Powder prophet

Tom Winter | Boulder Weekly

Joel Gratz wants you to have the best day of your life. He wants you to frolic in powder snow. He wants you to soak up sunshine on top of a peak. He wants you to hike through wildflower-studded meadows with the perfect mountain breeze caressing your cheeks. He wants you to enjoy perfection.

For Gratz, every day is perfect. At least from a weather standpoint. Gratz, along with fellow meteorologist and skier Andy Murray, is a founder of Open Snow, a website that’s currently geared toward snow reports but expects to expand to include other activities. The site’s snow-centric focus is no surprise; Gratz has always loved snow since a childhood spent in Philadelphia. But while scoring powder days is a powerful motivator for him, what gets Gratz really excited is how he can help you have your perfect day from skiing bliss in the backcountry to wildflower hikes with the kids.

“I’ve always wanted to make the weather more understandable,” Gratz says over coffee. “There’s a massive gap between meteorologists and the public.”

Already in love with snow and skiing, Gratz arrived in Boulder in 2003 to attend the University of Colorado. He’d recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in meteorology, and at CU he’d end up with an MA in environmental studies coupled with an MBA from the university’s respected business school. While pursuing these degrees, he studied under Roger Pielke Jr., a professor in CU’s Environmental Studies Program.

A former scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Pielke is a Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). Pielke’s research focuses on the intersection of science and technology and decision-making, and this interdisciplinary approach influenced Gratz.

For a skier like Gratz, Pielke’s work took on a highly personal meaning. The Holy Grail for any skier is the ultimate powder day, and upon graduation Gratz quickly focused on the most important question for powder hounds: how to harness science, technology and decision-making to score the best days at Colorado ski resorts. He soon found that, while he could get in a lot of great days, predicting snowfall and capitalizing on the elusive combination of precipitation, winds and localized storm intensity that made a great day into an epic day proved more challenging than he thought.

“Colorado’s mountains make forecasting that much more difficult,” says Gratz.

According to Gratz, the jumbled mass of the Rockies, the myriad high peaks, ranges and sub-ranges, means that the challenge for him as a skier was to learn how to read the nuances of storms, the tiny differences in wind direction and other factors that meant he should end up at Breckenridge rather than nearby Copper Mountain.

“Weather is what happens when moist air gets high,” says Gratz. “When air hits the mountains, that creates the weather.”

Colorado’s complex topography meant that as Gratz learned more about the mountains, he was able to pinpoint the most favored areas for snow depending upon the individual characteristics of each storm. And as he learned more, he decided to put the knowledge to use, launching a website, Colorado Powder Forecast, which has morphed into his current project, Open Snow.

“It took me four or five years to fig ure it out,” Gratz says of understanding the complexity of the weather patterns in Colorado’s mountains. “If a big storm is coming, the computer models will all say ‘snow.’ But you need to know topographically what that means.”

At Opensnow.com, Gratz will share storm secrets. He’ll let you know that if a storm’s southwest winds continue to dominate, that the Interstate 70 ski areas won’t benefit as much when it comes to precipitation. He knows that Winter Park benefits most from north and northwest winds. And while he’s hesitant to make long-range forecasts (you rarely have people in April grading their long-term forecasts, he says, because they’ll usually look bad), he’s able to get you the crucial information about each storm soon enough to start “coughing a lot at work” should a mid-week powder day — er, “sick” day — be in the works.

“You can plan two to three days out for specific events,” Gratz says of his forecasts at Opensnow.com. “Reschedule meetings, work late, whatever you need to do, like leave the night before so you don’t get stuck on the wrong side of a pass when the storm closes the highway in the morning.”

The benefit for skiers and snowboarders is obvious: first tracks, no travel headaches and bragging rights about how you’ve scored all the best days of the season over après ski beers.

But Gratz is quick to point out that while the powder day is a big deal for many people, knowing when it won’t snow is important, too.

“If you’re teaching a little kid to ski, you want to be out on the bunny hill on a sunny day when it’s warm,” he says.

The goal, of course, is to give people the information they need to have the perfect day, from sideslipping the bunny hill to dropping into Vail’s Prima Cornice.

“Our customers are the general public,” Gratz says of his Opensnow.com project. “We have hand-crafted personal forecasts, snow alerts, an ‘ask the weatherman’ feature. The entire experience is very interactive. We’re going to be the weather channel for outdoor sports. And we’re going to close the information gap.”

With Colorado turning the corner towards December, and winter’s big storms still on tap, Gratz will be busy this fall. He’ll be working on closing the information gap, modeling storms, looking at mountain ranges and predicting the perfect day. The only question is will you be there to enjoy it? If Gratz has his way, the answer will be “yes.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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Featuring Snow Alerts, location specific forecasts, nationwide forecasts handcrafted for Colorado and LiveSnow, a real-time snow report, Opensnow.com launched on Nov.1.