Whistler's $60-million snowmaking system opens the slopes, saves the holidays 

WB makes more snow than ever made in an entire season

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Whistler Blackcomb (WB) has smashed its snowmaking record for the season... and there's still five months left to go.

To date, 265 million gallons of water have been converted into snow, eclipsing the Olympic season, the previous record-holder, in which WB converted 225 million gallons over the course of the entire 2009/10 season.

"This is definitely our biggest snow year," said veteran snowmaker Bob Pasch, manager of snowmaking, who oversees a 40-person staff that works around the clock.

"We're going to continue to make a lot of snow. It's going to be snowing later on this week and as the snow comes then we will back off. But the goal is to guarantee our main ski outs to the valley for the end of the season.

"The majority of the snow we make is into early January and then (we) pace production from there or in on how deep our snow pack is for skiing out into the end of the season."

The water is pumped mainly from Fitzsimmons Creek and stored at three on-mountain reservoirs.

The company's $60 million snowmaking infrastructure, $20 million of which came from the 2010 Olympic Games, saved the holiday season. While there wasn't much fresh powder for tourists to enjoy, there were definitely slopes to ski, which is more than can be said for other resorts. Though conditions were marginal, by Whistler Blackcomb's Christmas holiday standards, where they made snow there was good skiing.

Mount Washington on Vancouver Island on the other hand has yet to open, with just 25 centimetres to date compared to 350 centimetres at the same time last year. The company has negotiated a deal with Whistler Blackcomb where passholders can ski in Whistler for free throughout January.

Andrée Janyk, who has spent every day save one on the mountains teaching private ski lessons since Dec. 14, knows first hand what the conditions have been like over the holiday season.

"I think what Whistler Blackcomb has done in terms of the snowmaking is amazing," she said. "We're grateful we had the Olympics and we got all the extra snowmaking machines... The snow is very safe. I just skied out today, Lower Olympic, the quality of the snow is fantastic."

Janyk also skied the Couloir and called the snow "darn good."

"Of course we want snow; everybody wants snow," she said. "But you can't argue with plus six degrees at the top of the mountain with good snow."

In addition to making snow on the runs, the snowmakers were also focused on the terrain parks and the Dave Murray National Training Centre.

Whistler Mountain's terrain park in the Emerald zone was unable to open because there is no snowmaking in that area. A temporary terrain park has been set up at Crabapple. It will likely get moved back to the original location as more snow arrives.

The snowmaking has been critical for building up the big jumps in the highest-level terrain park on Blackcomb, where the Canadian National Snowboard Slopestyle team is currently training.

WB has drawn inspiration from the course at the Sochi Olympics from diagrams and has built something similar on Blackcomb for the team to train.

"It's huge volumes of snow to make these big jumps," said Peter (YP) Young, events manager at WB. "It looks pretty much like it did last year."

The man-made snow has also saved the day for young racers at the Dave Murray Training Centre who were able to keep up their training over Christmas.

This weekend, Whistler is also hosting a race originally slated for Mount Washington for roughly 150 kids.

The team will also be hard at work in preparation for the National Ski and Snowboard Cross teams who will be making Whistler their last pit stop on the way to the Sochi Olympics.

"We're building what we call a start environment," said Young, of the starts that will mimic those at the Olympics. "The most critical part of a ski or snowboard cross race is the start. In the next month we're definitely hosting some serious gold medal potential athletes, which is fun."

In a spirit of cooperation WB also loaned a snow machine to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) to brighten up and whiten up Whistler Olympic Plaza.

"We like to ski powder too and it's coming. It's the law of averages. We've had three dry months in a row so... it's coming," said Pasch. "If not, we'll just keep making more snow!"

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