A Golden Ratio Every Powder Chaser Needs to Know

By: Brian Bensch | Published: 690 days ago.


If you’re the type of skier that scours every snow forecast out there, and have been ogling in the office this week about the 23+ FEET of fresh snow having fallen so far just this month in Tahoe, odds are you’re probably not a first-time skier or snowboarder. To be clear, at Snow Schoolers we love beginners. We cherish every opportunity to introduce new friends to the mountains and to help them discover the joy of sliding down a snowy slope. This post, however, will not be geared toward first-timers. This one is for my fellow powder hounds.

 

For those of you that don’t know me, here’s a quick introduction. I love skiing. More than that, I love powder. I wrote my college admissions essay about what was then the best ski run of my young ski career, on a run called “Hari Kari” at Bear Valley. It had been a 3-foot dump, and after a quarter-mile traverse, the run opens up to a steep and wide face with fresh tracks available in all directions.

 

If you’re like me at all, those are the moments we dream about. Deep snow, steep terrain, and most importantly, no one else nearby. No friends on a powder day, obviously.

 

But alas, we are rarely alone in these moments. According to the SIA, there are over 500,000 American skiers who ski at least 30+ days per year, and they represent 5% of the 10M annual American skiers. They also represent competition on a pow day, because we all know fresh tracks can only ever be had once. On a typical pow day at Squaw, folks start lining up at 6AM at KT-22, hoping for the elusive first chair and an opportunity to ski that one perfect run. The first skiers start ripping down shortly after 9AM, and by 9:30AM there are hundreds of tracks in all directions. By 10AM, it is so tracked out you can barely tell it snowed overnight.

 

Don’t get me wrong, that could be the best hour of skiing you get all year. So I’m not here to try and convince you it’s not worth waiting for. However, after 20 years of chasing powder, I’ve formulated a theory that I’d now like to share with you. I call it the Golden Ratio. It’s not rocket science at all. Simply put, to maximize your powder skiing, you want to find the ski area with the fewest people. Pretty simple, right? The secret is to recognize that the crowds on the mountain are not just a function of popularity, but also a function of uphill lift capacity.

 

Uphill capacity is one of those metrics that almost every ski resort reports, and is defined as the number of skiers per hour that a lift can move up the hill. If a high speed quad has 250 chairs, that means it can move 1,000 people at a time. And if the chair ride is 10 minutes, then it can do 6 laps per hour, and would have an uphill capacity of 6,000 skiers per hour. Turns out that 6,000 sets of ski tracks is more than enough to track out KT.

 

So how would you calculate and use this Golden Ratio? Quite simple. In the below table, you’ll see every major ski area in Tahoe, along with both their uphill capacity and their total number of skiable acres. The golden ratio is just that uphill capacity divided by the number of skiable acres. The smaller the ratio, the better. The larger the number, the faster those acres of terrain will see tracks, and the more likely you are to bump elbows with your fellow powder chasers.

 

Resort

Skiable Acres

Lift Capacity

(skiers per hour)

# Lifts

Golden Ratio

Homewood

1,260

8,500

6

6.75

Sierra-at-Tahoe

2,000

14,920

14

7.46

Alpine Meadows

2,400

18,700

13

7.79

Mt. Rose

1,200

11,000

8

9.17

Kirkwood

2,300

21,420

15

9.31

Heavenly

4,800

52,000

30

10.83

Northstar

2,904

34,800

19

11.98

Sugar Bowl

1,650

21,740

13

13.18

Diamond Peak

655

8,995

6

13.73

Squaw

4,000

58,000

30

14.50

Boreal

380

13,200

8

34.74

 

A quick glance reveals Homewood to be the hands-down winner. And as anyone who has had a Squalpine pass and chased powder on a weekend should know, you’re far more likely to find good snow at Alpine than Squaw in the afternoon on a pow day.

 

Anecdotally, my personal experience over the last two weeks at Homewood has really driven this home. Here’s a photo from Christmas day at 11am:

 

 

And here’s another from MLK Monday at 1pm:

 

And again, as the sun is setting on MLK around 3:30pm. Still just a few tracks, and at least one of them were mine!

 

I’d love to hear from readers in the comments below. Is my theory of the Golden Ratio too simple? What am I missing?  


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