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The past, present and future of Sun Valley's snow.

by Greg Stahl
photos by F. Alfredo Rego

Every fall for 45 years, Rich Bingham has looked to the skies over Sun Valley in anticipation. As days grow short and trees turn gold, his excitement mounts.

There's a palpable and understated inevitability to the arrival of winter in the mountains. The cycle of the seasons dictates life here, and no single season is as synonymous with Sun Valley as winter. Snowflakes have been changing lives in Sun Valley since the resort was founded 76 years ago. "I started getting excited a month ago," Bingham said in early October. "I've been doing it so long I've learned to be patient, but I'm definitely thinking about another winter on Baldy."

Bingham has worked on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol since fall 1967. As snow safety department director, his responsibilities include weather and avalanche forecasting, and avalanche control on Bald Mountain, so he's always got an eye trained on the sky. He's learned not to get uptight about Mother Nature's fickle sensibilities. Sometimes it snows, sometimes it doesn't. But when the jet stream drops out of Canada and begins pumping swirling masses of Pacific-born moisture into the Rocky Mountains, his demeanor changes as he prepares for another winter on what he describes as "a special mountain."

Plentiful snow equals excellent skiing and snowboarding, but it also means improved spring runoff, and green, healthy forests in the summer. And each falling snowflake translates directly into improved financial vitality for the communities nestled at Bald Mountain's base.

From its celebrated founding to present day, Sun Valley Resort has been dependent on snowy winter seasons. In a world in which climate patterns are increasingly erratic—exemplified by super storms like October's Hurricane Sandy, heightened Western wildfire seasons and the historic April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes in the Southeast—most climate scientists agree that change is afoot. What it means for weather-dependent communities and resorts, however, is a plot yet to be completely written. "Long-term trends are kind of all over the place," Bingham said. "With the influences changing so much, with the arctic oscillation and sea ice and temperatures—the weather is less predictable, with stronger and more erratic storms when they do happen."

The past
Sun Valley snow culture dates to 1936 when the Union Pacific Railroad under direction from Averell Harriman opened the Sun Valley Lodge. It was the nation's first destination ski resort, it is where the chairlift was invented, and it is the place that shaped the visions of men and women who went on to found other major ski resorts in the western United States.

Like most ski destinations, Sun Valley and the surrounding community have transitioned into a four-season resort area, but its roots run deep in the white drifts that inspired the birth of destination skiing in North America.

Yet, as Bingham points out, snow doesn't always arrive on cue. For the grand opening of the Sun Valley Lodge in December 1936 every detail had been perfected, celebrities were present and everything was in place—except for snow.

The few inches that fell that early winter were melted by a warm rain. Opening day, December 21, dawned on dusty ski runs and acres of brown sagebrush. Guests who had traveled from the far corners of the continent to experience the magic of a white Christmas at the nation's first luxury ski resort were confused. They began calling the operation the Ketchum Con. Recognizing even then how important snow was to Sun Valley's success, Harriman promptly declared that guests stayed free until the skies cooperated. On December 27, five inches finally fell. And another major storm hit on New Year's Eve. Sun Valley skiing was born—if a few days later than planned.

Many long-time residents still recall the winter of 1976-77 when it hardly snowed at all—arguably the worst winter on the books. Locals sported bumper stickers proclaiming: "I skied Squirrel and survived"—a testament to having navigated the thin, icy cover on one of Bald Mountain's signature intermediate ski runs. "I don't think it ever snowed that year," recalled Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters owner Rob Santa, who at the time was visiting Sun Valley from his home in Minnesota. But that dismal winter ski season (a mere ten inches of snow on New Year's Day was all the mountain received) wasn't enough to deter Santa, who said that even during such a lean snow year Sun Valley had something special to offer. "I'd skied all over Colorado and Utah," he said. "The first time I came to Ketchum I thought, 'Wow, what a cool town.'" Three years after the devastating winter of 1976-77, Santa moved. He's been in Sun Valley ever since.

Stories of lean snow years come and go with the seasons, but on a cold January evening it's more common to overhear beer-influenced conversations about epic powder stashes and the next low pressure system on its way to dig into the stony spines of the Intermountain West. Most winters at least a handful of truly huge storms bury the area with feet of snow at a time. Most winters, Sun Valley is blessed with 200 or more inches atop picturesque Bald Mountain—widely revered as one of the finest ski mountains in the world.

The present
That 200-inch average doesn't total as much as other big Western ski resorts; most in Colorado receive more than 300 inches each year. Resorts like Alta and Snowbird in Big Cottonwood Canyon in Utah are buried beneath an average of 500 inches every season.

But what Sun Valley doesn't have in natural snowfall, it makes up for with a mountain that's tailor-made by Mother Nature for skiing. It has unparalleled consistent pitches, some of the best grooming on the planet, the world's largest automated snowmaking system and eight high-speed lifts that whisk skiers up the mountain for lap after thigh-burning lap. "It's amazing how in Colorado, Utah or anywhere I go, it's steep pitch followed by flat pitch and catwalks crisscrossing the mountain everywhere," Santa said. "Baldy is a great mountain that demands a certain developed technique. It's a mountain that makes great skiers, and makes great skiers greater." Bingham said it, too: "Our snowpack might not pile up like it does at Alta or Jackson Hole. They're in different climate areas. But it's not fair to compare us to them, or them to us. I may be a little biased, but top to bottom on Baldy—it just keeps coming at you with no real flat spots. We've got a sustained fall line that just goes and goes. That's what really makes us shine."
But a great mountain without snow can't do much for skiers and a skier-dependent economy. What Averell Harriman knew during Sun Valley's 1936 grand opening when he gave guests free rooms is something that all local business owners know or will learn: There's an intrinsic connection between snow and business in Sun Valley. "The economy and the weather are joined at the hip in every respect," said Santa, who bought Sturtevants in the winter of 1982-83. "Last year was a great example. We had great snow on the mountain with man-made snow, but there was an air of resignation when it didn't snow until the third weekend of January. That affects not only retail. It's restaurants and lodging and transportation. Everything. When the weather isn't on our side, the entire community suffers."

When the weather isn't on Sun Valley's side, the community collectively thanks the foresight of resort owner Earl Holding, who bought the place following the dismal winter of 1976-77. He recognized the need immediately and invested in a snowmaking system that has become the envy of the skiing world.

Holding and his wife, Carol, didn't ski before buying the resort, but they soon found themselves on Bald Mountain with a ski instructor during that difficult winter. The modest snowmaking on Lower Warm Springs and Flying Squirrel runs produced conditions more fit for ice skates than skis. "Neither one of us knew what we were doing, but it wasn't snow, and when we came back to the condo after that first day, Carol was black and blue from falling," Holding recalled in a Ski magazine interview published September 25, 2000. "I think (about) that first day or two and I saw the lack of any business and the frustration of people working here. I thought I should start with the snowmaking because it's very difficult to run a business that is so weather dependent."

Holding experimented with snowmaking equipment and combinations of air, water and temperatures in an attempt to produce man-made snow that was more powder and less ice. Since those early years of experimentation and investment, he has spent more than $23 million on artificial snowmaking. The resulting system is staggering and covers more than 650 acres of Bald and Dollar mountains with more than 30 miles of underground piping, 87 miles of underground wires and more than 650 snow guns. Snow guns can blanket 70 to 100 acres of terrain overnight.

Jack Sibbach, spokesman for Sun Valley Resort, said the system makes a big difference for the whole community. "Snow matters, and last year proved it," he said. Sun Valley's skier days last winter were down 5.7 percent. Meanwhile, the industry-wide figure across North America was down 16 percent, and some areas were down a lot more. "I think we have Mr. Holding to really thank for the investment in Baldy and how it's helped the economy here," Sibbach said. "Last year we'd have had a lot less (of the mountain) open for Christmas than we did have, and not even half the business we did if it wasn't for snowmaking."

While snowmaking technology has come a long way, and Sun Valley's system is a welcomed lifeline during lean snow years, natural snowfall is still the sought-after prize. When it snows big on Bald Mountain, tree skiing and the area's south-facing slopes become skiable. "In a year when we get a good snowpack and you can ski everywhere on Baldy, it gets really large with all the exposures that open up," Bingham said. "It triples in size when we have a good year."

The future
In early January 2005, a moisture-laden low pressure system chugged toward the Pacific coast of California while a strong burst of Arctic air nudged its way south into Idaho—the precise recipe for a strong Sun Valley storm. The National Weather Service issued warnings that a once-in-a-generation event was brewing. Skiers watched the graying skies in anticipation. The Sun Valley Ski Patrol prepared its avalanche control routine. State and city road crews braced for grueling all-nighters clearing the streets and highways.

As the storm settled over central Idaho on Friday, January 7, it dropped between two and four inches per hour on the mountains and valleys around Sun Valley. When the skies finally cleared the following Monday, 38 inches of snow had buried Bald Mountain beneath a heavy drape of white. "It was a long time since we'd seen that," Bingham said. "A two-foot storm overnight is few and far between." Predicting such a storm and the effects it will have is a combination of science and art—and it's becoming more difficult now than ever.

Sun Valley's history of reliable winter storms—even in a drought year—foretells of good snow seasons yet to come. But such a simple statement fails to account for increasing variability in Idaho's weather. The 1990s were generally considered good snow years in central Idaho, but the 2000s ushered in a period of drought. And seasonal variability can be extreme. Last season was warm and fairly dry. Two seasons ago, storm after storm slammed into the Intermountain West, and skiers willing to hike for their turns enjoyed fresh powder long after Sun Valley's lifts closed in April.

Ron Abramovich is a water supply specialist with the National Resources Conservation Service, and he's been forecasting stream flows in Idaho for the past 21 years. Because nearly all of Idaho's rivers originate as melting snow, he has an intimate understanding of weather cycles and patterns of winter snow accumulation. There's little question, he said, that Idaho is experiencing a greater degree of climate variability than it did in the past. "Even though we have more data now, it's more difficult to predict stream flows," he said. "We're also seeing increases in spring precipitation recently, which translates into more variability. You can't always count on a normal snowpack and normal spring precipitation."

It's tricky to explain or predict how increased variability relates to snowfall and resulting snowpacks. Some analyses show that more of Idaho's winter moisture is coming in larger snow events. "So rather than getting most of your snowfall through steady storms throughout the season, fewer storms are accounting for a larger percentage of the annual precipitation," Abramovich said. "So that's good for powder skiers, but it's not good for avalanche conditions. You have different winners and losers."

Some data indicate that Idaho's crop-growing season is increasing by 1.3 days per decade, meaning the ski season is shrinking by the same amount. "Summers are getting longer," said Abramovich, "and the winters are getting shorter." But such data are based on averages; year-to-year things are increasingly variable. Abramovich won't use the words "global warming" or "climate change." However, other climate scientists identify those as the concepts underlying "increased variability."

Whether global warming is occurring is still a matter of strong political debate. In a report released October 15, 2012, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported that 67 percent of Americans agree there is solid evidence for global warming. Response is extremely partisan, however, with 85 percent of Democrats but only 48 percent of Republicans saying there is strong evidence.
Meanwhile, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center based in Boulder, Colorado, arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest extent in the satellite record in September 2012. "We are now in uncharted territory," said Data Center Director Mark Serreze. "While we've long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur."

Don Reading is a Boise economist who works for a think tank called Ben Johnson Associates. In the past several years, in cooperation with the University of Washington, he's undertaken a study of Idaho ski areas related to climate change. "Climate change tends to do two things," he said. "It pushes the [start of the] ski season later, and you get a quicker runoff. You might get as much snow, but you don't get it like you're used to." Like Abramovich, Reading said variability is going to define Idaho's snowfall in a warming world. "We're getting warmer," he said. "Climate change will not necessarily mean drier. But what it does mean is that when it's dry, it's even more dry. When it's wet, it's even more wet. When it's hot, it's even hotter. And when it's cold, it's even colder. Looking forward, it's about mitigating extremes."

In his study, Reading examined three Idaho ski areas: Sun Valley, Tamarack near Cascade and Bogus Basin near Boise. Of the three, he said, Sun Valley is best positioned to provide excellent skiing in a warming world. "This quickly led me to an investigation into snowmaking," he said. "Of course, you have to be cold enough, but the two key facts there were water availability and then temperature. You have various ski areas with different elevations. Those ski areas that are potentially in the most trouble tend to be lower." He pointed to Bogus Basin near Boise as an example. Bogus Basin has a summit elevation of 7,582 feet. Bald Mountain, on the other hand, has a summit elevation of 9,150 feet, which helps to ensure colder temperatures conducive to both artificial snow production and natural snowfall. "Just an incredible percent of the area can be covered with artificial snow," Reading said. "Sun Valley should be happy because they got it right a long, long time ago."

It's too simplistic to hang the future of skiing in Sun Valley on climate change, but the fact is that the world's weather is increasingly variable. Sea ice is shrinking; ocean levels are rising; uncommonly large storms are increasing in regularity and wildland fire seasons are intensifying. Each event alone does not establish evidence for climate change. But collectively they point to an evolution of the planet's weather.

In a widely publicized quote following Hurricane Sandy in October, the senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, Eric Pooley, attempted an analogy to simplify the baffling amount of studies and logic applied to climate change. "We can't say that steroids caused any one home run by Barry Bonds, but steroids sure helped him hit more and hit them farther," he said. "Now we have weather on steroids."

What it all means for Sun Valley's snow is as unclear as predicting the next super storm to sweep the Eastern seaboard. The tools that have been used in the past will continue to be used in the future. There are 22 climate indicators that meteorologists examine to predict precipitation in central Idaho, and predictions come from studying how those indices push or pull on one another. Most common in the ski town lexicon are El Niño and La Niña, which describe ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. La Niña means colder ocean temperatures; El Niño indicates warmer water. La Niña years tend to bestow more storms on the Pacific Northwest. "In terms of El Niño or La Niña, we're looking at a sort of neutral year this year," Abramovich said. "Usually when you're in a neutral year here in Idaho, we get a pretty normal year in terms of precipitation."

But there's one type of storm that benefits Sun Valley the most, Abramovich said, referencing conversations with farmers and skiers alike. "Folks in the Sun Valley area love the storms that come out of the south, right up the Big Wood Basin, essentially. That's when they get the most moisture. That's what keeps things going there, whether you're a farmer in the valley or a skier on the mountain. You need that water."

On a typical winter morning outside ski patrol headquarters near Bald Mountain's summit, there are parallel lines of skis in the snow, with poles stuck along their sides. Ski patrollers are huddled inside listening to reports on weather, avalanche potential, on-mountain hazards and any events that might be occurring that day. Outside, on the corniced edge of Christmas Bowl, the wind sifts through the season's snowflakes, and rays of sun peek from behind the snow-draped Pioneer Mountains to the east. Even after 45 years, Rich Bingham says it's a view he'll never take for granted. "I feel very fortunate. At one point in time, after eight or 10 years here, I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I realized that I was living a dream that people worked their butts off just to enjoy for a couple weeks every year. And I was living that on a daily basis. And it was irreplaceable. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have my passion turn into a job I could do for this long and still be excited about going to work."

For Rob Santa, Sun Valley without snow would be like Christmas without Santa Claus or apple pie without ice cream. That goes beyond skiing. "The psychological factor—call it winter wonderland, the globe full of snow. When it's shaken up, it's pretty spectacularly beautiful," he said. "And that's a pretty motivating thing, even for non-skiers. The ambiance that's created walking around a snowy town—it's a little bit of a storybook."