Make El Niño’s Record Snowfall Count This Winter

Words: Shelby Carpenter
Photo Above: Alain Sleigher

Rain means snow. Possibly record snow. Here’s where to take advantage of it.

Save for a few exceptions (okay, fine, Jackson Hole; yes, we hear you Entire Northeast) beautiful, shreddable snow has been in short supply over the past few seasons. Which means the hype around El Niño has found a hungry audience—us to be exact. 

Predictions vary widely, but some meteorologists think the powder-heavy winters of 1982 and 1997 are a good reference. So whether it’s a day pass at your local hill, or a ski destination trip, we decided to poll some meteorologists, backcountry guides, and athletes on the top places to take advantage of this winter’s El Niño. 

jackson hole

Jackson Hole, WY looks to get hit by heavy snowfall this El Niño season.

© Getty Images


Southern Colorado is in luck this year. “You have a good chance of seeing above average precipitation,” says Tom Di Liberto, meteorologist for the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Backcountry guide Dick Jackson says that big dumps of snow from El Nino could then result in a more stable snowpack—and thus safer and more fun backcountry skiing. “In general, more snow translates to greater stability,” Jackson says. “For us, a big snowpack might be 6.5 ft. of snow. We have a shallow snowpack. If we can get a big snowpack, as a guide that allows me to relax a little bit more.” As always, you should follow day-to-day avalanche and weather forecasts before venturing into the backcountry.

While Southern Colorado is set, as you move north through the Rockies you’re less likely to see a banner year, Di Liberto says. Northern Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming are likely in for drier-than-average winters this time around.


mammoth mountain

Mammoth Mountain has more than 3,500 acres of skiable terrain.

© John Lemieux


Tahoe could go either way—but we’re betting on snow. In general, El Nino makes a dividing line that starts around the level of Sacramento and reaches across the US from west to east. Below the line is wetter, and above the line is warmer and drier. The line wobbles around, but is still a good rule of thumb for what to expect.

Tahoe, as it happens, is also right around this dividing line. “When we have above average precip in California it’s always hard to predict,” Di Liberto says. “Sometimes the stronger the El Nino, the more widespread the impact is. We’ll have lots of rain in Southern California but it’s hard to say for Northern California.”

Meanwhile, Tahoe locals like pro skier Elyse Saugstad are staying cautiously optimistic. “We’re hoping that the temperatures are just cold enough that we get snow instead of rain,” Saugstad says. “My fingers and toes are crossed.”

park city utah

Perfect snow at Alta Ski Resort near Salt Lake City in Utah.

© Wolfgan Kaehler / Contributor


Get ready for some of that famous Utah powder. “The southern states like Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico are all going to do well this year,” says Dr. Elizabeth Austin, an atmospheric physicist and frequent consultant for ski resorts across the country. These states will be winners in what is likely to rank as one of the top three or four El Ninos in recorded history. “This is just such a big El Nino,” Austin says. “The pool of water is huge.”


The Northeast, it turns out, just isn’t that affected by El Nino. The area will be more dominated by local weather patterns, so keep an eye on your regional forecasts.


Alaska can expect lower than average snowfall when El Niño hits this year.

© Lance King / Stringer


Alas, the Northwest will not be a beneficiary of El Nino this year. “It will be drier in Montana, Idaho, and the eastern sides of Washington and Oregon,” says Di Liberto. “In Alaska it’s going to be warmer than average. Precipitation in the Aleutians might be drier than average, but other than that there’s no big tilt in precipitation.”


In short, the Southwest and southern Colorado are golden, Tahoe could go either way, and everywhere else is a wash. The places that are good this year are likely to be incredibly good, so get out there and shred.

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10 2015

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