Environment

How one B.C. ski hill is coping with a weird, warm winter

“Our revenue was down by 40 per cent. We had to offer discounts of up to 50 per cent on lift tickets because we could not open all our runs for a good portion of December.”

A photo of a man and a woman in skiing gear, standing in front of a green mountain

(Photo-illustration by Maclean’s, photo iStock)

As 2023 came to a close, British Columbia recorded one of its warmest Decembers in recent history—the third-mildest since 1896. It was good news for hikers and cyclists, but not so much for ski hills. Apex Mountain Ski Resort, a ski and snowboarding destination in the Okanagan Valley, had to delay the opening of several of its 80 runs. Then, on January 12 and 13, it closed for two days when the province was hit with an unexpected bout of extreme cold. 

James Shalman, the resort’s general manager, says he hopes that more typical seasonal conditions in the months ahead will allow the mountain to make up the revenue lost to these abnormal temperatures. A lifetime skier himself, Shalman shares how the unpredictable forecast has affected his business, what the resort can do to bounce back, and his outlook on the future of Western Canada’s ski industry.

British Columbia just recorded one of its warmest-ever Decembers—the average temperature from Vancouver International Airport was seven degrees. What did you make of that?

This has been a weird winter for us, to say the least, and December got off to a slow start. First, we had a temperature inversion—a rare event where it’s colder at the bottom of the mountain than at the top. Because of that, it was too warm to make our own snow. We have 12 snowmaking guns that spray compressed water and air onto the mountains, usually in November, to ensure that the natural snow, which usually comes in December, has a base to fall upon. But we need it to be -4° C or colder for them to work properly.

Then, the warm weather continued through the middle of the month, so we could only open half of our runs. In the last week of the year it felt like -40° C with the windchill, and we had to close down the resort entirely for two days. I’ve skied all my life and worked here for 23 years—I cannot remember the last time we had to close due to cold. It made people realize that there is an optimal range of temperature for skiing. Intense cold can be just as bad as heat, and can lead to dangerous, sliding snow.

So, this wasn’t your typical opening. How rare are conditions like this one on the hill? 

You see a slow start like this perhaps once per decade. Last year, we had a huge snowfall in November and were able to open every single run on the mountain a full week before our proposed opening date of December 9. The weather variations from year to year feel mostly random—that time we were lucky.

What do you make of that month of December? Are weather fluctuations like that the new normal, or was this just an off year?

I think it was more of a fluke than an indicator of extreme weather to come. Climate change is scary, and I don’t want to belittle it, but its effects have felt negligible compared to random weather fluctuations. Mother Nature’s whims are a part of skiing, and from what I understand, they’ve affected our business since we opened the mountain in 1961.

Recently, I was talking to clients who skied here around the ’70s: they remember seasons that were very dry and warm with very little snow. That was 50 years ago. This year is also an El Niño year, which means we’re dealing with a dry and warm winter; that might explain the rise in temperature. 

Why do weather fluctuations make it especially difficult to maintain fresh powder?

It’s not just about how much snow is on the ground; it’s also about what type. The ideal temperature for early snowfalls is minus-two. That’s how you get really big, heavy flakes that pack well and prevent sliding. This year, going from warm weather to extreme cold just didn’t allow us to properly pack snow. And having the right snow is important: we have a lot of aggressive, steep hills that need to be properly covered in snow to allow us to open them without risking an avalanche.

You’re one of the only ski resorts in B.C. that makes its own snow. Is that key to your survival? Are the mountains who don’t make snow more at risk of weather-related shutdowns? 

The fact that we make snow from the top of the mountain to the bottom is a saving grace for us. Throughout the year, man-made snow covers an important fraction of our 1,150 acres. But making one’s own snow is not a necessity for all mountains; we’re one of the few resorts in B.C. that cannot fully rely on natural snow. Other resorts have so much natural snow that they need no human intervention—for them, betting on Mother Nature is still relatively safe. 

How has all that affected your client base—and your bottom line?  

The slower start absolutely impacted us financially: our revenue was down by 40 per cent, compared to the year prior. We had to offer discounts of up to 50 per cent on lift tickets because we could not open all our runs for a good portion of December. 

Numbers were also down around the Christmas holidays—which are usually huge for us—because people probably chose other activities in double-digit weather. Then, there were the two full days that we closed down, which definitely hurt. 

And what about now? It seems to be snowing more on the West Coast. Have things gotten better on the slopes? 

Yes—things have completely turned around. Last week, some of our regulars were here and said it was some of the best skiing they’ve had in a long time. All our runs are open, skiing conditions are fantastic, and I think we are back on track. Recent snowfalls have really helped. 

Are you worried about tough weather conditions moving forward? 

Not overly so. There is doom and gloom in the media, but that doesn’t reflect the full picture. Our resort is trending in a good direction, as is skiing in general: the industry grew by 355,000 skiers post-pandemic, and alpine snow sports in Western Canada pump $2.5 billion into the Canadian economy. The fact that we had a slower start was a bit troubling, but there’s also a lot of time to catch up. We are typically open from December to April, and the conditions tend to improve through the season as snow gradually builds on the hill. 

Researchers suggest that snow-making production requirements by the Canadian ski industry will increase by between 55 and 97 per cent by 2050, as climate change brings warmer winters and less natural snowfall. Is this something you expect to happen at Apex?

Some research shows that temperatures are only expected to climb by 1.5 degrees by 2050. That may not affect the amount of snowfall. We are only planning on increasing our snowmaking system marginally over the next decade. 

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What do you do to mitigate tough times? 

At Apex, we have a few other attractions, like an ice-skating adventure trail and a rink for pick-up hockey. We also used to do summer mountain biking and hiking in the off-season. The challenge is that the Okanagan Valley is 7,200 feet above sea level, so snow sticks around until the middle of June, and the ground is moist and mucky for all but two months of the year: July and August. Then it starts being cold again in September. So our summer on the hill is short, and it’s tough to compete for attention with the local lakes, beaches and wineries. That being said, we want to look into summer activities again in the future—especially if we have more tough stretches like we did in December. 

So, despite the odd weather we’re seeing, you’re expecting great conditions for years to come? 

I am, along with the fluctuations and anomalies that all winters bring. We are in an industry dependent on weather, and that’s what makes skiing exciting. There is always randomness: a powdery snowfall on a weekend for us is a jackpot, whereas a powdery snowfall on a Tuesday when people are at work can feel like a missed opportunity. Sometimes, we don’t get fresh snow for several days, and then have to rely on grittier, corduroy runs. But we roll with the punches. For now, the vibe and energy at the resort after such a bounce back is contagious.

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