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I am pursuing Joel Gratz, a Pennsylvania ski racer turned Colorado weatherman, as he carves trenches with his edges into Cappuccino. It’s a perfect choice for our morning wake-up call, a wide, blue square piste that snakes through the pines high above the peak-roofed hotels and condos of Vail, located in the Rockies a 90-minute drive west of Denver. Cappuccino is so immaculately buffed into corduroy, you would think Vail’s ski runs had been plucked and groomed by a secret army of on-slope estheticians.

These manicured slopes are impressive, but let’s face it, whether you’re a diehard skier or a once-a-year warrior, you will never get as excited about corduroy grooming as you will about fresh powder. All we want to know is when and how much of it is going to fall. And oh, to be a weather forecaster in ski country: Get it right and you are a candidate for sainthood. Get it wrong, and you had best ponder a name change and a new identity.

Jeremy Miller

Hardcore snowboarders like Jeremy Miller live by the powder forecasts at Vail.

Just ask Gratz, a weather nerd of the highest order and the founder of the skier-focused online forecasting service OpenSnow. I’ve come to Colorado to mine the knowledge of experts like him and gain insight into the local snowpack. The Centennial State straddles the highest peaks of the continental divide, and when eastward-travelling weather systems laden with Pacific moisture collide with this rocky barrier, they unload on the western slopes of these mountains.

But that’s the big picture. Producing resort-specific forecasts requires a deeper dive, Gratz explains, as we pause on a knoll to rest legs and catch breath. After completing meteorology studies at Penn State, he followed his passion for skiing west to Boulder where he completed a master’s degree in environmental studies.

He assumed his meteorology background would give him an insider’s advantage when it came to prime insight into peak ski conditions – and get him first in line for the chairlift. Wrong. On a winter day back in 2005 he learned a hard lesson, when his go-to weather models pointed to an anemic overnight snowfall. Consequently, Gratz opted out of the storm of the season and an epic 120-centimetre powder day. Locals knew better. It was chest-deep, a friend told him the next day, with a you-should-have-been-there grin.

Cocktails at Briar Rose Chophouse and Saloon

Cocktail hour at the Briar Rose Chophouse and Saloon in downtown Breckenridge.

“My weather models got trumped by local knowledge,” Gratz says. This forecasting flop prompted him to drill into the interplay between local topography and weather systems. He began looking at multiple computer weather models, running them repeatedly to see if they told the same forecast story, and looking for wild fluctuations to get a sense of the uncertainty and range of the forecast. Then he studied local conditions, wind direction, altitude and orientation of mountains.

In 2007, he began sharing forecasts via an e-mail list called Colorado Powder Forecast. It proved popular and two years later he took it online. Then in 2011, he teamed up with meteorologist Andrew Murray to launch OpenSnow. Today, with a team of 12 forecasters gathering weather intel from Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, Arizona, Upper Midwest and New Hampshire, OpenSnow has become the online crystal ball for more than 2.5 million powder hounds.

For a bird’s eye view of Vail’s topography, and to learn more about how Gratz blends local wisdom with computer weather models, we board the Mountain Top Express, which whisks us in minutes to an elevation of 3,430 metres. The temperature is a balmy -1°C according to my smartwatch. Gratz points a ski pole to the Gore Range, an undulating ridgeline of summits soaring up to 4,100 metres that run northwest to southeast on the other side of the valley of Gore Creek.

Breckenridge Mountain Resort ski patroller

A Breckenridge Mountain Resort ski patroller leads the way into Debbie’s Alley, a double-black diamond run between Peak 7 and Peak 8.

Think of the valley as a benevolent funnel that intensifies local snowfalls, he says. Gratz theorizes that northwest winds hitting the Gore Range get deflected south toward Vail, adding to the air already being forced up and over the ski resort. And this extra rising air produces more snow than forecast in localized areas.

Weather conditions are equally as nuanced 40 kilometres southeast of Vail in Breckenridge. When ski runs were first cut on the slopes above town in 1961, skiers colonized Breckenridge, slowly transforming the gritty, disintegrating mining town into one of Colorado’s most picturesque ski villages.

“We have something here called recycled powder,” says Hunter Mortensen, a veteran Breckenridge ski patroller and snow safety specialist, as we ride up the Horseshoe Bowl T-bar. Northwesterly winds slamming into the lofty Tenmile Range west of Breckenridge scour snow from the windward slopes of these mountains, then deposit it on leeside alpine cirques.

Horseshoe Bowl T-Bar

Skiers pass a ski patrol and warming hut at the top of the Horseshoe Bowl T-Bar at Breckenridge Ski Resort.

From the top of the T-bar, we traverse past a stone-walled ski patrol hut. One of Mortensen’s fellow patrollers stares out of a fogged windowpane, waving as we ski into Horseshoe Bowl. The entrance is a minefield of exposed rocks, but after we make it through, the snow conditions suddenly improve. Ten centimetres of fresh fluff blankets the bowl.

“Five centimetres low down can be 25 centimetres up top,” says Mortensen, who has spent the last 15 years becoming intimate with Breckenridge’s snowpack and weather. “We’re the only resort that gets free refills from our winds.”

I reach down and scoop up a glove-full. A puff is all it takes to disperse the feathery crystals into the Rocky Mountain air. If snow were wine, this would be champagne brut. My skis turn effortlessly as I gather speed toward the bottom of Horseshoe Bowl. I recall something that Gratz had told me: “I don’t always get it right, but that’s what makes weather so interesting. I never get bored trying to figure it out.”


Where to Stay

The Arrabelle at Vail Square

Mere steps from the ski valet at the base of the Eagle Bahn Gondola, the Arrabelle blends the elegance of a Swiss Alps hotel with North American practicality.

What we loved The complimentary GoPros and a 24-hour room service app.

arrabelle.rockresorts.com

Tags

COLORADO     SKIING     UNITED STATES     VAIL