“There’s no business like snow business!”
If you’ve ever paid attention to anything related to skiing or snowboarding in Utah, you’ve doubtless heard the oft-repeated slogan: “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Few realize the colorful (and contentious) history of the beloved phrase—it’s quite a tale!
The phrase "The Greatest Snow on Earth" first appeared in the Sunday supplement of Home Magazine tucked inside The Salt Lake Tribune in the 1960s. It was written by skiing editor Tom Korologos. The Utah Travel Council adopted the catchy jingle and incorporated it into press releases and advertisements. It eventually became the state’s skiing slogan, luring skiers with the promise of perfect turns. It was even added to Utah’s license plates in the mid-80s and would eventually star in a lawsuit filed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
In the original article, Tom waxed poetic about the unusual sunny but also snowy conditions found in the Intermountain West. Beginning in 1962, “The Greatest Snow on Earth" was used in promotional materials by the Utah Travel Council and many of the state's ski resorts. A few choice excerpts—with references to the circus—from Tom’s article include:
"That’s what the Intermountain area produces each year under its big top—the “Greatest Snow on Earth.”
“The curtain goes up as early as late October in some areas and stays there until late April.”
“When the storms reach the Intermountain ranges only the most perfect dry powder is left. That’s just a sprinkling of what you’ll find in this vast, scenic country that is the Intermountain area. And what an area, it’s some 600 miles long and 2.5 miles high. That’s the extent of the Intermountain’s big top which supports this real, true, Greatest Snow on Earth.”
For a time, the origin of Utah’s skiing phrase was lost to the decades. It was only rediscovered when famed University of Utah Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and author of the book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, Jim Steenburgh, was attempting to track down the phrase’s origin to finish off his book. After a few leads turned up nothing, Jim was given the name of Tom’s brother Mike whom he serendipitously met at a Natural History Museum of Utah gala. Mike confessed to Jim that his brother had indeed coined the slogan.
Mike put Jim in touch with Tom who colored in the details. As the skiing editor for The Salt Lake Tribune in the 60s, he’d been preparing a special insert for the newspaper leading up to the ski season. Tom couldn’t remember if he’d come up with the idea for the insert or not. Jim spent the next week culling through microfilm collections at the Marriott Library and managed to locate Tom’s article in the December 4, 1960 Home Magazine insert in The Salt Lake Tribune’s Sunday paper.
In an interesting twist of fate, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus filed a lawsuit in 1996 claiming Utah’s usage of the slogan “The Greatest Snow on Earth” was diluting their well-known and established catchphrase “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.” Well before skiing was a mainstream sport, P.T. Barnum’s Circus began using the trademark “THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH” to promote their traveling circus in 1872. The circus had continuously used the phrase to advertise their public shows and tours for nearly 100 years when Tom first coined the snowy reboot.
Utah registered "The Greatest Snow on Earth” as a state trademark in 1975. The dispute with Ringling Bros. arose when the state applied for a federal trademark in 1988, which was approved in 1995 by the U.S. Trademark Trial & Appeal Board. Ringling Bros. filed a suit in January of 1996 against the Utah Division of Travel Development. The court initially ruled in Utah’s favor and the case subsequently ended up in a federal appeals court.
The court found there was no precedent for the case but eventually ruled that Ringling Bros. could not stop Utah from utilizing the snowy version of the slogan. The circus had failed to prove that consumers were confused by the similar slogans and the proof that brand dilution was taking place was deemed insufficient. Following this ruling from the highest court in the land, Utah continues to use this phrase today, luring skiers and snowboarders with the promise of perfect powder and deep storms.
THE GREATEST SNOW ON EARTH - BY THE NUMBERS
Utah's powder is also big business. The economic impact of our fancy flakes reverberates throughout the state keeping people employed and raking invaluable tourist visits. Data from the 2018–2019 ski season:
ANATOMY OF THE GREATEST SNOW ON EARTH
But do the goods in Utah really deliver? Utah doesn't have the driest snow, that honor belongs to New Mexico. Utah doesn’t score the highest average snowfall totals, that glory goes to Mt. Baker in Washington. What Utah does have: the ideal combination of geography, topography, climate and weather. All these circumstances coalesce into what Jim Steenburgh dubs “floatation.” If you’re at all interested in this topic, Jim’s book Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth is a must-read. Catch more great book recommendations here.
The perfect combination of floatation factors was summarized nicely by the skiing pioneer Ed LaChapelle in 1962. He claimed "The best deep powder skiing is not found in the lightest snow but rather in snow with enough 'body' to provide good flotation for the running ski.” LaChapelle would know, he was instrumental in developing avalanche mitigation techniques in North America with the help of Alta's legendary powder snow. I wrote an article about these impossible and daring feats using gunpowder to control the area’s deathly avalanches here.
Anyway, it’s not the most snow or the driest snow that produces pitch-perfect powder skiing. You need the proper density and temperatures to create conditions where the snow can support the weight of a skier or snowboarder without bogging the board down. If you’ve ever experienced “Sierra Cement,” you’ll understand the importance of these factors in the powder skiing equation.
Here’s why Utah can legitimately claim “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”
The warm and slow-moving waters of the North Pacific move inland benevolently coating Washington’s Cascades and the Sierra Nevada ranges to the south. Here, the moisture content of the average dump hovers around 12% water. (For reference, machine-made snow is typically 24-28% in moisture content.) The milder temperatures of the maritime climate create this higher density snow resulting in more friction for skis and boards to plane through or atop.
The storms then traverse the mighty (but arid) Great Basin before they reach the Wasatch range which rears up in sudden relief from the low valley bottoms. The long journey from the coast results in a marked decrease in the storm’s moisture content. Utah’s average flakes weigh in at about 8.5% in moisture content. This magical number provides the right amount of body to support the weight of a powder hound yet it’s light enough for the boards to plane or plow directly through the fresh snowfall.
As mentioned above, the steep and mighty Wasatch range rears some 6,000 feet above the valley floor. The relief created by the winding canyons also protects our slopes from strong winds that could negatively impact the distribution and quality of fresh snowfall. The steepness of the Wasatch also shelters many slopes from the sun’s radiation and it does not form a crust as often as other areas.
The topography also creates favorable powder conditions, thanks to orographic flow. As the weather front slams into the Wasatch, having traversed the Great Basin, there is a rapid cooling effect as wind thrusts the weather system rapidly up and over the mountain slopes. This moisture-laden air dumps its load as it rapidly rises.
The flakes are just different around these parts. Denser flakes (with higher water content) fall through the sky faster. Flakes with a lower water content fall to the earth at a slower rate, allowing the arms (dendrites) to accumulate longer arms and more complex shapes. The more area a snowflake occupies, the less densely compacted the resulting blanket of snow will be. The best powder skiing in Utah occurs after storms with the least amount of wind.
RIGHT SIDE UP
Snowstorms in Utah arrive in a pattern that produces world-class powder skiing conditions. When a storm appears, it is often warmer in temperature, creating a denser layer atop the old snow surface. As the storm continues to rage, the temperatures typically drop resulting in lighter density snow burying the heavier density snow coating the old snow surface. This phenomenon is called “right-side up” by snow science professionals and it basically means LEGENDARY powder skiing conditions. It's also a better situation for snow stability and avalanche danger if the storms proceed from warmer to colder temperatures versus the other way around which produces 'upside down' storms.
Though it only accounts for about 5% of the average annual snowfall total, Utah’s Lake Effect phenomena in the Cottonwood Canyons cannot be ignored. Because the Great Salt Lake is so saline, it never freezes so the surface of the lake’s water is relatively warm. When the difference in temperature between the cold air above the lake and the warm water surface is great enough, the energy differential between the two supercharges storm fronts. In extreme cases, this can actually generate graupel snow with lightning and thunder. I like to call this ‘THUNDER POW’ and it’s actually my very favorite type of Utah skiing! Lake Effect storms can add a number of inches to the snowfall total and it's a welcome addition that will add to the quality and quantity of face shots.
Breaking Down the Greatest Snow on Earth - Click Here
The Best Books About Skiing & Snowboarding - Click Here
History of Avalanche Forecasting & Mitigation in Utah - Click Here
Last Chair Podcast Episode 7 - Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth - Click Here
Deseret News. (1999, Mar 17) Greatest snow on earth survives lawsuit by circus. Deseret News. Retrieved here.
Justia US Law. (February 27, 1997). Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey v. Utah Div. of Travel Development, 955 F. Supp. 605 (E.D. Va. 1997). Retrieved here.
M. Korologos & J. Steenburgh (personal communication, June 20, 2013) discussed the origin of the phrase “Greatest Snow on Earth”.