Want to feel like a Squaw local? Read this quick overview about Squaw Valley’s geography and weather patterns and you’ll be on your way.
Squaw is located in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California on the northwest side of Lake Tahoe. The upper portions of the mountain are situated along the Sierra Crest—the highest region of the overall mountain range. Since the crest is the highest obstacle in the path of air that’s moving east from the Pacific Ocean, the most snow falls along and just on either side of these highest peaks. The summit elevation varies slightly amongst the four highpoints that make up the ski area, though most are close to 9,000 feet. The distance between the summit and the base areas is about two horizontal miles and nearly 3,000 vertical feet, so snow conditions will vary tremendously.
Understanding the location, elevation and orientation of the mountain 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. Since Squaw is at the top of the Sierra crest, orographic lift is maximized.
If you’re searching for the next storm heading toward Squaw, look no further than a recent satellite image of the eastern Pacific Ocean. Storms can often be seen swirling over the ocean heading east toward the U.S. Any storm that moves toward California is likely to bring big snow to all resorts in the Tahoe region. Pay particular attention to the snow levels during a storm as this will determine if the entire mountain sees snow or just the upper elevations. Snow can often fall about 500 to 1,000 feet lower than the elevation of the freezing line, so don’t be surprised to see snowflakes even if the temperature is a bit above freezing.
When favorable winds combine with good moisture and cold temperatures, massive snows can pile up. The western U.S. in general and California in particular can often see boom and bust snow cycles, with many feet falling in a week followed by dry and sunny weather. However, when the storm track aligns just right and the snow continues, the upper mountain (measured at 8,200 feet) can record well more than their average of about 450 inches. In the 2010/2011 season, the 8,200-foot snow stake measured 810 inches. However, the base area can measure up to 50 percent less snow than the 8,200-foot location.
Now that you know the local geography and weather patterns at Squaw Valley, the only thing left to do is enjoy your powder day!
Joel Gratz is a meteorologist & the founder of OpenSnow.com.