The weather's gone wild

Spring has sprung ... the sun has been shining on the ski fields this August.
Spring has sprung ... the sun has been shining on the ski fields this August. Photo: Chris Hocking

Weather geeks in the snow world had the last laugh this winter as weird weather patterns played havoc with both Australian and New Zealand resorts presenting a series of record-breaking events.

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First there was the bumper start to the Australian season which had Australian ski pros like Chris Booth claiming his best day skiing at Thredbo ever. Meanwhile, New Zealand resorts waited patiently for snow, then waited some more, then prayed for sub-zero temperatures so they could make the white stuff themselves, then gave up waiting and just opened the season late.

Now the tables have turned, as New Zealand experienced the country's biggest snow storm in 50 years in mid-August which topped up the much-needed ski slopes, which had been showing more tussock than powder, and had crazy Kiwis skiing on the beach in Christchurch. Meanwhile, Australia's Mount Baw Baw resort closed for the season on August 28 due to lack of snow and Mount Buller reports a 4cm base in the natural snow areas and 60cms in the man-made today (still good for beginners wanting to make the most of discounted spring prices).

But how could something so right have turned so wrong?

Let's blame August, because July was definitely in our favour. Melbourne experienced the warmest August on record in 157 years. This was the result of a slow-moving high-pressure system on the Tasman Sea, reducing cold fronts and increasing warm northerly winds across Victoria. Not something you want to hear if you make your money from a very short winter window.

It wasn't much better news in August for the New South Wales resorts either, where the 2011 winter in Canberra was two degrees above average throughout June, July and August. Without colder temperatures the precipitation, when it did fall, came down as rain and the snow guns couldn't always pump out man made snow.

We went from an epic 144cm snowfall in July to a moderate 35cms of fresh snow in August. Spring, however, is looking far more promising. A cold front has returned to New Zealand and a handful of snow arrived today to fill in the cracks on the slopes and the weather patterns in Australia appear to be showing spring snow from next week, just in time for school holidays. So it's not over yet.

Some seasons are just like this - odd. We can't always have the epic La Nina of North America last season where Utah broke all previous snowfall records at Snowbird. Word is La Nina is on her way back and Kicking Horse in Canada is reporting snow on their web cams today.

Australian ski fields have it tough with a very short season to make some cash. Yes, we open in June, but realistically it's July and August that are the money-spinner months. That's a mere eight weeks to make enough to sustain a 52-week year. Businesses simply rely on the weather playing nicely, and even with the extensive snow-making that we now enjoy, if temperatures aren't sub-zero they can't operate.

Skiers and boarders know we take weather risks by our choice of sport alone. There's nothing worse than being two days late on the storm cycle and constantly picking up the crud where the powder used to lie (trust me, I know this one better than anyone). But we live for the good days, the days that stay in our memories forever like the one metre dump in the beginning of August last year in Australia.

Skiing and snowboarding is what you make of it. It is as much about who you are skiing and riding with as what you are skiing or riding on and luck is a big part of a snow holiday. I have friends who will claim this season their best on record, simply because they were in the right place at the right time, regardless of weather statistics. Try telling them that August was a shocker, they won't hear it or believe it.

I finally had my own 'day of the season' last Monday, after a personal disaster that included an injured back which meant a later start and then a series of weather mishaps, from torrential rain to high winds, that meant I was forever in the wrong place at the right time with only a handful of half-day ski starts by the end of August.

Sure, the snow conditions were far from epic at Kingston in the South Island of New Zealand, but early spring corn is far better than ice and rock anyday and at least I was finally on skis.  Yes, there was a helicopter, a snowcat and a snowmobile involved, and they were each driven by a farmer from Queenstown Snowcats, but it wasn't the motorised toys and impressive terrain that made it so great, it was the people. Five ripping girls and a token 'male' who were just happy to be out amongst it in the great outdoors. (Watch this space in 2012 for the full story)

I may be packing up my skis for the winter today and heading home, but if the promised snow does arrive I'll be reloading them into my car and heading for the Australian Alps for one last hurrah.

Will you?

Are you a weather geek? What kind of a winter have you had? What's been your 'day of the season'? Do you think the weather has been kind or killer? Post a comment on the blog below.

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