Early Season Skiing - Finding the Snow

A recent move brought me to the Bay area and now I'm using Tableau to help me decide where I should go to ski. What ski area has the most advanced terrain? Where is the snow this early in the season? Where can I get the most for my money?

A recent move brought me to the Bay area and now I'm using Tableau to help me decide where I should go to ski. What ski area has the most advanced terrain? Where is the snow this early in the season? Where can I get the most for my money?

You may have noticed that the West coast, specifically the Pacific Northwest, has been getting hit with some storms this past week. I’ve been following the weather reports closely and my heart beats a little faster with each mention of snow. With my mountain bike cleaned up and stowed safely in my garage, I’ve turned my attention to the upcoming ski season. My sticks are tuned and the racks are fitted to the car so at a moment’s notice I can head to the slopes.

A little over a year ago I moved to the bay area after living in Seattle. I won’t deny that I was a little disappointed to learn that the mountains are over four hours away, and that’s on a good day. But I managed to spend some time up in Tahoe last winter and explored Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley, and Northstar. This year I want to branch out and try some other ski areas so I'm using Tableau Desktop to figure out the best places to check out as the season progresses. Most of this data has been collected from the ski area websites but I've also consulted Snow Bomb, which is a site that aggregates all kinds of information about the Tahoe ski areas.

The first thing I did was put together a view that will show me overall snow base along with how much is new. I have the view filtered to only show me today’s information so I can monitor it as the season progresses -- a sort of daily snow report.

Snow base at a variety of ski areas.

Most of the mountains I am monitoring are located in Tahoe area but I threw in some of my old ski areas just so I can see what I am missing. And boy, today I sure am missing out! Stevens Pass and Crystal Mountain got dumped on last night. I also threw in some Utah ski resorts because I’ve been told that there are days I can hop a flight, rent a car, and hit the slopes faster than I can drive to Tahoe. I’m skeptical but I’m keeping my options open.

One thing that is not represented in the view above but should be considered is that some of these mountains use snow machines to build up their base while others don’t. While that’s okay, the new snow measure is important because I prefer to ski on the real stuff, which is lighter and fluffier. Today it looks like Utah and Alpine are the places to go, unless you're in Seattle area, in which case your choice is clear.

I’m a pretty good skier and tend to stick to advanced runs so I want to explore mountains that aren’t all green runs. The view below shows the Tahoe ski areas and the distribution of beginner (green), intermediate (blue), and advanced (black) runs. The overall size of each pie mark represents the total acreage of the ski area.

Terrain skill level distribution analysis.

I was surprised to see that areas have pretty similar distributions: about 25% easy, 45% intermediate, and 30% advanced. There were a few places that stuck out like Sugarbowl, which has almost 40% advanced trails and Mt. Rose with 50% of their trails classified as advanced. It also confirmed my suspicion about Northstar, with almost 60% of their terrain in the intermediate level. I’m adding Sugarbowl and Mt. Rose to my list of places to check out.

Finally, I am interested in the best place to go in the early season given the daily lift ticket price and amount of snow. So I filtered out the areas that are not open yet and compared price and total snow. The size of each mark in the view below represents the number of chair lifts they have open. Keep in mind that my numbers on chair lifts may be a bit different than the ski area websites because I am not including Terrain park lifts. I don't really hang out in the parks too much.

Price vs. Snow Depth analysis

A clear winner is Alta again, with a way above average snow base and below average prices. But the flight time and price will have to be calculated in and I can’t just be jetting off to Utah on a whim. Boreal looks good but it only has 2 chair lifts open and I happen to know that a lot of their snow base is machine made. So that leaves me with Sugarbowl which is charging $66 a day, has 25 inches of snow and 5 chairs open. Hmm, I try to avoid skiing on anything less than 35 inches unless it’s on my rock skis. It looks like I either pay more money or I’ll have to wait a bit longer. I’ll make sure to post an update as the season continues and more data is collected. Make sure to subscribe to the RSS feed if you want to be notified of my next post. I wish you all deep soft powder for your opening days!