SEATTLE, Wash. – The La Nina winter forecast is widely welcomed by skiers of all stripes in the northwest, as the weather pattern generally dumps generous amounts of snow on the region. Last season featured an El Nino weather pattern, with the drab conditions that typically produces: less precipitation, unusually warm conditions with rain at elevations that generally are on the snow side of the freezing mark, and overall a shorter ski season.
Mark Waechter of Nordic Ultratune in Winthrop, Wash., tries to make sure skiers don’t base their choice of grinds for this season based on what they saw last season.
“People want to grind based on what they saw last season, which was warm and wet and not much snow, and that’s not necessarily the right plan. You should grind for what you expect, and this year, we should expect more normal conditions,” Waechter said.
But regardless of season, you need to cover all your bases – literally speaking.
“You can’t just have five different cold grinds and nothing for warm. I try to suggest reasonable choices,” he explained.
Typically, the conditions in the central Northwest will be cold, dry snow that doesn’t see a lot of transformation until things warm up in February, Waechter said.
For the beginning of the season, he finds that fine dry-snow grinds are faster. Then for the last half of the season, he suggests a warmer grind that handles more transformed snow.
“If people have two pairs of skate skis, I’d suggest a S2 grind that’s cold and dry, and a D5 for warmer, wetter new snow and snow that has been transformed,” he said, adding that both of these have broad ranges and will work in a wide variety of temperatures.
Experience is Key
Zach Caldwell at Boulder Nordic Sports is more cautious about using the long-term weather forecast to guide his grinding choices.
Caldwell was a part of the U.S. wax team during the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, where snow conditions are notoriously tricky. He spent two years prior to the Games analyzing the snow in Callahan Valley, and can only conclude that it’s a moving target.
“It’s tempting to want to look ahead. Given the conditions at the Olympics we saw everything of weather, but overall it was warmer,” Caldwell pointed out.
“I’ve never seen anyone be able to predict a whole season. I’d say the best bet is to trust the past more than the future. You know what the prevailing conditions are in your area, and that is not going to change dramatically, but maybe the center of the bell curve might skew a little in one direction compared to an average season,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell explained that the bigger climatic changes take longer to develop than from one season to the other.
“The snow that falls out of the sky isn’t going to be very different from what you normally see,” he said, noting that all of the regions have their characteristics, which in the big picture are going to remain the same.
“The northwest is always the most volatile and also with the skiable venues so close to the snow/rain threshold, these differences play a bigger role. In the Upper Midwest, the weather patterns are formed by arctic airstreams and whether they are one or two degrees colder or warmer than normal just means you’ll freeze seven fingers instead of eight,” Caldwell explained.
Focus on Skis
So if La Nina doesn’t affect the choice of grinds and flexes that much, what does matter?
“Having good skis is the number one most important part. Then you want a broad-range structure that can handle changing weather conditions. You don’t want to pigeon-hole yourself into a very narrow range,” said Caldwell, noting that a good pair of both wet and dry skis is more important than a specific grind.
That said, Caldwell explained that in North America, the plus-models of the skis and finer grinds seem to work best. “That’s probably because we have less aggressive snow crystals here than in many places in Europe and especially Scandinavia,” he concluded.
Weather is a Gift for Skiers
However, there is no doubt that a typical La Nina weather pattern is a bonus for Northwest skiers. Brenna Warburton, a coach with the Bend Endurance Academy in Bend, Ore., pointed out that La Nina is a Christmas present that comes early and stays late.
That is particularly beneficial for new skiers.
“We’ll probably be able to ski earlier, which is great, especially for the younger kids and skiers at the development level,” she said.
“They get more time on snow, and at the development level, the more time on snow the better. That time would be replaced by dryland training, which is also great, but snow time is better,” Warburton explained, adding that they will also be able to ski longer at lower elevations.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.