Photo courtesy Jay Peak Resort
If, like me, you grew up in a place like Long Island, NY, when it came to skiing, you probably unfairly lumped all of Vermont together into a kind of single, large Great White North. Of course, now that I’ve spent my share of time tromping around the Green Mountain State, I know that the reality is more nuanced. All ski areas are not created equal. A Mad River Glen does not equate to a Sugarbush, even though they stand nearly shoulder to shoulder in the same valley, and a Stowe Mountain Resort is about as similar to a Smugglers’ Notch as apples are to oranges, even though they sit on opposite sides of the same ridge, less than a mile apart as the crow flies.
One resort, though, seemed to emerge from the rest with a kind of mythical, transcendental reputation: Jay Peak Resort. I heard rumors of its steep and deep; of a quantity and quality of snow that rivaled the resorts of the West; of 400 inches of annual snowfall; of chutes and glades. And I heard about something called the Jay Cloud that was responsible for it all. The cloud had always been talked about in hushed tones, as if it were some kind of locals-only secret skiers wanted to keep for themselves. That was until Fall 2008, when the proverbial cat was let out of the bag. Jay Peak Resort unveiled a new pre-ski-season promotional video, and there, for all the world to see, was the claim: the Jay Cloud.
The video quotes skier after skier, each seemingly kneeling at the altar of the Jay Cloud: The snow here at Jay rivals what you find at Utah, Lake Tahoe, other renowned places for powder… I’ve never had as deep a day… It’s the snow that brought us here, and the snow that keeps us here… Some say we owe it to luck, or fate, but we know it’s the mythical Jay Cloud… A lot of people talk about it, and it’s true… I’ve had so many good powder days here, it’s remarkable…
And so what, exactly, is the Jay Cloud? In short, it’s a weather system that cycles over Jay Peak, repeatedly dumping modest amount of snow after modest amount of snow, which together add up to a helluva lot of snow. Some people have said it happens because Jay sits at the convergence of three dominant weather patterns, which all serve to funnel moisture onto the peak. But was it real, powdery, white fluff? Or was it nothing more than marketing fluff? You could hardly blame Jay if the resort succumbed to the latter. Ski resorts have a long and rich tradition of touting the snow they’ve got, and perhaps stretching the truth in little white, powdery lies. Utah proclaims “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Steamboat Springs boasts of its trademarked “Champagne Powder.” Why shouldn’t Jay brand the Jay Cloud?
I set out to determine if it was fact or fiction, and I started by talking to Jim Fredericks, executive director of the Catamount Trail Association. The Catamount Trail snakes its way south to north across the length of Vermont, squeezing through Jay Pass and dropping down into the village of Jay. As such, I figured it could serve as a great barometer, comparing the snowpack along the Jay section of trail to the Catamount elsewhere in the state.
“My feeling is that yes, Jay gets a lot snow. Plus it has the reputation,” Fredericks says. “Because it’s farther north than other areas, it’s usually colder. When precipitation is falling in the mountains, there’s a better chance it’ll be snow at Jay Peak.” Then Fredericks hedges his bet: “I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but there’s some exaggeration that goes on. Clouds come in, hit the mountains, and drop a ton of snow… whether you’re Jay Peak, Mount Mansfield, or Camel’s Hump. Jay is lucky to be up there—they’re getting more snow, but mainly because it’s a little colder. There’s no mystical or meteorological phenomenon involved in the whole thing.”
Next, I called Jen Butson, director of public affairs for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Given that she represents the state’s wide array of ski areas, I thought she’d be in a great position to compare and contrast those areas, and to weigh in on the Jay Cloud. By the same token, though, she might be reluctant to give one (Jay Peak Resort) top billing over the others (we wouldn’t want to upset the membership, now would we?). “The Jay Cloud is the Santa Claus of the Northeast Kingdom,” she says unequivocally. “It’s an interesting weather phenomenon that brings so much joy.” But then Butson points out that the Jay Cloud may not be unique to Jay alone. “It’s due to the orthographic uplift,” she says, referring to the way mountains force air to rise, which in turn prompts cloud formation, and ultimately, precipitation. “I wonder how many other ski areas have the same effect, but haven’t named it [the way Jay has],” she asks rhetorically.
Even if there are other unnamed Jay Clouds around the state, there does indeed seem to be something special about the one over Jay. The statewide average annual snowfall at resorts was 231 inches last season. Sugarbush claimed 269; Smuggs nearly 300; and Stowe Mountain Resort 333. But even accounting for the fuzzy math involved (how do you measure snowfall at a resort and where on the mountain do you measure?), Jay Peak Resort’s 360 to 400 inches or more in a season puts it in a class by itself.
Of course, much of this was opinion and conjecture, and what I needed was science-based fact. So I called Andy Nash, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Burlington. “I haven’t heard it referred to as the Jay Cloud, but from our perspective, it’s a well-known fact,” he says. “It’s cloudier and they get more snow in the Jay Peak area, and when we do our forecasts, we take that into account.” It all, he says, comes down to topography.
“The way the mountain is oriented along a northeast-southwest line places it perfectly perpendicular to the northwest winds that we get a lot in winter,” he explains. Those winds hit the mountain, rise, clouds form, “and in winter, you get snow to fall, and the snowfall adds up pretty quickly.”
It’s the orthographic uplift Butson was talking about, but according to Nash, Jay is optimized in both its orientation and its location. “As you go farther down the Green Mountains into southern Vermont, the mountain orientation isn’t as perpendicular to the northwest winds,” he explains. “Also, in the southern parts of the state, the winds go over the Adirondacks first, where they drop some of their moisture before reaching Vermont. But upstream of Jay, there are no mountains to steal moisture.”
That source of moisture that feeds the Jay Cloud isn’t, as you might expect, the Great Lakes, or Lake Champlain, or the St. Lawrence. Rather, and surprisingly, it’s the Atlantic. When a low pressure system sits just to the east of Vermont, the winds spin counterclockwise around that low, pulling in moisture from the Atlantic, wrapping around to the north, and then smacking into Jay from the northwest. “That’s when Jay gets the winds and the snow,” Nash says.
Then, like Fredericks, he hedges his bet. “Jay Peak isn’t a singular entity—the same effect happens on other peaks. But that’s the magic of the mountains. They can pull out the little bit of moisture that’s left in the air and turn it into clouds and snow.” Just take a look at the NWS’s snow depth observation stations at Jay and Smugglers’ Notch for the proof. On any given day, Mount Mansfield might edge out Jay Peak… or not.
So is the Jay Cloud fact or fiction, reality or reputation? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. It’s one part science based in mountain meteorology, and one part myth built upon the legends of the Jay ski gods. But if it’s a powder day, does it really matter why? Just point ‘em downhill and enjoy.
Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer from Colorado.