Skiing Through Change

Navigating uncharted territories through shifting environments
By Anneka Williams and Jack Stauss

Skiers slalom past patches of dry ground at Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort, March 21, 2015 in Olympic Valley, California.

Photo by Max Whittaker, The New York Times, @maxwhittaker

This write-up was originally featured in our Fall 2023 Trail Break issue.

This past winter, Utah’s Wasatch range open into August. As Utah-based climate was buried under a historic height of snow. Our home mountains became terra incognita as storms swallowed forests, erased terrain features, and eliminated familiar landmarks. Couloirs that were normally un-skiable filled in completely, and gave us access to enticing new objectives.

On an early morning in April, we headed to the mountains hoping to discover some of these new, previously untracked lines. Our headlamps cast bubbles of light on freshly fallen powder as we chopped kick turns through thigh-deep drifts, climbing up a steep forested slope to a ridge, racing the sun.

We skied two runs on an east face as the morning light went from a deep golden glow to the warm blue of daylight. The early spring snow pulled at our skis, getting heavier and damper as it warmed. We shifted aspects, orienting west. Limestone cliffs created steep, craggy fingers that, in most winters, look like ice or mixed climbing routes at best. Definitely not skiable. But, thanks to storm after storm creating a massive base this year, the fingers were filled-in chutes that seemed to go clean. We scouted the lines and then, one at a time, dropped into the unknown.

When the winter finally lifted, Alta Ski Area measured just over 900 inches (75 feet) for the season. And, in the backcountry, we were consistently skiing on a 25-foot base. Utah wasn’t the only place pummeled by unusually high precipitation during the 2023 season. Mountains across Arizona recorded double their seasonal averages, while intense flows of moisture blanketed California’s Sierra Range, providing enough of a base for Palisades Tahoe to remain open into July and Mammoth Mountain to remain scientists and environmental advocates, we spend our professional lives thinking about the past, present, and future of our ecosystems–both watching and anticipating changes and advocating for climate solutions. We also spend a lot of our time ski touring. This past winter, our professional lives converged with our passions, and we got to live some of those changes in a big way while exploring our home mountains.

Contrary to what the concept of warming temperatures might suggest, climate change can actually play a role in driving more extremely wet storms, and, in mountainous regions, this can equate to above average snowfall. According to NOAA, “The frequency of extreme snowstorms in the eastern two-thirds of the contiguous United States has increased over the past century,” and the latter half of the 20th Century saw twice as many extreme snow storms in the U.S. than the first half of the century. 1 Even as extreme storms are becoming more frequent, however, average snowpack in the American West has declined by almost 20% since 1955.2 So, while, for now, big winters may actually be a hallmark of climate change, our snowpack is still diminishing.

Warmer temperatures across the globe drive higher rates of evaporation into the atmosphere. More moisture in the atmosphere then creates a greater potential for bigger precipitation events. This leads to more extreme storms in the winter in places where temperature is cold enough for moisture to fall as snow and heavier rain events in warmer climes.3 In areas closer to the coast, warming ocean surface temperatures can also drive the flow of moisture onto land and intensify storms.4

Anneka flies down Cardiff Fork Creek during last winter’s deep season in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest

Photo by Adam Clark @acpictures

As far as temperatures cold enough to drop snow, it’s important to understand the shift in weather patterns around the poles. Warming temperatures are disrupting patterns such as the polar vortex and bringing colder weather from the Arctic down to mid-latitudes. This diverts cold air from the Arctic, leading to warmer than average temperatures in the north and colder temperatures in the mid-latitudes.5

While it’s still hard to say for sure if it was climate change that added this increase in moisture to Utah’s atmosphere last season, it’s not hard to say that almost everywhere, we are experiencing extreme and unusual weather more frequently.

Heat waves are torching the United States from coast to coast, our home state of Vermont is working to build back from significant flood damage, and ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida are rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sunset above the Athabasca river with smoke caused by the 2023 wildfires in Jasper, Canada.

Photo by Martin Capek, Adobe Stock

An orchard of dying trees in Clovis, California during the 2011-2017 California Drought.
Photo by Max Whittaker, The New York Times, @maxwhittaker

Through all of this, it’s important to remember that weather and climate are not one and the same. Weather refers to the atmospheric conditions a region experiences in the short term while climate refers to prevailing weather conditions (i.e. the average) over longer periods of time. Holding an understanding of both is valuable for backcountry skiers as we navigate a rapidly-changing world with dramatic extremes in each season. Sure, climate change may fuel deeper winters in certain places in the near future. But this isn’t guaranteed year to year. Just a year before our unprecedented Utah winter, we had a season that saw weeks with no precipitation at all. In either case, we have to be ready for the mountains to look different than they did in decades prior.

Ski touring requires an intimate connection to the landscapes around you. From reading snowpack to paying attention to daily, weekly, and monthly weather patterns, to making field observations, it is an activity that invites you into sync with the landscapes around you. All of this offers an important perspective in relating to the broader ecosystems of which we are a part, challenging us to be as present as possible each day while still considering the past and future of place.

The long-term climate prognosis for winter does not bode well for skiing in classic American locations. As temperatures continue to warm, there will be even more moisture in the atmosphere but there’s a good chance it won’t fall as the record- breaking storms we saw in 2023. Rather, we should expect storms to trend warmer– with wet, heavy snow, making the powder we all love a more elusive phenomenon. Furthermore, the snowline will likely migrate to higher elevations. In Tahoe, for example, it’s expected that, by 2100, precipitation will be more likely to fall as rain than snow up to 9000 feet.6 And, here in Utah, research suggests that, by 2075, the snowline in Park City will have migrated 1300 feet higher than it is today, making snow unlikely at elevations below 8,500 feet, well above the base of the ski areas.7

Buried in Mammoth Mountain, California, 2022-23. While deep snow is often celebrated by skiers of all kinds, last season’s extreme weather reminds us that climate change impacts our ride through all kinds of seasons.

Photo by Peter Morning @petermorning

Coming off of our cold and snowy Utah winter, we’re now witnessing extremes at the opposite end of the spectrum. As we write this, heat waves are torching the United States from coast to coast, our home state of Vermont is working to build back from significant flood damage, and ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida are rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires have already decimated 27 million acres of Canadian forest, the largest in the country’s history, with smoke choking much of the Eastern Seaboard. It’s hard to know how to face these present challenges and scary to think about what the future may hold. Backcountry skiing may help us learn how to do this.

The untracked couloir we found on that early April morning took us through white spires of rock and old growth conifers before spitting us out into an apron that dropped us into Cardiff Fork Creek. Pillows of snow guarded the river, some towering more than 20 feet over our heads. As we craned our necks to look up at the line we’d just skied, we shook our heads in awe, unable to believe how the snow had transformed a familiar area. But what will it look like next winter? In ten years? In twenty years?

ANNEKA WILLIAMS is a climate scientist, writer, and backcountry skier. Her research explores how climate change is impacting high-latitude and high-altitude ecosystems and communities.

JACK STAUSS is a skier and writer who works with the non-profit Glen Canyon Institute in Utah, focusing on public lands and environmental protection.