More Than One Way to Measure Snow
Politicians lie. When they do, people shrug. It’s expected.
Economists get it wrong. People shrug again. Normal folks don’t believe those silly predictions in the first place.
Car dealers. Lawyers. TV pitchmen. Celebrities accused of sexual impropriety involving golf clubs. Shrug. Shrug. Shrug. And shrug again. Only a fool would take anything they said seriously.
But it’s a totally different matter when it comes to the amount of snow that falls on certain Maine mountains. Skiers, from rank novices to Olympic-class experts, receive the daily reports of conditions on the slopes with the same reverence accorded to Moses when he came down off a non-ski mountain with God’s conditions inscribed on stone tablets.
God indicated the trail ahead was going to be mixed granular with a high probability of death cookies.
As it turned out, God was correct. Which may have been the last time that could be said about a report on ski conditions. Because a new study shows that ski operators may have the same credibility problems as politicians and oversexed celebs.
According to research conducted by two Dartmouth College professors, many ski areas regularly exaggerate the amount of snow they receive.
Is nothing sacred?
Eric Zitzewitz, an associate professor of economics (uh oh, I’m feeling a shrug coming on) at Dartmouth, told Vermont Public Radio that comparisons of reported snow totals on ski slopes and at nearby weather stations throughout the eastern Untied States showed consistent disparities, with the resorts generally claiming they got significantly more of the white stuff than the weather stations reported. Zitzewitz admitted that this disparity could have been attributable to slight differences in terrain, except that the ski areas’ snow claims were even more exaggerated on weekends, when most people hit the slopes.
An official spokesperson for the ski industry disputed the study, claiming that if any resort were using bogus snowfall statistics, the offending location would be exposed immediately by its competitors. The spokesperson didn’t explain who would be doing the exposing in the event the competitors were also inflating their numbers.
What both the Dartmouth scholars and the skiing spinmeisters failed to point out is that the seemingly inaccurate figures could have been the result of the researchers’ failure to translate the traditional system of snow measurement used on most ski mountains into the more familiar scale of inches, feet, and yards employed by the non-skiing world (except the metric parts — and who can tell if they’re exaggerating, what with hectares and nanoseconds and stuff).
As most skiers know, ski areas count snowflakes by the inch. One flake equals one inch of powder. Two equals two inches. Anything over five snowflakes, in ski-resort terminology, is considered six inches of new snow. If the mountain really does get six standard inches, that translates as one foot of ski snow. An actual foot is equal to two or three feet depending on whether the scale used is the greedy-for-business scale or the desperate-for-business scale. Any amount more than that is defined as six feet of fresh powder.
Skiers know this and adjust accordingly. They also understand that it’s not just the numbers that must be translated. The meteorological terminology has to be converted to conventional usage. For instance, in ski-lingo, rain is called “mixed precipitation,” and is automatically good for six inches of snow. Ice is a mythical thing and is never mentioned. Bare ground is referred to as “good seasonal conditions.” “Groomed” may be employed as a synonym for either corduroy or “impassable even in a Sno-Cat.” “Short lift lines” could mean that while waiting for your next run, you’ll have time to set up a grill and barbeque a steak.
It’s not that ski areas lie like politicians or get their facts wrong like economists. It’s just that the translation from mountain-speak to English can be misconstrued.
Moses may have had the same problem. There are still people trying to strangle each other over what he meant by “Thou shalt not kill.”
The winter-sports industry is hardly alone in experiencing communications problems. The U.S. Postal Service also seems to be having difficulty with its public utterances. In a recent story in the Portland Press Herald, Tom Rizzo, spokesman for the post office’s northern new England district, admitted that hours at fifty-two branch post offices across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont had been cut, but refused to say which branches or what states they were in. Rizzo said that to do so would provide the USPS’s competitors, such as FedEx, UPS, and the Surly Tortoise Delivery Service, with invaluable information.
I’m sure that wasn’t what Rizzo meant. His statement has to be the result of language difficulties. Surely, the post office is more concerned about informing its customers of changes in opening hours than it is in hindering private enterprise from providing the services it refuses to offer, fails to offer, or offers at a much higher price. What Rizzo probably meant was that delivery conditions this time of year are excellent, and most of your Christmas gifts should be where they’re supposed to be by New Year’s Day. Or Martin Luther King’s birthday. Or spring.
Except the ones that get lost.
He did say that anyone with complaints could fill out a form.
That’s catering to the consumer.
Speaking of which, I recently had the opportunity to deal first-hand with one of those monolithic organizations that present themselves to the public through automated phone systems carefully designed to thwart any possible positive outcome (“To leave a profanity-laced message, please press 1875210607. Twice”).
Early in the morning of Nov. 28, the electricity went out across a wide swath of western and central Maine due to high winds and trees constructed of cheap, low-grade wood imported from China.
I didn’t care. I was asleep. But when I was finally driven from my bed by a combination of doggish affection and threats from my wife, I was forced to face the reality of life without power, but with a houseful of Thanksgiving guests.
I didn’t flinch. I live in rural Maine, where dealing with the elements is an everyday necessity. I possess the pioneer spirit that carried our forbears across a continent. I also had an old-fashioned phone that works even when the lights don’t.
I called Central Maine Power.
I pushed buttons to inform them that my power was out. I pushed more buttons to tell them I didn’t know the cause of the outage. I was assured by the automated voice that a work order had been issued, and power would be restored with all the haste displayed by Congress in passing health-care reform.
I then turned to the matter of food. There was plenty in the refrigerator, but you’re not supposed to open it because everything will spoil. So, like my hardy ancestors, I improvised. “Fritos,” I offered, “with mayonnaise.”
There were few takers, leaving me no choice but to forage for more satisfying fare. I donned the proper garb and set out into the wilderness. I carefully examined signs. I followed tracks. I caught a scent.
All that led me to a restaurant in Kingfield, where I bought breakfast burritos.
By mid-afternoon, the power was back on, and I was recovering from my brief role as a contestant on “Survivor: Carrabassett Valley” by watching college football and eating leftover turkey. After that, there were cocktails, dinner, more cocktails, and bed. I thought no more of my call to CMP and its robot receptionist.
Until 1 a.m., when the phone rang. I eventually managed to get the receiver to my ear and mumbled a cheery greeting.
“Ummph,” I said.
“Hello, Mr. Diamon,” said the perky voice of an indisputably live human being. “I’m sorry to call so late, but this is Central Maine Power, and I’m checking to see if your power is back on.”
I wasn’t sure. My eyes were closed.
To be safe, I decided to give a noncommittal answer.
“Ummph,” I said.
“That’s great,” said the live human being. “How’s the skiing up your way?”
“Ummph,” I said.
“Really?” said the live human being. “I’ll have to get the family up there next weekend. It’s been a long time since we’ve had conditions that good.”
Al Diamon does not ski, mail many letters, or hunt. And henceforth, he won’t be answering the phone at 1 a.m. So, you’ll have to reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.