La Niña. It's the phrase on everyone's lips at Mt. Baker Ski Area. The world record holder for the most snowfall in a single winter is planning for another season of big dumps.
Mt. Baker piled up enough powder in winter 1998-99 that it set a world record with 1,140 inches of snow. Four La Niña winters in the past 15 years have produced voluminous snow, averaging 778 inches each year.
We spoke with Operations Manager Gwyn Howat to see how the resort is preparing for the possible onslaught of heavy La Niña snows this winter. "Indications are looking good for a La Niña year again," said Howat. "What it means for us is that we'll have our hands full."
Weather forecasters are predicting La Niña conditions to persist through spring 2011, which often points the cooler, moisture-laden jet stream right at Mt. Baker. The resort terms it a "storm superhighway." The cooler conditions drop the freezing level from White Salmon to somewhere around the DOT station on State Highway 542, and usual wet snows are replaced by lighter powder.
Skiers and snowboarders relish the storms that drop pillows of thigh-deep powder. The buzz about big snow among locals in Bellingham produced an increase in season pass sales this year. Mt. Baker's sold 30 percent more season passes this year than last year.
But for resort crews, heavy snowfall means extra work. Snow piles up deep along the roads at Mt. Baker, frequently creating walls so high that they obstruct views of the peaks. The world record winter required more than just plowing the roads with snowblowers. "We had to bring in machinery to take down the tops of snow berms as they were starting to tunnel over the road," recalled Howat.
Huge snowfall years also require snow removal from lift terminals and lines to keep them functional. Snow needs to be removed from parking lots, too, not just plowed to the edges where it eats up parking spaces. "We burned up a quarter million dollars in snow removal on the world record year," said Howat.
Mt. Baker is anticipating another big snow year, but Howat says they are ready for it. "We're in the snow biz," said Howat. "We've been through it once, so we know what to do."