Powder Skiing, The Grateful Dead & a Buoy
January 8, 2021
What does a Pacific Ocean weather buoy, the Grateful Dead and Utah powder have in common? (This is not a trick question!) We explain below.
I was on the Wildcat lift at Alta when I first heard about this weird internet post called Powder Buoy. Wildcat, affectionately known as “The Kitty”, is an old double chairlift on the western edge of Alta that often serves as our ride home. It was nearing the end of a storm day, and I had hopped on the chair with another single. There was that slightly awkward moment of silence. Does one talk or leave the other in peace? At some point we started chatting about storm skiing, and my fellow traveler commented that the Powder Buoy guy’s prediction had been spot on. Through the wind and snow he mumbled about a Pacific Ocean buoy, the Grateful Dead and two week storm predictions. My chair buddy was younger than I (easy to be) so, yes, it did occur to me that he had recently inhaled.
But how could we not check into this site? We spend summers on the ocean searching for buoys in the Maine fog, we still go to Dead concerts and somehow all this connected to our favorite subject, Utah powder. Enter Powder Buoy into our lives. At first it was just for fun. Why not check out an Instagram that, based on weather hitting a buoy in the middle of the Pacific, would predict powder two weeks out in Utah and somehow had a connection to the Grateful Dead. (The Powder Buoy logo features the Grateful Dead Steal Your Face, a buoy and snowflake.) How crazy. But then over that winter we started to notice something very strange – most of the time the Powder Buoy spoke truth!
We have been talking about tracking down the genius responsible for Powder Buoy for some time. Last week we accomplished that and the Powder Buoy keeper (aka Mike Ruzek) was kind enough to speak to us (via Zoom, of course). After sharing our east coast roots and horror stories of learning to ski Alta powder we turned our attention to the key topic.
conSKIerge: You are one of our skiing related folk heroes so we have really wanted to talk to you. Let’s start at the beginning. What is your ski history and where are you from?
PB: I grew up in northern NJ and started skiing when I was 2 or 3. We skied Hidden Valley and Vernon Valley. I ski raced in high school, and by 10th grade I decided I wanted to move out west. I had this pipe dream that I could walk on to the Utah Ski Team. Of course, I discovered that wasn’t even remotely close to happening since all the people on the team were world cup caliber skiers or retired world cup skiers from all over the world.
conSKIerge: And somehow you became a Grateful Dead fan along the way?
PB: Yeah. In 88/89 growing up in NJ I just fell into it. I thought it was just a chapter in my life I had closed once Jerry died, but now I listen to them pretty regularly. (At this point he showed me his Atomic Grateful Dead skis he had leaning against his office wall, explaining that he only skied them once and now views them as art.)
conSKIerge: How the hell did you get into this Powder Buoy thing anyway? Where is this buoy and how does it predict our powder days?
PB: The buoy is about 200 miles northeast of Hawaii. And how I got into this is super random actually. Back in 04/05 I had a client who lived half the year in Utah and half the year in Hawaii. He was a big surfer, and the surfers have been tracking these types of buoys forever. They want to know when the best swells are coming. So we would talk when he was in Hawaii, and I would notice that several weeks after there were big swells in Hawaii we would get hit with a good storm here in Utah. We started looking at it together over time and really noticed a direct correlation.
I am no meteorologist, but in looking at weather maps from NOAA you can see that many of the storms we get in Utah sweep northeast from Hawaii up towards Alaska and then sweep down into the US rocky mountains. An intense period of increased swells tends to indicate a low pressure system headed for the US. We ended up focusing in on this one buoy because it has no land masses near it to interfere with the weather patterns.
conSKIerge: We have noticed over the last couple winters your predictions seem pretty accurate.
PB: Well they certainly aren’t 100% accurate, but I am pretty confident that it is roughly 80% accurate that something will happen in Utah approximately two weeks after sustained increased swell activity. The last time I analyzed it was about three years ago. I did a five year look back and the predictions were roughly 83% accurate. I gave myself a couple day fudge factor, and I was basically looking at whether we got some new snow. Sometimes it would be way more than I thought, and sometimes of course we might get only 3-5 inches.
If there is a large spike in the wave heights we typically see much greater amounts of snow in the storm that follows. And when the buoy is elevated at modest heights for a long period of time it often means we should expect a series of smaller storms. The one thing that can really throw it all off is if there is a big high pressure system sitting on top of us. The 20% when this system doesn’t work is usually due to a high pressure system blocking the storm, and it stays north of us and Jackson will get snow instead of us.
conSKIerge: Is the delay time really about two weeks? Is it that predictable?
PB: Yeah it averages about two weeks. There can be some delay and it really depends on the wind velocities as to how quickly the storms get pushed here. A few years back someone actually put together a formula specifically for powder buoy that took all the variables like wind speed and analyzed it all, but I think that got taken off the internet. That was clearly taking the whole thing too seriously.
conSKIerge: When did you start to go public with all this and how did the word spread?
PB: I started using it just for my own personal planning. I would schedule my workdays around the swell patterns of the buoy. I would intentionally leave a couple mornings open in the two week time period after an increased pattern of swells. I told my friends about it so they could plan also. Several friends encouraged me to put it online so they wouldn’t have to bother me with phone calls. I did that for fun, and it just organically started getting followers. I have no idea how people found the site but it just grew over time. I am just a guy who likes to ski, and I am doing it for the fun of it. The buoy has always been a tool for me to manage my work life balance. I keep the mornings free if I know a storm is coming, or I prep to pull one of my kids out of school if I know a storm is coming. People take themselves and life so seriously, and this is specifically designed to be all about fun and the ski/outdoor lifestyle. Work to live vs. live to work.
At that point we shared some war stories that we won’t bore you with. But there you have it folks – follow Powder Buoy on Instagram @powderbuoy and Facebook! Or check out the website at Powderbuoy.com. And yes folks, there is now pretty cool Powder Buoy swag – hats, gaiters and stickers! We just ordered ourselves some gaiters to use as our styling masks on the slopes.
And as for Powder Buoy current predictions – For several weeks Powder Buoy had been predicting snow for early this week Jan 5/6/7 and that played out well with Alta get 8-10 inches. The buoy predictions for several weeks have also indicated the next meaningful snow for Utah will be around January 15/16. While still a week away, recent forecasts from other sources are now suggesting it is likely that prediction will come true also. See Open Snow Utah Forecast
THE buoy is a 3-meter discus buoy that floats in the Pacific Ocean 190 nautical miles Northwest of Kauai.