This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Even in the leanest of winters, Alta Ski Area has managed to squeeze enough snow out of passing storms to reach a 100-inch base at some point during the ski season.
Until this winter.
The closest the resort got was April 16, when the base reached 95 inches at the end of a three-day storm that deposited 34 inches of snow.
"I was out there saying, 'Come on, come on. Kick the lake [effect] in here. Just get another 5 inches and we'll make it,' " said Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa, referring to the Great Salt Lake's ability to inject moisture into passing storms, which stall out when they hit the high point of the Wasatch Range and dump their loads of snow in the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon.
But it didn't happen this year at the resort, which opened in 1939. Blue skies and warm temperatures returned for another week, shrinking the snowpack to 70 inches. The best a final-weekend storm could do Sunday was boost it back up to 80 inches.
"I don't know why 100 is so special, especially since you only ski on the top foot anyway," Wieringa said. "But we have an infatuation with big round numbers … and we can't find another year that we didn't get to a 100-inch base during the year."
Base levels, he noted, are not numbers that he and Alta weatherman Daniel "Howie" Howlett record. It's just something they track informally.
What they have monitored, almost religiously, since 1980 are snowfall totals. And the final number for this season 324 inches is as weak as anything Wieringa has seen in the past 35 years.
It might even be as wimpy as the notoriously bleak winter of 1976-77, but he can't make a direct comparison because snowfall record-keeping back then was "a little sketchy."
Wieringa has complete confidence in the numbers since the winter of 1979-80.
Those tabulations show that this winter Alta received 62 percent of its normal snowfall, which is 550 inches. The only winters that come close to being that stingy were back-to-backers 354 inches in 1986-87 and 353 inches in 1987-88.
That dry spell was a reversal of fortunes, coming shortly after two of the resort's snowiest winters 748 inches in 1981-82 and 708 inches in 1983-84. And there's always hope that the weather will exhibit another flip-flop soon, just like it has in turning dry for three years after the winter of 2010-11, when 724 inches of snow fell on Alta.
"The only thing constant is change," Wieringa said. "Next year will not be like this year, and no year will be like the year before."
Even if conditions were not up to par this winter, Alta always had enough natural and machine-made snow to satisfy die-hard Altaholics.
Ian Larson, a Salt Lake City resident who worked at Alta Lodge while taking a year off before going to medical school at George Washington University, got 106 days in.
"It skied really well, all things considered," he said. "The snow we got in early January held on for a long time, so I didn't notice it as poor conditions. I didn't feel like we were skiing on rocks. There was enough of a base 70 to 80 inches to cover the rocks so you could go off trail.
"I got to know the north side of Rustler [Ridge] better than I ever had before," Larson added, "and that's what I wanted to do."
Lifelong season-pass holder Lisa Louie had similar sentiments.
"The snow that came, the limited snow, was all really good. I don't think I had any bad days, and we skied some good powder days," she said, noting she amassed 82 days this season.
"It wasn't what we're used to, the great Alta snow, the greatest snow on Earth, but it was pretty good," Louie said. "I have no complaints."
Actually, she had one. "Sunday, when we left to drive down the canyon, it was snowing. And I thought to myself, 'Oh, really.' "
Snowbird's still open
It's not like 2011, when Snowbird received a foot of powder on Memorial Day and had an 87-inch mid-mountain base on the Fourth of July. But the Little Cottonwood Canyon resort will remain open this year until May 17. Turns will be confined largely to the top of the mountain, with skiing and 'boarding off the Little Cloud and Mineral Basin lifts.