Want to feel like a Vail local? Read this quick overview about Vail’s geography and weather patterns and you’ll be on your way.
Vail is located in the Gore mountain range of central Colorado with peaks extending to over 13,000 feet. These peaks frame the view from Vail to the northeast, and the 14,005-foot Mt. Holy Cross dominates the view from the Back Bowls to the southwest.
Understanding the location of mountain ranges is important because big mountains create their own weather. Air is forced to rise over these masses of rock, and as the air rises it cools and moisture condenses into snow. This is called orographic lift and it’s the most important factor when forecasting powder.
If you’re looking at a weather map searching for the next storm heading toward Vail, keep your eyes peeled for storms that bring winds from the west or northwest. Northwest winds are perfect for Vail because they are forced to ascend up and over Vail, and this creates lots of powder.
On the flip side, don’t be fooled by storms with winds from the southwest. While they might sling lots of moisture and clouds toward Vail, southwest winds actually descend from the tall mountains around Mt. Holy Cross, and descending air dries the atmosphere and leads to much less snow.
When favorable northwest winds combine with good moisture and cold temperatures, massive snows can pile up. The most snow ever reported by Vail in a 24 hour period is about 18 inches and the biggest season recorded in the last 30 years was 2010/2011 when 524 inches fell. That was a season to remember with consistent storms bringing moisture and northwest winds every few days.
These are big numbers, but where do they come from? Where does Vail measure snow?
A mountain operations employee at the base area takes the official measurement at around 5 a.m. This person looks at a live video feed from a camera pointed at a ruler in the snow, otherwise known as a snow stake. The location of the snow stake is just west of mid mountain on the front side, though because Vail is seven miles end-to-end and 3,000 feet from base to summit, snowfall can vary wildly.
Now that you know the local weather patterns at Vail and how snow is measured, the only thing left to do is enjoy your powder day!
Joel Gratz is a meteorologist & the founder of OpenSnow.com.