Everyone loves April snow in Australia, not much gets us more excited, but is it good or bad for the season ahead?
Back in 1982 an April dump let them open a t-bar on Front Valley at Perisher. But what happened next? The worst (least snowfall) season ever, until 2006 topped out with even less.
So that’s a bad omen.
Yet check the charts. 1982 starts very similar to 1960, with 40cm in late April.
1960 was arguably the best snow season ever in Australia. Not the one with the highest peak, that honour goes to 1981 at 361cm, closely followed by 1964.
But in 1960 there was a 2m plus snow pack from May 16 through to almost the end of October! Yes, Australia’s much maligned Snowy Mountains delivered 6 months plus of serious quantities of snow!
We wouldn’t bet money on 2021 tracking 1960, but you never know..
For the snow industry generally, early snow is good for business, and starting the season with reasonable snow – or getting some early – is more important than getting a lot later.
For the nostalgic who think the 50s and 60s were a golden (or pre climate change) era of big seasons, check out 1957 and 1967. Both had ZERO snow until early July.
Some the most useless seasons ever started out promisingly. Some of the best total wise started really slow.
Snowmaking has massively helped in that regard of course. Nowadays you will invariably get something.
But for aficionados nothing beats some decent natural dumps to open things up.
2000 had a pretty perfect snow profile with an excellent start from the beginning of June that built steadily. The extra peak of 1992 makes that a better season total wise, reaching over 300cm with the help of the Pinatubo volcano effect. But the big kick on didn’t happen till later in August.
The sixty six years of Snowy Hydro snow depth records provide an easy quick glimpse of how seasons panned out. All the charts here are from Spencer’s Creek at 1830m, which is the standard measuring point used by the big NSW ski resorts of Thredbo and Perisher. In fact it’s in between them, close to Charlotte’s Pass. The measurements are taken weekly. As such they give a pretty good guide to the amount of accumulated snowfall at Charlottes, Perisher and the top of Thredbo.
Going back over them to check things, and my memory which goes for actually skiing seasons from 1983 and winters from 1966 (I can tell you when it snowed in Armidale as a kid – like 1968, the day Bobby Kennedy got assassinated, we were making snowmen at primary school; or the first time we ever went to the beach in Australia north of Coffs and it snowed that October long weekend in 1966, which the charts corroborate) a couple of things stand out.
One, the snow totals at the higher elevations remain remarkably consistent – varying year to year, but we are still getting seasons now as good as many of those 50 – 60 years ago.
Two, there is always a spike, one or two peak snowfalls that kickstart the charts. Sure, in the worst seasons like 2006 or 1982 it’s only small, 40cm or so in a week. But most seasons the chart does at least one outstanding spike over a short period of a couple of weeks. Those spikes of course usually provide the best powder days, deepest actual on-the-day snow, and set up the base to open most terrain up. If we are lucky, the spikes can run over 200cm. If it’s all time, like 1981, you can get another metre plus spike on top of a 2m one.
Big seasons generally see two or three of them. But there is invariably at least one. Good luck trying to time it if you are not doing the season &/or have the flexibility to drop everything and go when it happens.
Three, the end of the season does come quicker now. Which doesn’t matter so much at the resorts, mid-September onwards is usually a slushfest anyway. But the backcountry season is shrinking, with not much into November most years now.
When I started out as a ski journalist 30 years ago there were already constant predictions of doom for the Aussie snow industry. Climate change was going to wipe it out, sooner rather than later depending who you listened too.
But so far, not so bad. At least at the higher altitudes. Seasons seem to kick in when they kick in regardless – from late May to early July for the first measurable snowfalls, usually later in July to late August for the big spikes that really decide the totals.
For the keen who live close enough, affordable season passes allow you to go more often these days. For those picking when to book their one short trip, historically late July through third week August is the optimum window to overlap with a snow spike.
Good luck. The only thing I would advise otherwise is go whenever there is some snow. Sure, it could get better. But it could get worse too..
2019 was another almost ‘perfect profile’ season like 2000. It dumped 70cm at the end of May and Perisher opened May 31st. It kept on going with a couple more decent spikes in July and August to leave things still sweet in late September as pictured at Thredbo.
2020 was OK, not great, and in the COVID scheme of things, especially for Victoria, that’s a good thing. Improves the chances of 2021 being better.
We’ll see. Soon. April snowfall is zero indicator of anything ahead. So enjoy the social froth, get the rock hoppers out for some fun earn-your-turns footage if you are there when it happens. But the main game, as always, will depend on when those season-making spikes occur.