nino phenomenon itself.

When looking at current SST anomalies, three patterns emerge as having the potential to impact the weather Colorado and the rest of Western North America will experience this winter.

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First is the weak La Nina, whose impact would be more precipitation for the Northwest, but less for the Southwest.

Second is the abnormal warmth off the East Coast of North America.  This pattern emerged at the end of a summer that was hotter and drier than normal across much of the Northeast, a pattern that generally has continued, although they are currently experiencing a cold snap.  This warm anomaly, if it persists, would mostly likely lead to frequent northwesterly flow over Western North America, as the predominant pattern in winter is one called a wave #3 pattern.  This means three ridges and three troughs over the globe, a ridge to our west and a trough to our east.

The final temperature anomaly that appears to be in a crucial area are the warm anomalies off the coast of Alaska.  These warm temperatures could strengthen a phenomenon known as the “Aleutian Low”, which would act to steer wet weather into the Pacific Northwest.  Under this scenario, Colorado and the interior west will likely be drier.

All three phenomenon point to, although not with too much confidence, more frequent northwesterly flow across the state.  This pattern tends to be dry in Colorado overall, but, as pointed out by Joel Gratz, is a favorable wind direction for upslope storms at ski resorts along the I-70 corridor, including Vail, Copper Mountain, and Breckenridge.

With La Nina being weak, and the other two SST warm anomalies (see map above) being in close proximity to areas of cool anomalies, there is low predictive power to this seasonal forecast.  Any scenario is still possible.  However, signs are pointing, generally, towards a dry winter for much of the west, particularly the Southwest, and a wet winter in the Northwest.  Locally, in Colorado, the most likely scenario is a mixed bag for the ski resorts, with the storms that do occur favoring the corridor of popular resorts near I-70 1-2 hours west of Denver.

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And a warm and dry winter on the East side of the Continental Divide.

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(Note: the two photos above are from the previous winter season)

 

 

 

Iceland Air’s Glacier Hike and Northern Lights Tour

As part of their push to encourage tourism in Iceland, Iceland Air now offers a variety of one-day excursions that travelers can embark on whether they are visiting Iceland specifically, or taking a stopover on their way between Europe and North America.  These one-day tours offer a variety of options for experiences, including which places to visit and what types of activities to take part in.  For all of them, the general idea is the same; a bus picks tourists up at various hotels in Reykjavik, and gives visitors what basically amounts to a one-day “Taste of Iceland”.

My tour of choice was the Glacier Hike and Northern Lights tour, which offers a lot of what I was looking for out of my time in Iceland.  The Northern Lights is something I had never seen before.  In America, we hear about such phenomenon occasionally. Roughly once a year, we will hear in the news about a particularly strong solar event occurring, and the potential for the Northern Lights to be visible much farther from the North Pole than is typical.  Sometimes that zone would even reach the Northern parts of the United States, and news outlets would provide maps of where the lights could potentially be visible.

For years, living in Chicago, such stories would provide a particular brand of torment for someone that is curious about seeing the Northern Lights.  It is not possible to see the Northern Lights from such a large, lit up city.  One would need to travel somewhere less populated. To get outside the populated metropolitan area, I theoretically would be able to travel in any direction, but it makes little sense not to go North, as the lights get better the farther north one travels. However, North of Chicago is Milwaukee, and the area in between the two cities is populated enough to make it less than ideal for viewing the phenomenon.  So, the prospect of getting in a car and driving out to see the Northern Lights was always a multi-hour trip.  Some combination of time constraints, or frequent wintertime cloudiness in the Midwest always stopped me from driving up to Central Wisconsin (or Central Michigan) to try to see the Northern Lights.

The tour started like every one of the Iceland Air excursions, with a mid-sized bus going from hotel to hotel picking people up.  The bus went to about six different hotels to make pick-ups, finally leaving Reykjavik around noon.  The tour group was quite mixed.  There were a couple of other Americans, a few Canadians, and even two people from France on our tour, but the majority of the group was from Great Britain.  I have relatively little experience traveling to Europe (this trip, and a trip to Italy, Austria, and Germany in 2012), but on both occasions I ended up hanging out with tourists from the UK, specifically England.  I don’t know what that says about America, or who I am as a person, or if it is just due to a common language, but I am curious to see if that happens again next time I go to Europe.

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Driving East out of Reykjavik, towards Iceland’s South Coast area, the first thing I notice, which is common throughout Iceland are lava fields.  Across much of Iceland, the land is covered with ashes from previous volcanic activity.

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The previous day, I had learned at the Volcano House in Reykjavik that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active places in the world, as it sits on the ridge between the North American and Eurasian plates, which are drifting apart from one another.  In geologic terms, this is actually happening quite quickly.  On average, a volcano occurs somewhere on the Island once every 5 years, and as the plates pull apart, the Island is literally growing at a rate of 2 cm per year. 50 years from now, Iceland will be 1m wider than it is now!

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About 30 minutes into the trip, the bus passed by the hotel where one of the scenes in the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty took place.  In the movie the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupts, and Walter is lucky enough to have been picked up by a friendly local to escape before being covered in ashes. In real life, this gigantic volcano erupted quite explosively in 2010.  In the most unfortunate of circumstances, the wind happened to be coming from the Northwest that day, and the ashes covered the sky over Great Britain and much of mainland Europe halting air traffic for several days.

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The next stop on this tour was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls. Iceland is not only a hot spot for volcanoes, but it is also a hot spot for waterfalls. This is due to the glaciers, which cover 15% of the land area of the island, the terrain and relatively moderate maritime climate. Waterfalls like this can be found all over Iceland, and they probably look even more amazing in summer, when the ground appears lush and green!

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The main event of this tour, the Glacier hike, worked for me on multiple levels.  I love being outside, hiking and getting some exercise.  There are many times, when on vacation, I purposely try to find the most strenuous activities possible.  I especially do this when I am on a cruise or in some other kind of vacation package, where I know an activity does not need to be super challenging, or even that physically exhausting for them to be labelled as such.  I also got to try something new, hiking with crampons.  Now, I am not sure they were absolutely necessary for this particular hike, as back in Colorado I had hiked in areas that were steeper and more slippery and gotten by without them.  But, I did learn how to use them, how to attach them to my hiking boots, and how to walk with them on, a good thing to know for future activities down the road.

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In addition, the glacier, and what our tour guides told us about it was quite fascinating from a scientific perspective.  Apparently, this particular glacier is receding at a fairly rapid pace.  Along our hike, the tour guides pointed out where the glacier used to end in past years compared to where it ends now.  As recently as 2010, the glacier covered nearly all of the area near the entrance of the park that we traversed before getting onto the current glacier.  When this portion of the glacier melted, a gigantic lake was left behind in the lower lying area.

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The tour guides then informed us that we are actually witnessing a the formation of a fjord.  Roughly an hour into the hike, we had climbed to roughly 100m above sea level. However, the ice was thicker, somewhere between 150m and 200m.  Over time, the ice had pushed the land beneath it below sea level. Once these glaciers melt, the area will be under water, creating a fjord in this very spot.  This is one of many spots where this process is happening as we speak.

As a weather enthusiast, who had studied meteorology, I asked the tour guides what the primary mechanism was for the melting glacier.  Specifically, I asked if it was reduced winter snowfall or warmer summer temperatures.  They indicated that both were contributing factors, but also mentioned that, since temperatures in Iceland are commonly quite close to freezing, the area was starting to see precipitation fall in the form of rain (as opposed to snow) more frequently.  I could sense that, as even on this February day, the snow I stood upon was quite wet.

But that was not even the most fascinating scientific aspect of this tour.  Almost everyone is familiar with climate change, and it’s become the subject of sometimes-ridiculous debate.  The most fascinating thing I learned about this glacier is that fact that, due to the presence of volcanic ash, the glacier is creating terrain that is constantly changing.  Here, volcanic eruptions spill out on top of the ice, causing ice to melt faster in some areas.  The ice then flows in a manner that brings more ice into areas that are currently in “valleys”.  Even when there is no new volcanic activity, the cycle of ice flow and differential melting can happen rapidly enough that each year the terrain of any given section of ice is significantly different from the previous year.  Literally, if I were to return to Iceland at the same time next year, and come to this very glacier, the hike would be significantly different, as the terrain would have been significantly modified.  Amazing!

The glacier hike concluded a little after sun down, which was right around 6:00 P.M. After the hike, the tour bus took us to a hotel restaurant in the area for a traditional Icelandic meal.  To my surprise, the meal did not involve fish.  For some reason, I had this impression that since Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic, it would be a place where almost every meal consisted of fish.  Instead, the traditional Icelandic meal was a hearty meat soup.

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On the tour bus, I learned that the Icelandic cow, which is a special breed of cow that is smaller than the ones most of the world is familiar with is quite popular on Icelandic farms (they actually once voted in favor of keeping the cow over switching to a more efficient Norwegian cow).  In addition to these cows, many farms also keep lamb and sheep.

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After dinner we drove in search of an ideal place to view the Northern Lights.  This involved driving around and looking at weather conditions in a manner that actually seems reminiscent of storm chasing.  We drove around for hours, and every time it felt like we had found the right conditions (i.e. clear skies), something would change.  At one point, sometime between 9 and 10 P.M., as drove through an area where it suddenly started to snow!  At 11:30 I was in despair.  We were clearly headed back into Reykjavik, and I thought we were just going back to the hotel.  After all, the tour does not guarantee that the Northern Lights will be seen.  It can’t be guaranteed.  The weather is always changing, and the solar activity, which leads to the Aurora phenomenon, is also quite variable.

Oddly enough, though, just after midnight, we pulled into a pier on the far West end of town, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, on a peninsula.  Our tour guide informed us that we would now be able to view the lights, and, sure enough, they appeared. I was unable to capture them on camera in a manner that would do this amazing natural phenomenon any justice.  I mostly just sat there, in awe, watching the lights glow and move from side to side along the horizon.  I thought about how amazing this phenomenon was.  I wondered if people who lived here took it for granted, noticed it less, the same way many people become less appreciative of what is in their own back yards.  At the end, I just thought about what an amazing day it was, from when the tour began, over twelve hours ago, until now, ending with this amazing light display.

A Fancier Ski Experience

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There are plenty of things that make skiing at Beaver Creek Resort different from pretty much anywhere I have ever skied.  As soon as I walk into the ski village, I am greeted by the resort’s staff in an extremely friendly manner.  The friendliness of the staff reminds me of the few times I had visited high priced golf resorts, and was greeted by staff offering to wipe down my clubs after a round of golf.  In a away, right from the get-go I feel like I am not at a typical ski resort, but somewhat of a country club of ski resorts.

After this, as is the case with most other resorts, I walk through a ski village to get to the lifts.  However, at Beaver Creek, this walk involves getting on a series of elevators, something I have yet to see anywhere else I have ever skied.

In addition to the elevators, Starbucks coffee and other amenities in the village, every day at 3:00 P.M., cookies are brought out to guests at the main village — for free!  In fact, on days that are less busy, staff will come out with trays of cookies and often hand guests two cookies at a time!  Last time I visited this resort, I ended up eating 4 cookies!

It’s easy to build up an appetite for those cookies here.  In addition to the standard type of ski runs that one finds at many of the other mountains in the area, the resort has some interesting areas that are both unique and challenging.

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First off, some of the steepest terrain can be found here, particularly for “groomed” trails. I use the term “groomed” loosely here, as when most people think of a groomed ski trail, they think of one that had been groomed recently, often with marks from the recent grooming.

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(Note: This particular image was taken at Keystone Resort)

This is some of the easiest terrain to ski on, a there are no small obstacles to take a skier off course, and the snow has been churned up by the groomers to make stopping relatively easier.  However, once the snow is pushed away, either by numerous skiers making turns on the trail, or by strong winds, the conditions become much more challenging, as they can get icy, making stopping more difficult.  This seems to be the case every time I go to the steepest part of Beaver Creek ski resort; areas called Grouse Mountain and Birds of Prey.

Birds of Prey is where the 2015 World Championships were held.  I had heard that this was the fastest ski trail in the State of Colorado, and that they actually purposely make the trail icier for competition.  I knew it would be scary to ski here, but I wanted to have the experience of actually skiing on a trail that professional skiers compete on.

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The trail certainly was icy (or “race surfaced”)!  I actually fell three times trying to get down this course, and apparently, although I could hardly imagine skiing on a surface any icier than this one, it wasn’t even as icy as it is during an actual competition.  I would later be reminded, by the friendly staff at one of the ski lifts that of the 36 contestants that entered the World Championships here, only 15 finished, the other 21 fell in some sort of way!

Due to it’s relatively lower base, at 7400′, Beaver Creek Resort is home to a significant amount of aspen glades.  By this I mean skiing through the trees, as can be done at pretty much any major ski resort worldwide, but rather than skiing through the pine and evergreen trees that are common at elevations from 9,000 to 12,000 feet (which is where a lot of the skiing at the other Central Colorado resorts is done), skiing through Aspen trees, which are more common at elevations closer to 8,000 feet.  Skiing in the Aspens offers a somewhat different tree skiing experience, primarily due to Aspen trees having significantly less branches.

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Discussion of Beaver Creek can be somewhat polarizing (although there is something polarizing about every resort in Central Colorado).  Beaver Creek is slightly farther away from Denver than Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Vail.  This means that the resort can often be slightly less crowded, but also means that most people who decide to visit this resort must consciously decide to drive past those other resorts.  Some people find the interesting experience, the unique amenities, cookies and special treatment worth the extra travel (and extra money).  Others don’t.

 

As an EPIC Season Pass holder, the money does not factor into the equation.  It is pretty much only the travel and opportunity cost.  Every time I come to Beaver Creek, I process the experience hoping to come to some kind of major interesting revelation about what makes some people chose the activities they do when they do.  In the end, all I actually end up thinking about is how much different the experience is than the experience I get at other resorts in the area, even Vail which is known to be a pretty fancy place in it’s own respect.

When I think about the people I ski with on a regular basis, I see a spectrum of attitudes, related to skiing, as there is with any activity.  On one side, there are the people who like to find something they like and stick to it.  These are the people who would be content to buy a pass to one resort, find their one favorite neighborhood bar, or have a standard order at a specific restaurant that they order every time.  These are the people who just want to enjoy the activity, and, know something they already enjoy, so feel no need to keep searching for something else.  On the other side are people who are always looking for variety, and always looking to mix things up.  People on this side of the spectrum can get bored going to the same places repeatedly even if they are incredible experiences.  In reality, almost everyone fits somewhere between these two extremes I describe.  I wonder, though, if for some people, particularly those who live in the area and ski somewhere in Central Colorado almost every weekend, if visiting Beaver Creek is a way to mix things up, doing something different, and ensuring that we get that variety in our experiences.  That may be what motivates many people to drive by Keystone, drive by Copper Mountain, and finally drive by Vail and come here to Beaver Creek.

When We Get Stuck

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Here we are, on the verge of something great!  It is right in front of us, in plain sight, a brand new endeavor, a great idea, something that’s going to either change the world, change our lives, or just be one heck of a great time!  The path in front of us is clear, exciting, invigorating.  Never have we felt so alive!  With excitement, enthusiasm, and passion, we enter this new endeavor without hesitation.  We do our due diligence, of course, but the excitement of what lies ahead by far overwhelms any concerns about what could possibly go wrong.

But then it happens.  Shortly into this new endeavor, due to something we either overlooked, poorly estimated, or never even considered in the first place, we find ourselves stuck, much like I was in Vail’s Orient Bowl.  That morning, I got off the ski lift, and saw the 15″ of fresh powder that Vail had recently received.  Instead of following tracks already made by those who skied in this area earlier in the day, I wanted to make my own tracks.  I expected a wild ride through this fresh powder!  On the contrary, I suddenly found myself slowing down, and sinking. The realization that I would find myself at a standstill, and need to work to dig my way back on track, is much akin to the realization many of us have when we realize that some aspect of our plan is not going to materialize the way we had anticipated.

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What is strange is that this experience, of suddenly finding myself stuck occurred at Vail Resort.  Vail Resort is not only home to one of the largest and highest rated ski resorts in the world, but it is also home to a ski museum, which has artifacts of the history of both skiing and the resort itself.

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Vail ski mountain was founded by a man named Pete Siebert, who fought in World War 2 as part of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.  This group of soldiers trained in the mountains of Colorado, mainly on skis, and were subsequently deployed to Northern Italy to lead an attack, on skis, in the heart of one of the Nazi strongholds in the region.  Many of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, despite being from many different places all over the country, found their way back to Colorado, and alongside Siebert, helped develop the skiing industry into what it is today.

The story of skiing, and the story of Vail is summarized quite nicely at the Colorado Ski Museum.  In fact, the museum has other exhibits, including one on snowboarding, a bunch of facts about the origin of downhill skiing, which pre-dates Vail and even the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II efforts, and one that shows the history of the U.S. participation in skiing and snowboarding events in the Olympic Games.

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Yes, I had to get my picture taken with one of my favorite athletes, even if it is only a cardboard cutout.  I was not sure if I would get kicked out for taking this photo, so I made it quick.

The abridged version of the story of Vail is that it opened on December 15, 1962, struggled for a couple of years (the second year they had a snow drought and brought in the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to perform a snow dance for them), and then the resort took off in the later half of the 1960s.  After that, the resort periodically expanded, eventually combined with Beaver Creek and became what it is today.  For more details, I would seriously recommend visiting the museum.  With only a $3 suggested donation, it is a great activity for kind of day where skiers and snowboarders need to take an hour or two off due to weather or exhaustion.

The aspect of Vail’s history that is largely not covered by the Museum is the one that pertained to my own experience earlier that day- getting stuck.  The museum has an exhibit, and a video describing the 10th Mountain Division, how they trained, and what they accomplished.  They also describe the history of Vail as a ski resort in detail.  But, the 10th Mountain Division disbanded at the end of 1945, when the war ended.  Vail resort opened in 1962.  The only discussion of this roughly 17 year time period between these two events, was that Mr. Siebert was looking for the perfect place to open a ski resort.

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In detail, what did Pete Siebert do from 1946 through roughly 1960 (when he started laying the groundwork for Vail)?  Nobody knows, but it is definitely possible that he got stuck, much in the same way I was earlier that day.  Maybe, like many who returned from World War II, he came back and did not know what to do during Peacetime.  Or maybe, he looked at places for years and could not find the right one.  It is possible that he could have had a few “false starts”.

Those of us that have ever been, or currently are, stuck, can take solace in the fact that Mr. Siebert eventually, despite what is likely close to a decade of being stuck, put together a world class ski resort.  Additionally, many of his fellow 10th Mountain Division soldiers contributed to what Vail eventually became (the shops, restaurants, and even clubs that popped up in Vail Village).

After being stuck in the snow, I eventually made it down the mountain.  In fact, after only a short delay, I was able to climb my way out of the deep snow into a set of tracks just to my left.  Despite the fact that I did not get what I wanted out of that particular experience, I had a great experience with the remainder of that particular run, finding areas of deep powder farther down, where the terrain is a bit steeper, and then shooting through some glades.

In this particular case, I had no choice but to try to climb my way out of this section of deep powder.  In may other situations in life, we do have the option to give up.  Unfortunately, we often do prematurely, sometimes simply knowing that there is an easier path.  But, the easier path is rarely the more rewarding one.  The experience of getting stuck in the snow only to eventually have a great remainder of the run, followed by seeing a parallel experience with the founding of the very resort I was skiing at reminded me that it is often worthwhile to get “unstuck”, but also that it is less of a catastrophe to be stuck in the first place than we often imagine.

We live in a culture that reprimands people for being stuck only for a couple of months.  Two months with nothing to show for it- you’re on thin ice …. or out of a job!  Sometimes I even reprimand myself for “wasting” a single day!  Pete Siebert may have been stuck for over a decade!  Yet, he eventually founded Vail, and the experience of living in, or visiting, Colorado would not be the same if it weren’t for this important contribution.  So, maybe we need to be less hard on each other, and be less hard on ourselves.

What to Expect from winter 2015-16 in Colorado

Forecasting the weather weeks to months ahead of time can often be problematic. Computer models that project atmospheric conditions into the future typically only provide utility out to 10-14 days, depending on who you ask. After that, forecasts often become erroneous due to what is often referred to as the “chaos effect”. In fact, there are many that believe that forecasting the weather for a specific day is only useful out to roughly 7-10 days. Most people manage their weather expectations beyond the 7-10 day horizon not by forecasting a specific event, but by describing more general expected trends.  It is more common to say something like “It is likely that the period from 14-21 days out will be warmer and drier than normal across much of the Western United States”.

Scientifically credible seasonal forecasts tend to rely on larger scale phenomenon that have been shown to impact our weather in the past. Luckily, for this upcoming season, the winter of 2015-16, there are two such phenomenon that could give us some significant foresight into what we could expect out of this coming winter.

The first, and most obvious one is the strong El Nino that is already underway. Strong El Nino conditions typically bring wet weather to the Southern United States due to a strong sub-tropical jet stream. In particular, California can be the recipient of some heavy rainfall, which hopefully can help give the state some much needed relief from the extreme drought conditions than have been experiencing. The other major impact, on a national level, is that the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains tend to have milder than average winters during strong El Ninos.

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Unfortunately, maps like this one often make it ambiguous as to what impact El Nino typically has on the weather here in Colorado. On this map, as well as nearly every map of El Nino impacts, Colorado is in kind of a neutral zone, where areas to the south are wetter than usual, and areas to the north are drier than usual. However, as any resident of Colorado knows, Colorado’s rugged terrain has a significant impact on the weather here. Therefore, it is possible to discern some more local impacts that occur here in Colorado, as different large scale wind patterns are impacted by Colorado’s many mountain ranges. There are many sources of information regarding how Colorado fares during a strong El Nino year. Below is a graphical summary of these impacts.

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In addition to El Nino, there is another major weather feature that could have a profound impact on our weather this winter. Not only are there warmer than normal ocean temperatures along the equator associated with the strong El Nino, but there is another section of extremely warm ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean farther north. This section of warm temperatures off the west coast of North America is being labelled “The Blob”. “The Blob” formed due to a persistent period of warmer and drier weather over the past several years. This is the weather pattern that lead to the extreme drought in California in the first place, and, now threatens to keep much of California in drought conditions despite the El Nino.

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The easiest way to describe the impact “The Blob” is going to have on our winter weather is that it is going to try to produce conditions similar to last winter. Last winter was warm and dry over much of the West due to a persistent ridge, labelled “the ridge of death” by snow enthusiasts at OpenSnow, which is often associated with warmer sea surface temperatures off the Pacific Coast of North America.

While it is hard to imagine “The Blob” completely overwhelming the impacts of this historic El Nino, it does have the potential to modify them. Firstly, it could make the Pacific Northwest drier, and reduce the amount of rainfall California receives, particularly Northern California. Over Colorado, more frequent ridging, and/or dry Northwesterly flow aloft will reduce the likelihood of major Front Range upslope snowstorms, and increase the likelihood of a drier than normal winter over parts of Central Colorado, including many of the major ski resorts such as Vail, Breckenridge, and Copper Mountain. Those who hate extreme cold, though, will be comforted by the fact that the likelihood of sub-zero conditions across most of the state will be significantly below average this season.

The End of a Season

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Last November, prior to the start of the 2014-2015 ski season, I attended a screening of Warren Miller’s No Turning Back.  The main part of this film is broken up into eight segments, each one featuring a different location around the world, and each one containing footage of extreme skiing or snowboarding interwoven into a storyline that describes the people and the culture around snow sports in that location.  This film’s primary impact is to get skiers and snowboarders excited about the upcoming season.  However, the introduction to this film actually contained a reminder that every ski season comes to an inevitable end.  A time lapse of a ski resort becoming progressively more green over time (during springtime) is shown while the narrator (of the introduction) compares skiing and ski season to “falling in love with someone you know is going to leave you in four months.”

Well, here in Colorado, that four month expiration date appears to be rapidly approaching.  On Friday (3/27), Vail ski resort, the largest in the state, was still being patronized by a significant number of snow sport enthusiasts.  However, signs everywhere are pointing towards the inevitable decline in the quality of the skiing that accompanies the transition from winter into spring.  Not the only recent day to feature temperatures exceeding 50F, sections of bare ground can be seen not only on the horizon, but also on many of the slopes themselves, particularly slopes that feature bumps on Vail’s back side.

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Increasingly, trails are either being signed to caution skiers of this variable terrain, or being closed off altogether.

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Conditions like these are often labelled “spring conditions”, a label that is both descript and non-discript at the same time.  Labels like “powder” and “groomed” are commonly used to describe the snow conditions on any given slope.  These two labels, amongst the most commonly used, provide a clear indication of what kind of snow a skier or snowboarder can expect to encounter.  When conditions are labeled as “spring conditions”, they are often quite variable.

Over the course of the day on Friday, I encountered all sorts of snow conditions.  There were parts with large clumps of snow, parts with hard packed snow, parts that were quite icy, and, of course parts that were very slushy.  I even managed to find a couple of spots with untouched new snow in the trees (I am not calling it “powder” as the snow is wet in variety, much like the snow one would regularly see in New York City).  I often encountered a significant variety of snow conditions while traversing a single ski trail.  Transitioning, often from hard packed to icy, and then to slushy, would cause sudden shifts in my weight distribution.  Being jerked, both forwards and backwards while skiing down the mountain almost made me feel as if I were at a rodeo.  Only, instead of being jerked around by a bull, angry that his reproductive region had been recently violated, I was being jerked around by what is labeled “spring conditions”.

Regardless of whether we ski, partake in some other form of activity, or just enjoy warmer weather, spring, and the conditions associated with it, do often jerk us around, much in the same way I was at Vail.  Springtime is not a slow and steady transition from winter’s chill to warmer weather.  It is often chaotic with wildly variant weather patterns that people in Oklahoma are unfortunately all too familiar with.

Sometimes, as is the case in the Northeastern U.S. this year, winter just seems to keep on going, maintaining it’s grip far longer than expected.  Those who eagerly anticipate spring’s warmth have a rough time with years like this one, as it almost feels as if nature is trying to torment them.  Other years are far more choppy.  In many parts of the country, this time of year can feature weeks that include both summer-like warmth, and snow, sometimes even within a day or two of each other.  It is not unheard of for an early spring warm period to trigger some to plant outdoors, only to have these plants killed by an unexpected hard freeze later in the year.

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Much like all other aspects of life, at the end of one season comes another one.  And, while the season to play in the snow is coming to an end, spring brings with it a whole new set of opportunities.  For those whose one and only love is skiing or snowboarding, the end of winter can feel very much like the narrator of No Turning Back described it; as having a feeling similar to having lost a love after four months.  However, for those who are fortunate enough to have found an appreciation for all of life’s seasons, the end of winter, and the transition to spring, while an ending in one sort, is also a beginning, with spring bringing with it a new set of opportunities.

The main advantage to living somewhere with seasons, as opposed to somewhere with consistent weather, is the variety that comes along with these cyclical changes.  In places like these, each season is distinct from the last.  At different times of year, we go to different places, and do different things, and even incorporate periods of rest and renewal into the cycle.  It provides life with a clear breaking point that distinguishes one year from another; something that many lack beyond college and graduate school.  I will most likely be back at Vail ski resort, to once again enjoy some of the world’s best skiing, before the end of 2015.  When that occurs, it will certainly have the look and feel of a completely new ski season distinct from the one that just ended.  Until then, the time has come to go and explore different places, maybe chase some storms, take some longer bike rides, or visit some places that are much more easily reached without the threat of a blizzard interrupting travel.  The coming months will certainly feature some amazing experiences that I cannot wait to have, enjoy, and share.