Breaking Down The Greatest Snow on Earth®

By Tele Tony Sep 14, 2020
Breaking down the incredible, additive and unparalleled phenomenon that is The Greatest Snow on Earth®
Breaking Down The Greatest Snow on Earth®

Settle in at the end of the day at any après ski watering hole at or nearby one of Utah’s 15 mountain resorts, and before long, you’ll hear it: the siren-song tales of sublimely deep and light snow; a snow so addictive that, year after year, hundreds of discarded college diplomas and temporary visits turned decades-long odysseys are left in its wake. The non-believers scoff dismissively. “A myth,” they’ll say. The funny thing about these countless narratives of the fabled Greatest Snow on Earth®? Every word is true. Time to dive in and see for yourself. 

The Process

Utah’s lionized snow isn’t a singular essence. It’s not all the martini-dry, 4 percent-water crystalline dendrites, widely considered the holy grail of skiing. What makes Utah snow the perfect three-dimensional medium for sliding is a balanced alchemy bringing the right amount of snow at the right time at perfect temperatures. This uniquely Utah occurrence is known as the Goldilocks Effect.

First and foremost, Utah storms are typically right-side up. What this means is that warmer, heavier snow falls first and is followed by colder, lighter snow. Think of new snow like a layer cake with the lightest, least-dense layers on top, which provides the perfect amount of flotation for a bottomless feel and endless face shots.

Second is the quantity of snow that Utah storms deliver. Dust on crust is a rare occurrence here. Alta Ski Area, for example, averages 18 storms of more than 10 inches each season. Regular, ample snowfall delivers the best skiing and riding conditions as opposed to boom and bust storm cycles that leave you scraping bottom or wallowing up to your waist.

Finally, snow falls consistently and frequently enough in Utah you can almost set your clock to it. Little Cottonwood Canyon averages one foot of snow every five days during the peak winter season. Long periods of high pressure and hardpack are the exception, not the rule. 


Numbers Matter

Utah’s Goldilocks Effect is bolstered by heaps of snowfall each season that most other resorts don’t come close to touching. Alta averages a cool 545’’ of snow each winter. During the 2018–19 ski season, the Little Cottonwood resort recorded a whopping 626’’ inches of glorious Wasatch pow, including more than 100’’ each month during January, February and March. And that wasn’t even Utah’s biggest year in the past decade.

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How do the others stack up? Aspen Snowmass gets about 295’’ per year. Breckenridge sees 282’’. Jackson Hole and Steamboat? They’re a little closer, but at 368’’ annually they still fall short. Each of these are world-class ski destinations in their own right, but they can’t compare to Utah magic.

In Their Own Words

The Greatest Snow on Earth® has led skiing professionals from across the globe to call Utah home. Here’s why they think Utah stands out from the rest. 

“My lifestyle allows me to live and work anywhere in the world, and I don’t have any family or historical ties that connect me to Utah. Yet after traveling and skiing in so many locations, I’m still choosing to live here. With the access and ease of skiing powder, it just doesn’t get any better.” —Brody Leven, professional adventure skier and environmental activist 

“Once you’ve skied a perfect powder day in Little Cottonwood or Big Cottonwood Canyon, it’s really hard to imagine doing anything else. It’s the best skiing in the world, and the snow’s consistently great.” —Caroline Gleich, professional ski mountaineer, environmental advocate and the first woman to complete all 90 lines in The Chuting Gallery 

“Everything starts with typically warm, dry fall weather. Then we get consistent snowfall that builds a deep snowpack throughout the winter. And our individual storms come in warmer, giving good body to the new snow and finish cooler where we get light, dry snow. A lot of places get one or the other, Utah gets a little bit of both. All of that combines to give Utah a unique, incredible snow profile.” —Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center

“I chose to start a guide company in Utah because of the quality of the snow. I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot, and I realized there’s no better place to find powder for your clients. People booking a trip are searching for quality, right-side up powder, and Utah simply has the best probability for finding good snow. As a guide you want to give your clients memorable days, and Utah is the highest-quality hedge for a great ski trip.” —Shaun Deutschlander, owner of and professional backcountry ski guide with Inspired Summit Adventures 


Terms of Endearment 

It’s a debunked myth that there are 100 Inuit words for snow, but Utah powderhounds have at least that many descriptors for different snow types and the act of skiing it. Here’s a selection of terms to familiarize yourself with so you’ll be up-to-date for your next chairlift conversation.

Powder – noun, see also: pow. Soft, fresh, fluffy, possibly deep, untouched snow from a recent storm that is ideal for mining “face shots” and visiting the “white room” (see below).
Blower — noun, see also: cold smoke. A particularly cold, low-density variant of “powder”, or “pow,” that tends to explode into fine sparkling veneer during a turn. 
Bottomless – adjective, see also: double overhead, needing a snorkel. A descriptor of snow that is so deep and supportive as to seem truly without bottom no matter how hard one turns or how large one hucks into it. Bottomless depths are such that one may feel they “need a snorkel” to properly breathe while getting “pitted” (see below).
Pitted – verb, see also: barreled. A pilfered surfing term used to describe feeling at the deepest apex of a powder turn when the snow that feels to be “double overhead” or “bottomless” in depth billows over your shoulder.   
Corn – noun, see also: mashed potatoes, slush. Spring snow which has refrozen during that night that is just beginning to thaw into a soft, smooth, fast, supportive surface. Corn’s adherents alternatively describe it as the “next best thing to pow” or “better than perfectly-groomed corduroy.” Mashed potatoes and slush are what corn becomes once it’s started to go rotten in the warm sun.
No Friends on a Pow Day – ancient proverb, see also: you snooze, you lose. An axiom used by people to justify abandoning their slower or tardier friends on “pow” days. Not a good excuse for lacking personal skills, however, as even “cold smoke” is best enjoyed with others. We highly recommend wrangling down at least one friend to stick with for the day (who's going to get all of those Instagram shots of you pitted in that blower?!).
Graupel – noun, see also: soft hail, dippin’ dot snow pellets. Round pellets of snow formed when supercooled water droplets freeze on falling snowflakes. Graupel resembles tiny Styrofoam balls when it falls. Despite occasionally stinging the face during descent, graupel skis a lot like supportable “pow.” 
Face Shot – noun, see also: white room. When “pow” blasts a skier or snowboarder in the face during a turn. This is the ideal end result of any and all turns. An extended face shot is considered a visit to the “white room,” where even freezing cheeks and temporarily obscured vision can’t dampen the ecstasy. 


Keeping you Safe

Ever wondered why it sometimes takes a few minutes longer than expected before the resorts start loading the chairlifts on a powder day? That’s just the mountain operations staff trying to keep everyone safe. “When new snow falls—and we get a lot of it in Utah—we need to test the slopes for instability with our skis and explosives. We mitigate that hazard and knock down unstable snow before the public gets there,” says Snowbird Snow Safety Supervisor Chris Brehmer. “We’ll have 35 patrollers or more controlling more than 20 areas of the mountain, so please bear with us. We’re working as quickly as we can to safely get terrain open so you can ski powder.” For a peek into a patrol route at Solitude Mountain Resort, watch this video.

Translation? Grab a breakfast burrito and wait patiently at that lift line. When the lift opens, high five a patroller and head up to ski those beautiful inbound, powder-filled lines while the professionals take care of the rest.