The APPEAL comes early…and the PROMISE at the END of this story.
The weather is the pits and doing the ski reports for the last few days has brought about today’s story. This article may serve to upset a few people out there, but we have found that we have a lot of power. Our power is based in YOU…the visitor. By bringing attention to certain subjects, resort operators react. We have witnessed some great strides in our nine years of promoting and reporting on the ski areas of the Southeast. For example, years ago NO resort reported bare spots…now at least SOME do. Years ago Sugar Mountain’s Gunther Jochl was adamant about NOT wanting cameras aimed at his resort and now he actually has one of their own, albeit it is set at the foot of the mountain where conditions always look pretty good. The point is though by being here for YOU, the visitor, we have stayed consistent on providing accurate conditions based on input from our volunteer On-Snow Reporters and from the resort’s email updates, faxes and websites.
However there are STILL problems with inconsistency and speculative reporting and we’d like to see it stopped.
Today I am not going to name resort names because it is not my intention to offend anyone. My hope is that if enough of you guys join with me…together we CAN make resorts react. …and changes NEED to happen.
Case in point – Over the last few days of temperatures approaching 60° I have watched as some of the resorts HAVE dropped their base depths a couple of inches a day, while others have not dropped them whatsoever. I have watched as some resorts call the conditions wet granular, while some were STILL reporting "packed powder". I have watched as some of the resorts websites are posting pristine snow photos from years past. These and other practices should be stopped.
Yes, it can be argued that when a resort doesn’t post accurate information that sooner or later people will learn not to trust that resort and cease going there. That’s not altogether true. Certainly avid skiers and riders know which resorts are doing pretty good regarding conditions; but most visitors that may only go skiing or riding once or twice a year have no clue and all too often they make their decision as to WHERE to go skiing by looking or listening to ski reports. Whichever resort reports THE MOST snow is where they pick to go. BELIEVE me, I know because I have the emails to prove it.
One emailer recently said, “We usually call around on the cell phone heading up I-77, and wherever reports the most snow is where we go.” We’ve actually conducted an informal survey by emailing some regular visitors to the site and the responses seem to confirm that regular skiers and snowboarders (those that ski or ride once or twice a week or more) are a savvy bunch who know better than to rely on the reports verbatim. They use the reports as a general guide to conditions, filling the gaps based on their own experience.
The problem is that, if resorts routinely report powder and packed-powder conditions, there is little room for improvement – call it the snow report equivalent of "slope condition inflation."
A Quick Call of Who Does it Best In our years of collecting and compiling who does the best job of accurately posting base depths and the fluctuation of those depths, AND what their surface condition actually IS…I can honestly say that Kathy Doyle and her crew at Ober Gatlinburg are the best, followed closely by Ski Beech’s Gil Adams and Snowshoe Mountain’s Joe Stevens (call it a toss up for second).
Most Southeast Ski Resorts Do NOT even Measure Base Depths Here’s where I’m going to catch some flack. What if I were to tell you that the base depths that you read about or hear on the radio are figures based on ESTIMATES of how much snow is on the slopes and NOT from ACTUAL measurements that they take? Kind of ticks you off huh? It should. However let’s take a little "sidebar" for a moment and make a comment that one astute reader once shared. He wrote, "I don’t know what all of the fuss is about base depths anyway, because you only ski on the TOP of the snow and it doesn’t matter if there’s a foot underneath or four feet."
That’s somewhat true, however THE PERCEPTION of deeper snow does serve to attract people towards one resort or another. I had an emailer write me last season, right in the middle of one of the best winters on record and he was going on and on about how much snow "xyz resort" had in comparison to Ski Beech. MAYBE "xyz resort" was inflating their totals and Ski Beech was being straight with their report of 18-24" of snow. However the guy who was emailing me CHOSE the inflated figure resort BASED ON THAT REPORT. When marketing people KNOW that happens, what’s to keep them from inflating reports? Well there’s not a lot anyone can do about people that are willing to mislead us…but we CAN make you guys aware of which resort is doing it’s best to give you the most accurate data.
Our APPEAL to Ski Areas in the Southeast In all of our years of monitoring base depths and slope conditions reporting, I keep coming back to the same question, "WHY DO RESORTS REPORT A RANGE OF MEASUREMENTS? WHY NOT JUST REPORT, "We have an average base of 32". That would at least give us a figure that we can live with.
The answer to my own question is because there is an "industry standard" that resorts across the country use to relate base measurements. Okay so let’s not rock the boat too much. Let’s leave that alone and say it’s okay to keep the same standard but by definition, the Average Base Depth is determined by the AVERAGE MINIMUM and the AVERAGE MAXIMUM base depths, reported in inches, e.g., "Base 27 to 46 inches". Base depth is the low and high estimated range of natural and snowmaking base depths on trails that are open."
Here’s where I am going to catch some grief. There is NO WAY that the AVERAGE MINIMUM base depth at SEVERAL Southeast resorts is 36" deep. It just is not happening. By extension, the AVERAGE MAXIMUM base depths at resorts is not over four to five feet deep either.
You Can’t Ski on Dirt! I have posed these questions to several of the Southeastern Resort operators and once I asked one, "How can the minimum base depth be 24" when there are bare spots?"
He quickly countered, "You can’t ski on grass, so that is not figured into the minimum measurements."
He had a point. However you still can’t tell me that resorts go out and take minimums on all of the slopes and average those…and then do the same for maximum depths. The TRUTH is most don’t take ANY measurements on ANY slope ANYTIME. Most of the resort operators in the Southeast have been around for years and they can tell you relatively close, how much snow is out on the slopes. "Relatively close"…not ACTUALLY how much snow is out there…much less what the real minimum average is, etc.
Too often, some resorts only adjust their base depths up or down ONCE they see what the others do.
Years ago, resort mountain ops would go out and take measurements and THAT’S what was reported. Now, ski area snowfall figures are often "white" lies with marketing directors using anecdotal information and inflated figures.
When doing my homework before writing this article I went to GOOGLE and did a search for – measuring base depths – and was surprised to find SkiNorthCarolina.com ranked numbers 1 and 22, and the site ranked number 23 is actually REFERENCING and article written by us on SkiSoutheast.com. I really couldn’t find much to add to the interviews that I had conducted so I tried a search for – measuring snow base depths – and once again found SkiNorthCarolina.com ranked 3rd…with no real article meat to add to my research. So I tried – how resorts measure snow base depths – …and we were, once again, number 1….AND 7th. So I gave up and just figured I’d wing it with the details that I have acquired in interviews and input from over the nine years that we have operated this website.
Some background on WHO IS reporting the base measurements and more. More often than not it is the marketing or management offices that are doing the reporting of conditions, which is not to say that these people are purposely or intentionally inflating figures…but it’s like handing the keys to Fort Knox over to politicians. We all know that this article won’t change that…but YOU, OUR VISITORS CAN make a difference. (More on that at the bottom of this story!)
In searching my archives for content to support this story, I ran across an old National Ski Association pamphlet that read, "At every ski area, the process begins when someone – usually a patroller or a groomer – heads up the hill, braving the pitch-black chill of winter every single morning during the season to measure the base depth as well as any new snow that may have fallen since the day before.
Those totals show up when you call the snow hotline at your favorite ski area before heading for the slopes. You’ve got to have an appreciation for the folks getting that information to us by 5:30 a.m.”
I am sorry to say that NOT ALL ski resorts across the country are sending their mountain ops out to measure the base depths each day. I am also sorry to say that I’ll bet $100 against $1000 for every resort in the Southeast that isn’t doing it. I can also tell you that MANY of the resorts don’t stay in consistent contact with snow reporting services out there and only report when they get around to it…often a few days pass between reports. We CALL the resorts that don’t get us reports to get firsthand knowledge whenever possible, but even that is not do-able sometimes.
I realize that this is a tough subject for some resort management, because they are worked to a frazzle, handling five duties at the resort that they work for, when some resorts have all of the resources in the world. However, we want to go ON RECORD to say that THERE IS NO MORE IMPORTANT MARKETING THAN TO GET THE ACCURATE, DAILY REPORT OF SLOPE CONDITIONS AND TRUE BASE DEPTHS OUT TO THE PUBLIC.
Without that happening, people are making decisions to go places based on errant data.
I can hear the phones ringing now and I’d LOVE to be a fly on the wall. There are three or four of the eighteen resorts that we cover that are tearing up the phone lines right now. The other fourteen or fifteen are agreeing with me and might would do something to remedy the situation if everybody would cooperate and comply. However when one or two simply don’t care and report what the heck they want to…it makes others feel that they have to do the same to compete.)
WHILE I’M RANTING… Since I’m on this subject, I’m going to run with it. BASE DEPTHS are only one-half of the reporting fiasco. Surface terminology is also JUST as inconsistent. After several days of MILD temperatures, at least ONE resort in the Southeast was still reporting "packed powder" conditions. Often SEVERAL resorts report packed powder conditions when NO snow has fallen and no manmade snow has been made for a few days.
That brings up a reiteration of a statement that we made the other day. "Powder and Packed Powder" SHOULD be limited ONLY to natural snowfall. However, to play the devil’s advocate for a moment…ski resorts all across the country refer to fresh, manmade snow as "powder" and once it’s packed for a day or two…they refer to it as "packed powder". So THAT is certainly a subjective opinion and I have certainly seen SOME manmade snow that was made during extremely cold, low humidity conditions…that WAS powder. So I won’t belabor that issue. However, not all newly manmade snow is powder; so consistency in reporting is needed.
We’ve had a lot of emails from people asking that we explain the difference in terminology so here goes.
SNOW TERMINOLOGY 101
Average Base Depth
Base depth is determined by the average minimum and maximum base depths, reported in inches, e.g., "Base 27 to 46 inches" should mean that the low figure is the AVERAGE of all minimum depths and the high figure is the AVERAGE of all maximum depths.
Primary & Secondary Surface Conditions
The primary surface condition is defined as that trail surface type which describes conditions on at least 70 percent of the terrain open to skiers. The secondary surface condition is the next most prevalent surface type of at least 20% of open terrain or more or is used when it materially affects the skiing; e.g.; icy patches, thin spots, frozen granular patches, etc.
Powder: Cold, new, loose, fluffy, dry snow that has not been compacted. This is usually the product of fresh, natural snowfall.
Packed Powder: Powder snow, either natural or machine-made, that has been packed down by skier traffic or grooming machines. The snow is no longer fluffy, but it is not so extremely compacted that it is hard.
Hard Pack: When natural or machine made snow becomes very firmly packed. The snow has never melted and re-crystallized, but it’s been tightly compressed through grooming and continuous wind exposure. You can plant a pole in hard packed snow, but it takes more effort than packed powder. Unlike frozen granular snow, hard packed snow is generally white in color.
Loose Granular: This surface results after powder or packed powder thaws then refreezes and re-crystalizes, or from an accumulation of sleet. This is also created by machine grooming of frozen or icy snow.
Frozen Granular: This is undoubtedly the most misunderstood surface condition in ski reporting. Frozen granular is a hard surface of old snow formed by granules freezing together after a rain or warm temperatures. There are a wide range of frozen granular surfaces that offer different textures and ease of turning. Frozen granular will support a ski pole stuck into the surface. In contrast, ice will form chips and will not support the pose. It can return to loose granular after proper machine grooming.
Wet Packed Snow: Natural or machine made snow that has been previously packed and becomes wet usually because of rainfall.
Wet Granular: Loose or frozen granular snow which has become wet after rainfall or high temperatures. This is typically an easy to ski surface that results from rainy days or a thaw.
Wet Snow: Powder snow which has become moist due to a thaw or rainfall, or snow which was moist, as it fell.
Spring Conditions: (Only allowed to be used from March 1st on). This is the spring version of Variable Conditions. Like variable conditions, this term is used when no one surface can describe 70% of the terrain open for skiing. It is not uncommon for other evidence of spring to be present such as bare spot, a discolored surface from melting and traffic.
Corn: Corn snow, usually found in the spring, is characterized by large, loose granules during the day which freeze together at night, and then loosen again during the day.
Icy: Not to be confused with frozen granular, ice is a hard, glazed surface created either by freezing rain, ground water seeping up into the snow and freezing, or by the rapid freezing of snow saturated with water from rain or melting. It is important to note that, generally, frozen granular is opaque whereas ice is translucent.
Variable Conditions: When no primary surface (70% or more) can be determined, variable conditions describes a range of surfaces that can be encountered. It could mean that parts of the trails are loose granular, part are packed powder, part are frozen granular and some are wet granular.
Machine Groomed Granular: Loose granular snow that has been repeatedly groomed by power tillers so that the texture is halfway between loose granular & packed powder. Some of the snow is granular & some of the snow has been so pulverized that the crystals are like fine powder sugar. It’s neither loose granular nor packed powder. This condition occurs only after a warm/freeze with multiple grooming passes.
Resorts should report an accurate estimate of minimum and maximum base depths. It SHOULD be the duty of ONE, head Mountain Ops person to go out at some point each day and take at least TWO measurements of the MAIN TRAIL at MID POINT and report those figures. If he can estimate that the rest of the trails are about the same then let the figure stand. If the rest of the trails are higher or lower, then adjust the figures somewhat…or better yet get two staffer to go out and measure a couple of the main trails. Then report those base depths without an eye towards what any other resort is reporting.
Our Appeal and Promise Our appeal to all ski areas is that they acquire AND report those conditions every single day of the ski season by a specific time of the day. It would be best to have the LATEST conditions, so a 6:30am release of figures would be wonderful, however even if figures were ascertained in the afternoon…that would work as long as they were done every day. There are several resorts in the Southeast that just don’t take this task seriously enough and report when and if they get around to it. We have cracked on one resort in particular (on SkiSoutheast.com) this season for reporting one thing via faxes, and another on their own website …and sometimes not faxing OR updating their own website for days at a time. That’s just not good business and we’ve seen resorts showing packed powder or frozen granular conditions when everyone else is showing wet granular BECAUSE the latter resorts were reporting in a more timely fashion.
OUR PROMISE What’s happened is that a lot of regular skiers and snowboarders say snow reports have been watered down to the point that they are almost meaningless. The solution could be a grassroots report, done independently of the resorts – perhaps by locally based skiers and disseminated via the Internet!
With this in mind…our appeal is to all of the ski resorts to make base depth and surface condition reporting in a timely fashion their TOP PRIORITY. It isn’t that hard. There are several resorts in the Southeast that do a great job of this, and there are some that put NO focus on it whatsoever. Today, we’re being nice.
Those that don’t begin fair, consistent and timely reporting, we also promise that we’ll get our reporters out and take our own measurements and call you out. The fact is, base depth totals appearing on ski reports all across the country are RELATIVE figures and not necessarily meant to be taken as literally as we’d like. However THEY SHOULD BE CLOSE ESTIMATES BASED ON SOME MEASUREMENTS and not including two ten foot tall mounds of snow in the figures.
Our committment has always been to give our visitors the best, most reliable information and we just don’t want to see anymore decisions made about WHERE to ski based on wrong or untimely reporting.
Editor’s Note: In compliling this morning’s report ONLY ONE resort reported bare spots, and two resorts didn’t drop one inch of base depth in the last two days. That means that MOST RESORTS DID A GREAT JOB OF REPORTING, but when three or four don’t…it makes it an unfair playing field.