Snow and cold blew into the Rockies a month ago and have been squatting ever since, making the start to this ski season the strongest in years. The Northeast, too, has logged good amounts of snow during the early season, setting New England up for a long ski winter.
The entire spine of the continental divide, from Colorado up through Canada, has seen multiple winter storms pack slopes with enough snow that many resorts, including Breckenridge and Keystone, opened early. Full ski resort openings by Christmas, for which most resorts had anemic amounts of terrain open last year, are within sight.
This season’s holiday ski trips will be far more enjoyable on the slopes out West compared with last year. Skiers looking for good snow in the West can hardly go wrong, as storms have been strong across central Colorado, Utah, California and Wyoming.
Colorado is led by Breckenridge, Vail and Steamboat. Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, part of its back bowl terrain, opened during the first week of December – the earliest opening since 2002. Vail has netted 90 inches of snow since the season began. Breckenridge has been buried in 118 inches of snow since the start of the season, cloaking its alpine reaches in white.
In Wyoming, Jackson Hole has collected 114 inches of snow and already has stretches of steep upper terrain open. Snowbird and Alta, on the Salt Lake side of the Wasatch in Utah, have come alive after a slower start compared with other states, with 110 inches of snow having fallen in just a few weeks.
Those who have been weighing purchases of the Ikon or Epic pass can feel good about the prospects for both this early season. The Ikon Pass has Colorado covered, as big snow totals have draped the trees at Steamboat, Winter Park and Snowmass.
Similarly, Vail, Breckenridge, Beaver Creek and Keystone have all racked up gaudy snow totals for holders of the Epic Pass. And in southwest Colorado, Telluride, to which full Epic Pass holders now have access, had a banner end to November, receiving 20 inches of snow in four days.
"Storms during November and early December dropped significant snow on many western ski areas, and now most mountains in California, Utah and Colorado are more than 50 percent open, which is unusual for the first week of December,” says Joel Gratz, the founding meteorologist at OpenSnow, which makes snowfall forecasts for most ski hills across the continent.
Gratz says the snowpack in central and northern Colorado is 30 to 50 percent above average, Utah's snowpack is about 20 percent above average, and northern California's readings are 50 to 100 percent above average.
While California had been in the midst of a well-publicized drought, it recently received a storm that dropped 3 feet across much of the Sierra, priming the slopes at Squaw Valley, Northstar and Mammoth for a big December.
In Canada, Whistler Blackcomb has continued its string of strong early seasons, with lots of terrain already open and more snow in the forecast. The Canadian Rockies have welcomed a hearty start to winter as well, with a World Cup race at Lake Louise.
Nearly as important as the snow across much of the West have been the temperatures: steadily cold for nearly a month across Colorado. This preserves the snow that has fallen, and allows resort snow-making operations to blow as much as is required to build up high-traffic areas that could use an extra layer for April skiing.
In the east, Vermont has had a snappy start to the winter, with Stowe catching more than 60 inches of snow before November ended, opening up pieces of the mountain that wait until January in some seasons.
With the full onset of winter so early, ski resorts will likely be busier at the holidays than they have been in years.
Further driving numbers to the slopes: More people likely hold multi-resort ski passes for this winter than any previous season, thanks to the season pass battle playing out between Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Co. Every marquee destination ski resort across North America is covered in some fashion by either Vail’s Epic Pass or Alterra’s Ikon Pass, creating market conditions the industry hasn’t seen before.
With that in mind, skiers should hasten to lock down lodging and travel for a holiday ski season in which conditions are shaping up to be excellent.
Christopher Steiner is a New York Times bestselling author and the founder of ZRankings, a ski booking site that makes recommendations based on historical snowfall and mountain data.