Image: Keith Benefiel
Angus M. Thuermer Jr.  /  AP
In the mountains above Jackson Hole,Wyo.,skier Keith Benefiel skis through fresh powder snow on Dec. 23, 2010. Jackson Hole is one of several ski areas expected to benefit from La Nina this winter.
updated 1/11/2011 9:52:53 AM ET 2011-01-11T14:52:53

La Nina, El Nino, ENSO — as skiers we hear these terms all the time. As much as you may or may not be paying attention to what they mean, the children of the Pacific can have a dramatic influence on the winter season, from Tahoe to Alaska. So, if you missed meteorology in college, or haven’t followed current events in over a decade, read on for a description of the predicted La Nina event. Then, start planning trips.

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The Northwestern United States, up into British Columbia and Alaska tends to see colder temperatures and a wetter climate during La Nina patterns, while the Southwest can expect warmer, drier weather. Seattle’s University of Washington Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Cliff Mass, backs up the assumed facts: “Yes, more snow, particularly in the mountains; A good year to risk a season pass at a local ski area.” And by local, he means Northwest. Here is where it’s going to be deep.

Slideshow: Hit the lifts (on this page)

Whistler Blackcomb is home to skiers like Mike Douglas and Kye Peterson for a few reasons. Plenty of snow is just one. With an average of 404 inches per year and over 8,000 acres of skiing, this northwest destination is a gem on any given year. Unlike other ski areas in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, Whistler Blackcomb accumulates the white stuff even on El Nino years, as the elevation of the base is higher than most, but La Nina patterns are especially beneficial for snowfall. “La Nina accounts for the highest snowfall ever in a single season, 667 inches, during the 1998-1999 event,” says Whistler representative Stephen Butt. And during every La Nina season, since recording began, annual snowfall is at least 10 percent more than the average. So, regardless of whether it’s only 10 percent more or a record-breaking year, Whistler Blackcomb should deliver this year.

Crystal Mountain
Crystal Mountain is Seattle’s closest ski area. Less than two hours from Washington’s coffee city, Crystal receives an average of 367 inches per year. Not surprisingly, the mountain’s latest closing day was on July 14, 1999, after the northwest’s last major La Nina episode. In accordance with University of Washington’s Professor Cliff Mass’ suggestions, the Seattle mayor should be preparing for the snowfall in and around the major city, “It turns out that there is a greater probability of lowland snow west of the Cascades during La Nina years,” Mass says. If it is snowing in Seattle, powder days at Crystal should be abundant.

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Alyeska is no stranger to superiority. Over the past 31 years, the top of the mountain has averaged 643 inches per season. Pro skiers Elyse Saugstad and Cody Barnhill grew up skiing in this winter wonderland. And, if you show up in April, typically Alaska’s best month for skiing, you get 16 hours of daylight to complete all your touring adventures. Even with La Nina’s absence, Alyeska is a “must-ski” with Turnagain Pass nearby and Chugach Powder Guides available to heli lift you to your dream peaks. But La Nina brings the conveyor belt of storms to the northern location, so pack your Sorels and powder boards and head to the last frontier.

North Cascades Heli
North Cascades Heli, located in Mazama, Washington, is on the “dry” side of the Cascades. Operating from January 14 to March 20 this year, visitors won’t have to worry about the usual consequences of the rain shadow. Offering yurt trips, heli assist ski touring programs, and full days of skiing with the bird, NCH is the only helicopter operation in the North Cascades. AMGA certified and NCH guide Anne Keller remembers her first La Nina year in Mazama: “I first arrived on the tails of a strong winter La Nina of 1995-1996. It was spring, maybe April. The berms from plowing told the tale of the winter. My friend Kim Corette is a tall gal and I have a photo of her in front of my new property with her arm raised high, huge smile on her face, the snow berm behind her dwarfing her by three to four feet. This was my introduction to the winter snow in the North Cascades and it was the aftermath of a big La Nina year.” Book a heli trip in December when La Nina is expected to be at its strongest potential—an easy, affordable Christmas gift.

Little Cottonwood Canyon
Little Cottonwood Canyon is known for insane amounts of snowfall during any given year. Alta and Snowbird average 500 inches per year. Even during the “bad” years it’s good. If you can’t make it to British Columbia or the Pacific Northwest this winter, Utah should be your next choice. Jared Ishkanian of Snowbird trusts the Utah snow machine’s consistency: “Typically, La Nina means more precipitation and higher snowfall for northern Utah, so that's encouraging, especially coming off of three straight years of over 600 inches."

Mount Baker
Mt Baker holds the world snowfall record at 1,140 inches, all of which fell during the 1998-1999 La Nina season. With a low base elevation, the small ski area often sees rain, but La Nina years bring the cold temperatures necessary to turn the moisture into snow. World record snowfall. Enough said.

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Jackson Hole
Jackson Hole is also in for a big winter. The resort averages 459 inches of snow, and this winter,'s meteorologist Henry Margusity, says they could see upward of 200 percent of average snowfall. Do the math. That's a lot of snow.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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