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Cold snap bodes well for mountains' opening day

Whistler Blackcomb says 11 runs will be ready by opening day, Nov. 27
A Powder divine Whistler Blackcomb athlete Stan Rey gets a sneak peak of the goods on Whistler Mountain on Monday, Nov. 10. Photo BY Mitch Winton/Coast Mountain Photography courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb

Even just a week ago, if you were to look up at the snow line, you could be forgiven for thinking that Whistler Blackcomb (WB) may have some trouble getting enough runs ready for opening day.

But with a recent cold snap dropping alpine temperatures to as low as -12C, the resort's 240 snow guns have kicked into high gear, turning six million gallons of water into powder in under 24 hours earlier this week.

"(Snowmaking has) picked up considerably given the cold temperatures that are here finally," said WB mountain operations manager Adam Francis.

"We're at full force here to get everything open for (Nov.) 27, our projected opening at this time."

Francis would not comment on whether the resort will be ready ahead of the projected opening day, as is the case most years, but WB confirmed that at least six runs will be open on Whistler and five on Blackcomb, as well as the Peak 2 Peak.

Francis estimated there is about a two-metre base of snow in the alpine at press time, with 25 to 30 centimetres of natural snow, reaching about halfway up Ego Bowl towards Emerald Express, which has been augmented by snowmaking efforts.

Whistler Blackcomb has also benefitted from the addition of over a dozen new snow guns over the last year-plus, which has increased snowmaking capacity. The long-term goal is to replace WB's existing fleet with new, automated carriage fan guns, Francis said.

The effects of climate change on the resort are never far away from the minds of Whistler Blackcomb's operational team, which was cemented by relatively low levels of snowfall to start the 2013/14 ski season. In fact, mitigating the growing impacts of climate change has been underwritten into all WB operations since at least the turn of the century, explained environmental resource manager Arthur De Jong, who authored an extensive report on the topic last year.

"We've looked at this in great depth," he said. "Climate change has been the umbrella focus with our sustainability policy, and that policy has been in existence for about a decade and a half."

Part of the resort's preparations for climate change and global warming lies in the snowmaking efforts — WB has doubled its snowmaking capacity in the last four years alone. But a vital part of those efforts is also taking place in the warmer months.

"We continually summer groom our runs, and that's a critical part too where every year we invest in smoothing out the contours of given ski trails," De Jong said.

Should the valley experience devastating snow years in the future like the ones seen in 1976 and even 2005, the resort should have the capacity to continue offering skiing at higher elevations, explained De Jong.

"Half of our terrain is above the tree line, so we have considerable vertical to work with," he said.

"We'll always be able to keep our white lines to the valley with snowmaking, we've already made that investment, but you may see lift capacity become more of a focus — and we're talking decades ahead — into the alpine zones."

As part of De Jong's research while preparing his report on climate change, he pored over 38 years of weather data to track significant trends. What he found was eye opening.

"We are actually seeing more and not less snow (over the last 38 years), particularly at mid and higher elevations, with slightly more snow in the valley," he explained, attributing the pattern to Whistler's proximity to the ocean, which typically moderates the effects of global warming.

What was troubling, however, was the trend De Jong saw taking place in the warmer months.

"What really surprised me was the summer temperature," he said. "(It's) increased by two degrees Celsius over the last 38 years and that is why our glaciers are receding."

The average winter temperature in Whistler, meanwhile, has increased by just 0.4 degrees over the same period. To combat the effects of the hotter summers in Whistler, WB lays polyfelt tarps over the glaciers within its boundary. The tarps saves half a metre of snowmelt a week.

"We lay those... on the critical parts of the T-bar tracks, because if they melt out it's a detriment to the operation of the lifts," said Francis.

Looking at the issue from a broader perspective, De Jong said Whistler Blackcomb must continue to be an example in environmentally conscious practices and sustainability across the globe.

"I believe we have, as an expectation that we put on ourselves, to be an example, to set the bar in terms of what it takes to be resilient in the long run," he said. "Our goal is to become a company with a zero-operating footprint, and I think that's critical because we're setting an example not just to the ski industry but for the tourism sector globally that it's possible to run our operations with far less impact."

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