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Storm Chasers

Fall Line
posted: 02/13/2004

Snow swirls in the headlights as Steve Conney speeds down Route 40 in pursuit of a snowstorm that's headed for Steamboat Springs, Colo. He skied the storm earlier that day at Utah's Snowbasin, then split at sundown to chase it across the Rockies. Suddenly, a dozen elk appear in his high beams. It's too slippery to slam the brakes, so he grips the wheel, picks a line and somehow slaloms through them. "I came so close," Conney says, "there was fur on my mirrors."

Such is the life of a long-distance storm chaser. While most skiers arrive after a dump, Conney-along with a small tribe of fellow obsessive weather-watchers-tries to arrive before a storm hits. By the time the crowds show up the following day, only Conney's tracks remain: He's already down the road, racing to beat the snow to the next resort. Storm chasing, says the 40-year-old Boulder, Colo., salesman, "is all about timing, and it's always last-minute." It also requires acute attention to weather forecasts.

"Welcome to Storm Chasing Central," Conney says, entering his home office, a Batcave of weather prognostication. This is where every chase begins. Conney's television is perpetually tuned to the Weather Channel. "That's my background music whenever I'm home." A dozen or so weather websites are bookmarked on his computer: forecast chat rooms, tickers that give hourly accumulations, avalanche centers. Combined with the Weather Radio reports he habitually listens to while driving, Conney is immersed, morning to night, in weather reports. His head, it seems, is always in the clouds.

He obsessively studies the seven-day forecast for Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, his primary chasing ground. Three days before a storm is predicted to hit, he turns it up a notch. One day out, it's crunch time. If forecasts predict at least 18 inches (his cutoff for a long-distance chase), Conney reschedules his appointments, throws his "go-bag" in his Audi Quattro and heads out.

On the road, he monitors radio chatter from highway crews on a scanner, which helps him decide which routes to drive, which mountain passes to avoid and where chains are required. He plugs in his laptop at truck stops and checks forecasts and accumulations. He flips through a black book filled with contacts-meteorologists, ski shop workers, hotel clerks-and calls them from his cell phone for ground-zero reports that determine his destination. Chasing storms isn't just an obsession, he says. "It's a disease. I get a pain in my stomach if it's dumping somewhere and I missed it."

It's a disease that allows the former ski patroller to board and ski about 500 inches of powder each season. That may not sound extreme for hardcore ski bums who top 150 days on the slopes annually, but Conney gets all his powder?some 41 feet-in 25 days. He sneers at packed powder. When the sun shines, Conney works long hours at a telecommunications company. But when the blizzard gods blow, Conney saddles up. He burns through nearly all of his three weeks of annual vacation chasing storms. He also conducts business from the road by laptop and cell phone. As long as he hits his sales numbers, his boss doesn't mind him coming in late. Witness a weeklong chase last winter.

Day One: Conney catches a last-minute flight from Denver to Whistler, B.C., where a major storm is forecast. He awakens on Day Two and skis 60 inches. That night, as the storm ebbs and B.C. skiers prepare to hit the mountain in the morning, Conney sees a storm headed for Wyoming. So on Day Three, he flies home and drives seven hours to Jackson Hole. He wakes up on Day Four to 10 inches, a bonanza for locals but disappointing for a chaser. "Sometimes," he says, "you get skunked. It?s inevitable." Day Five: Conney departs before dawn and drives five hours to Snowbird, Utah, where he skis a foot of fresh. Day Six: It's off to Snowbasin, where 14 inches fell overnight. Now the storm is tracking into Colorado, so Conney wolfs dinner and drives five hoours to Steamboat. On Day Seven, he cleans the elk fur from his mirrors and skis 18 inches. Totals: Seven days on the road, five days on the slopes, 114 inches of powder.

Conney estimates he spends about $2,000 on lift tickets, travel and lodgings per winter. He's a penny pincher who uses ticket coupons and signs up for discount cards: "I never pay full price." He's also a devoted couch crasher who keeps a sleeping bag stashed in his car.

Crazy? Maybe. Not everyone has Conney's desire or flexibility (yes, he's single), but any skier who studies forecasts can dramatically increase his powder yield, says Steve Hodanish, a National Weather Service meteorologist. He should know. He scored a 28-inch day last season after watching a storm develop for days. "I've used my job to my advantage," says Hodanish, who writes the southern Colorado forecast. "What's frustrating is seeing a storm coming and not having a day off."

Employees at WSI Corp., a Massachusetts company that provides weather graphics to TV stations and the aviation industry, are blessed with the same problem. They plan trips to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine when they see storms heading in. Some of the company's snow chasers use cell phones and laptops to access the company's airline cockpit weather service. David Laubner, WSI's marketing director, says it's not necessary to be a techie to chase snow-just check the Web. "We're spoiled in the United States because there's so much good weather data available for free." Conney agrees. "It's not rocket science. Anyone can watch the Weather Channel."

But few skiers do. "Steve's a unique guy," says Chris Kirk, a former Snowbird concierge who got to know Conney after seeing him repeatedly blow into town in the middle of the night whenever the snow was flying. "He's an expert at the surgical strike." That's high praise for a guy who was 50 pounds overweight in his 20s and once dressed as the Pillsbury Dough Boy for Halloween. At five-foot-eight, Conney is trim but not ripped. It's clear after listening to his banter that he must be good at sales.

Asked to explain his obsession, Conney rhapsodizes about the "euphoria" of waking up to a mountain in white. It's why he once walked from Snowbird to Alta in blinding snow at 6 a.m. (He thought the shuttle might not run.) As a child, Conney would flick on the porch light before bed so that when he awoke from a dream, he could watch the snow fall and anticipate playing in it in the morning. As an adult, playing in snow is his reward for chasing storms. But the chase itself remains the thrill. "Anticipation is the essence of storm chasing," Conney says. "If a beautiful woman is waiting for you eight hours away, you don't mind driving all night."

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