Further evidence of the fortunate, snowy position Whistler is in this winter, while other ski areas have been thirsting for the stuff, came on a trip to San Francisco last weekend.
Baggage on flights between Vancouver and San Francisco included lots of skis and snowboards, as Californians seem to have given up on winter in their home state. Indeed, sunny skies and warm temperatures inspired some residents to dawn shorts and T-shirts on the weekend.
And above the bicycles, pedestrians and clean cars of the dry San Francisco streets was this billboard for Shell Oil advertising free skiing at four California resorts with the purchase of 10 gallons of gasoline. (Apologies for the fuzziness of the photo).
In fact, the offer is good at 19 ski areas in California, Oregon and Colorado, and another 25 in Michigan, from Jan. 2 to April 16.
The fine print reveals that the voucher for a free ticket must be paired with the purchase of a full price adult lift ticket, which could be $96 at Squaw Valley, one of the participating California ski areas.
However, with regular unleaded gasoline selling for about $3.70 a gallon in California, the discount is still significant.
The fundamental problem, and presumably the reason for the offer, is the lack of snow. The first big snowstorm of the winter hit California/Nevada just over a week ago. The Squaw.com website this morning is claiming: “With close to five feet of new snow in the last week Squaw is back in the winter groove.” However, daytime temperatures will be well into the 40s F again this week and Squaw’s snow base is still between 30 and 36 inches.
Whistler can count its blessings; they measured 248 cm at Pig Alley this morning.
As one of the few ski areas in North America blessed with plentiful snow this winter, Whistler continues to enjoy nearly holiday-like visitor numbers well into the second week of the New Year. Californians, Brits and eastern Canadians are following the snow and joining regional visitors to make January 2012 one of the strongest in recent years.
For most other North American resorts, however, this winter has not been nearly so good. According to the New York Times, the snowpack in the Lake Tahoe basin was just 9 per cent of normal on Jan. 1. Squaw Valley had a base of 12 inches as of this morning.
In Colorado, for the first time in 30 years a lack of snow has prevented Vail from opening its Back Bowls, although investment in snowmaking has paid off. As of Tuesday, Vail had 21 of 31 lifts operating and 111 of 193 runs open despite a base of just 22 inches.
In New England, colder temperatures this week are offering some salvation but the snow drought has now made the number of snowmaking machines a resort owns one of the vital statistics. Weather reports now refer to “snowmaking conditions,” i.e. freezing temperatures.
Some of the bigger resorts are scrambling but still finding ways to stay in business despite the lack of snow. “Even in what has been a very, very difficult situation in terms of national snowfall, our total revenue is actually up,” Robert A. Katz, chief executive for Vail Resorts, told the Times. Vail Resorts reported that season-to-date lift-ticket revenue increased 0.6 per cent and ski school revenue was up 0.9 per cent compared with last season, when record snowfall was reported across its resorts.
Inevitably, the disparity in snowfall has led to the “haves” trying to attract customers from this winter’s “have nots.” Big Sky in Montana, for example, claims to have the most snow in the U.S. Rocky Mountains and is offering Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass holders free skiing this month if they book lodging through Big Sky Central Reservations.
Closer to home, at Red Mountain Resort in Rossland where all 88 runs are open and there is a 110 cm base of natural snow, they are offering 30 days of free lift passes to U.S. visitors who book through Red Mountain Resort lodging using the booking code RedsGotSnow, according to the Times.
Of course, every ski area offers deals in January, particularly in these economically uncertain times. But weather is becoming as hard to predict as the economy, and ski areas — like Whistler — that have snow this year may find the situation quite different next year.
Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.
— attributed to Mark Twain
Whistler has enjoyed a good holiday season, by most accounts. Visitor numbers have been strong, the village has been alive with people, the ski school has been busy and anecdotal reports from high-end restaurants suggest some people are ready to spend money again.
And, of course, we deserve it. Whistler has worked hard in a tough economy over the last few years, improving service, dropping prices, offering innovative packages and increasing value.
But that’s the formula that any serious operator in the tourism business has adopted since 2008. What has helped set Whistler apart from other ski areas this holiday season has been something even more basic — snow.
Even for those who don’t ski or snowboard, snow helps make the holidays special. For those who view the Christmas-New Year’s period as the time for a vacation sliding on snow, ours is the only corner of North America with a relative surfeit of the stuff.
Most California ski areas reported temperatures above 40 F Tuesday. Utah ski areas were only slightly cooler. Ski areas in Colorado had about two feet of snow, on average, this week. Vail had a 19-inch base on Christmas day. Many Colorado ski areas were only operating about 70 per cent of their lifts.
In the east, temperatures remained above freezing, with ski areas in Vermont reporting between three and 18 inches of snow.
By contrast, Whistler Blackcomb has been advertising 100 per cent of terrain open, although avalanche and severe weather conditions have meant the alpine hasn’t always been accessible. But with a 158 cm base Tuesday and more snow in the forecast, Whistler Blackcomb — and by extension, all of Whistler — has been blessed.
That has been the case for almost all of the 46 winters lifts have been turning on Whistler Mountain. But it doesn’t mean it always will be so.
The planet is getting warmer and moister. Climates are changing, becoming less predictable. A tiny slice of local evidence includes the years of weather and snow statistics put forward to support Vancouver and Whistler’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
It turned out that the first two months of 2010 were the warmest January and February in Vancouver’s recorded history.
What can we do about it?
Public demand for action on climate change seemed to be reaching consensus about four years ago, but evaporated shortly after the global recession took hold. That’s not to say everyone forgot about climate change, but the economy diverted a lot of attention. The results have included climate-change deniers regaining their voice and federal governments avoiding having to take serious action. You only have to look at Canada’s shameful performance in Durban at last month’s United Nations Climate Change Conference to see where our priorities lie.
South of us, climate change has become, like everything else, a political battle. As the New York Times reported Sunday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this year tried to push through a reorganization that would have provided better climate forecasts to businesses, citizens and local governments. However, Republicans in the House of Representatives blocked it — even though the idea had originated in the Bush administration, was strongly endorsed by an outside review panel and would have cost no extra money. “But the House Republicans, many of whom reject the overwhelming scientific consensus about the causes of global warming, labeled the plan an attempt by the Obama administration to start a ‘propaganda’ arm on climate.”
Whistler faces many issues and political battles in its quest to attain economic, social and environmental sustainability. Doing whatever we can to ensure snow continues to fall in winter and the planet doesn’t get any warmer will help move us toward those goals.
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