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Snowfall bolsters B.C.’s ski hills, but resorts understand need to diversify

Ski resort operators used to the ebbs, flows of winter weather: Canada West Ski Areas Association CEO
Fernie Alpine Resort on opening weekend in December 2023. The resort opened as scheduled in 2023, compared to other skil hills throughout the province that had to delay opening or close briefly. (Gillian Francis)

Winter is expected to rear its head, and with it could come some help for ski hills throughout B.C.

While a recent spell of warmer and drier weather led to delayed starts at some B.C. ski hills, it’s something that operators are prepared for and plan all year for, says Christopher Nicholson.

Nicholson is the CEO of Canada West Ski Areas Association, and he said ski-area operators are accustomed to ebbs and flows.

“I think the contrast is perhaps magnified because over the last few seasons B.C. and Western Canada has had a very, very strong start to the year. When you contrast that with this year – which isn’t unprecedented – it creates more of a glaring contrast between the seasons.”

He explained ski resorts throughout B.C. are seeing a variety of experiences when it comes to snow this winter.

Nicholson said the majority of snow accumulation comes in January, and especially February and March.

“There’s still a lot of lot of time to go for the season.”

Big White, just east of Kelowna, had to delay its opening at least twice. At the end of 2023, fewer than half of Whistler Blackcomb’s trails were open and Mount Seymour in North Vancouver closed entirely while waiting for better conditions. Mount Washington, west of Vancouver Island’s Comox, was able to open in early December with the help of some snowmaking.

READ MORE: No snow, no go: Kelowna ski resort delays opening day again

READ MORE: Warm weather, lack of snow wreaks havoc on some B.C. ski hills

Matt Mosteller told Black Press Media the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies have been “fortunate along the Powder Highway” of B.C. Mosteller is the spokesperson for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which represents four ski areas: Fernie Alpine Resort, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, Kimberley Alpine Resort and Nakiska Ski Area.

In the Kootenays, Fernie’s Alpine Resort had a blanket of fresh snow for opening day on Dec. 2, 2023. To date, the resort has seen more than 270 cm of snow. It was also business as usual at Kicking Horse, which also opened on schedule.

READ MORE: Mount Washington officially opens for the year; snow base sits at 40cm

PHOTOS: Locals hit the slopes on Fernie Alpine Resort’s opening weekend

That cooler, snowy weather could be coming even sooner.

Environment Canada meteorologist Brian Proctor told Black Press Media Thursday (Jan. 4) that winter is set to “rear its head right now,” with colder air beginning to develop in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It’s expected to settle southward over the next few days, bringing snow to many ski resorts and also giving the possibility of mixed rain and sow in the south coastal areas.

Proctor said that with the upcoming winter weather, ski resorts that haven’t seen much snow will get a bit of a reprieve.

“We’re starting to see a bit of a snowpack. That snowpack is what we really need this time of year. It helps recharge our reservoirs. It helps build moisture availability moving into spring, which really helps us getting addressing wildfire potential out there.”

Proctor added that as the weather moves toward more seasonal norms, “it’s going to be quite a shock for a number of people out there.” He reminded people to stay attuned as the weather changes.

READ MORE: Expected big dump of snow triggers travel advisories for B.C. highways

Proctor said the south and coastal areas saw a few atmospheric rivers in early December, but those largely fell as rain. There was also a significant moisture deficit in the late fall, early winter across almost all of the province.

“So even those areas that saw fairly significant precipitation, they’re still in a bit of a drought situation,” he said, with northwest B.C. being the only probable exception.

That drought has been impacting B.C. over the course of the last several months.

Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president at Big White, said the resort was booming in December, due in part to the unpredictable snowfall elsewhere in the province.

For the first time ever, Ballingall explained, the company that books rentals at Big White booked more visitors than at Whistler in the month of December. With more than 5,500 “head-in-beds nights” at the resort, Big White is matching its pre-pandemic levels.

But what Nicholson refers to as destination resorts – communities that people would go an spend a couple of days at, not just a day trip – have worked to diversify.

Those resorts, Nicholson said, measure beyond the number of people skiing or snowboarding. They also look at utility flows, meaning the amount of water used. It’s a measure of how many people are in those communities during that time period.

“Through this holiday period, many of them were at very high levels. It speaks to this diversification where people are doing things, including skiing,” Nicholson said. “They’re vacationing with their families.

“These are very, very important visits when you’re looking at restaurants, hotels, activity operators, and all those other kinds of ancillary businesses that employ people, but also are part of the broader community.”

It’s an indication of how ski resorts plan for their futures.

“They’re understanding that the diversification that goes into summer, too. As opposed to just having a traditional winter resort, you’re also investing in mountain bike trails or events and concerts or other kinds of activities. What it allows, and what’s happened in British Columbia, is this global model.”

Nicholson explained ski hills throughout the province do a lot of work in the summertime, through various strategies, to create a good skiing experience in the winter. Snowmaking, he said, has also become a big strategy, as well as what’s referred to as snow farming.

“If you’re snow making, you’re maybe maximizing your snow production at certain periods of the year when it’s very cold. You’re stockpiling it and then you’re farming it out to different areas or you’re using snow fences to do the same kind of thing.”

He added that longer-term, ski-area operators are also looking at elements such as trail design.

“People talk a lot about Whistler, which is absolutely a global leader, but you look at Panorama, Fernie, Big White SilverStar, Sun Peaks. These are all communities that now employ thousands of people and are major economic generators east of the Coquihalla, major economic generators within the interior of British Columbia, and that extends up north as well.”

– With files from The Canadian Press, Erin Haluschak, Gillian Francis

Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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