It's written on state license plates: Greatest Snow On Earth. But, come on: Can Utah really make that kind of claim?
It may be light, deep, fluffy, chokingly smile-worthy but having "the best" snow in the world is subjective. If size matters, Ski Utah compared Alta's long-term snow depth average with other popular Western resorts and found that Alta averaged 547 inches of annual snowfall. Colorado resorts ranged from 350 inches of annual snow at A-Basin to 231 at Winter Park. Squaw Valley, Calif., averaged 450. Mt. Baker, Wash., however, has the highest average at around 647. So, Utah loses, no?
Utahns can't even claim to get the most short-term snowfall. That honor goes to the Niseko ski resorts on Hokkaido Island in Japan. The two-month winter monsoon season that pummels the area from December to January with "sea-effect" snow from the Sea of Japan.
Perhaps density makes the difference. A typical Wasatch storm develops off the Pacific Ocean. When it hits the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the snow that falls contains about 10 percent to 12 percent moisture density. When it hits Utah, it's crossed the Great Basin with an average snow density of 8.5 percent. In Colorado, the density drops to about 6 percent. Unfortunately for Utahns, the driest powder isn't in the Wasatch or Colorado but in New Mexico. The storms cross California and the Sonoran Desert so there's no moisture left when it falls.
"We don't have the most or the driest but a unique blend of consistency and abundance that we think creates the greatest snow on Earth," said Ski Utah's Jessica Kunzer in the Salt Lake Tribune .
"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," said Ed LaChappelle in 1962. The American avalanche researcher, glaciologist, mountaineer, skier, author, and professor worked as a snow ranger for the Forest Service in Alta, Utah, in the '50s before moving to Washington.
It's also the Lake Effect. Storms move in warm and wet from the west and north, recirculate and (often) suck up moisture from the Great Salt Lake, then beeline for the frigid jagged peaks of Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude, ringing out several feet of fluffy flakes to create that bottomless sensation. You get high density snow underneath low density powder so your skis float rather than bog in conditions like that infamous Sierra Cement.
Former chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Salt Lake City office also used to credit Utah's particular snowflakes for the state's claim. The Trib quoted him as saying, "The secret of Utah's unique and wonderful powder is the structure of the individual snow crystals. Under cold, relatively dry conditions, light crystal-type snowflakes called dendrites are produced. These snowflakes are thin and symmetrical in shape, and they float down through the cold atmosphere, accumulating like fluffy down or powder on Utah mountains." Dendrites. Hmmm.
What makes Utah skiers deservedly brag about the conditions, therefore, must be the whole package. The body. The combination of quantity and quality of snow, the infrequency of wind to pack it down or blow it away and the consistency with which it falls. Stay a week in the Cottonwoods any time from mid-February to the end of April and you're guaranteed an epic powder day. Check it out for yourself this season.