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La Nina: Where to ski this winter, and why

Image: Keith Benefiel
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. Angus M. Thuermer Jr. / AP
/ Source: Skiing Magazine

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.

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.

Take a visual tour of some of the most popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America — and beyond.

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.

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.

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.