Want to feel like a Whistler local? Read this quick overview about Whistler’s geography and weather patterns and you’ll be on your way.
Whistler is located about 60 miles north of Vancouver, or more importantly about 150 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. Since water is the fuel to create snow, being close to a large body of water like the Pacific Ocean is key to high snow totals. There are actually two mountains that make up the ski area; Whistler and Blackcomb. The base area sits at about 2,200 feet and the highest skiable areas on either mountain rise to 7,200 feet. That’s nearly a mile of vertical between base and summit, and this means vastly different weather conditions. In fact, some people joke that Whistler is a four-season resort, as you can experience all four seasons in one day depending on elevation.
If you’re searching for the next storm heading toward Whistler, simply look at a satellite image of the northern Pacific Ocean and locate areas of swirling clouds moving east toward the southern coastline of British Columbia. Since Whistler is so close to the ocean, getting adequate moisture for big snow is rarely an issue. The more nuanced piece of the weather forecast centers on the snow level, or at which elevation rain will change to snow. Earlier in the season and especially around the winter solstice in late December, cold air is plentiful and snow can fall all the way down to the base elevation. However, every storm is different. A rule of thumb is that snow can fall about 500 to 1,000 feet lower than the freezing level, though for the best conditions you’ll want to stay well above the rain/snow line.
When favorable winds combine with good moisture and cold temperatures, massive snows can pile up. The most snow ever recorded in a 24-hour period is 36 inches, and the most snow recorded in a season was 688 inches during 1983/1984. That’s more than 15 feet above the average snowfall of 500 inches.
Whistler measures snow at the Pig-Alley weather station located at 5,500 feet on Whistler Mountain, close to tower 31 on the Village Gondola. The grooming supervisor takes the first measurement at 4:30 a.m. and a ski patroller takes another measurement at 7 a.m.
Now that you know the local geography, weather patterns, and how snow is measured at Whistler, the only thing left to do is enjoy your powder day! But beware—if you ski top-to-bottom in one run, make sure to “pop” your ears a few times since you’re drastically changing elevation. I learned this one the hard way!
Joel Gratz is a meteorologist & the founder of OpenSnow.com.