Can a ski resort have too much snow?
For ski resorts in Colorado and the Sierra Nevada, it's a good problem to have: too much snow.
Recent storms that walloped mountains across the West dropped up to 10 feet of snow, creating thrilling powdery runs. But once avalanche danger emerged on roads and at the slopes, several resorts made the unusual move of shutting down.
While the closures cost resorts income from lift tickets, the businesses will likely make it up in the long run. The resorts will promote the fresh snow and get more people excited to come up and carve powder turns.
"It's like you just go out and get barreled, you drop in and come up, an' pah! Drop back down. Powder everywhere in your face, you know? ... Mashed potato powder," said John Lencki. He is a New Hampshire native who was skiing Jan. 12 at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
It's a change from previous years beleaguered by drought. Even this season, the Colorado snowpack got off to its worst start in more than 30 years, forcing some ski areas to push back opening day this fall.
Here's a look at the problems - and joy - a thick blanket of snow can bring to ski resorts in the West:
How often do resorts close because of too much snow?
Heavy snow typically does not affect resort operations but it often creates problems on the roads leading to the slopes, said Chris Linsmayer, a spokesman for Colorado Ski Country USA. It is an industry group that represents more than 20 resorts.
"It's extremely rare (for snow to close a resort). I've been skiing my whole life and it's never happened to me," he said.
Why were the resorts in Colorado closed?
Avalanches pose problems, more so on roads than at the resorts. Ski patrollers use explosives to mitigate slides every day. Portions of resorts that are at risk are closed.
"We have closures and we have ropes. We have gates and we really try to steer people to specific areas of the hill to keep them out of avalanche terrain," said Ryan Evanczyk, a ski patroller at Arapahoe Basin.
"The big message here is not necessarily the mountain is unsafe, but the roads to get to and from the mountain were unsafe," Linsmayer said.
How much snow has fallen?
The three Colorado resorts that closed received 3 to 5 feet over several days.
In the Sierra Nevada, storms dumped the most snow the mountains have seen in six years, the National Weather Service in Reno said. It helped ease the effects of California's lingering drought. Federal monitors said that more than 40 percent of California is out of drought.
Why is Colorado seeing extreme avalanche danger?
"The simple answer is we've gotten a lot of snow in a short amount of time," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
He compared the snowpack to the construction of a building. If you build one story at a time, the foundation has a chance to adjust to the added weight.
"But if you plunk down a 20-story building in a couple of minutes, it's likely to break," he said. "When you have this amount of snow in a couple of days, it piles up really fast and the snowpack has a hard time adjusting to the new load.
"With that rapid loading - a lot of weight in a short amount of time - it becomes unstable," Greene said.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How are explosives used to promote safety?
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