Mixing science with art to create the best ski conditions

 Ian Houghton

Ian Houghton

From the coastal slopes of Whistler Blackcomb to the mountain resorts of the interior, British Columbia has what it takes to make the province one of the most sought-after ski and snowboard destinations in the world – perfect snow. And right now there’s lots of it!  

Thanks to latitude, mountains and moisture from the Pacific Ocean, B.C.’s geography provides a combination of conditions to satisfy even the most fastidious winter sports enthusiasts.

The province’s winter weather is mostly influenced by low-pressure systems from the Pacific that move inland and deliver precipitation in the form of rain or snow. Cold and dry arctic high-pressure systems drift over the province from Canada’s north, bringing the kind of temperatures that transform snow into the region’s famous light, dry powder. Add these influences to the province’s stunning geographic diversity, and that means you can experience wide variations in snowfall, temperature and hours of sunshine, often over very short distances.

Whistler Blackcomb is nestled in the mountains of the south coast, where temperatures are warmer than in the north, and precipitation heavier than in the interior. Just a four- or five-hour drive east of Vancouver brings you to the trio of interior resorts – Sun Peaks Resort, SilverStar

Mountain Resort and Big White Ski Resort – in a region that produces snow of legendary lightness. Revelstoke Mountain Resort and Fernie Alpine Resort experience coastal-like precipitation thanks to Pacific weather systems that travel across the province, recharging with moisture from interior lakes before colliding with the Columbia and Rocky Mountains. Kimberley Alpine Resort, Panorama Mountain Resort and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort sit slightly in the lee of the weather fronts, where the air stays cooler and the snow fluffy.

The weather systems and topography ensure B.C.’s mountain resorts receive plenty of snow, and the people in charge of both managing the abundant natural snowfall and making artificial snow to give riders the jump on early season skiing take their jobs seriously.

Snow grooming – smoothing the trails – and snowmaking have evolved from a best guess to a precise science, and sometimes even an art form. A skilled operator at the high-tech controls of a snowcat can groom a steep run like Franz’s at Whistler or Revelstoke’s thigh-burning Snow Rodeo into deliciously carveable corduroy. Or they can sculpt the Telus Park at Big White and the SilverStar Terrain Park into playgrounds that will entertain and challenge the jibbers, big and small.

Snow grooming can also turn difficult conditions like bumpy, icy, chopped-up old powder, and whatever else nature throws at a mountain, into a smooth and forgiving surface that skiers and boarders of all abilities can enjoy. Meanwhile, high-tech snowmaking helps to build the early season snow base, enabling resorts to guarantee high standards of snow quality.

Sun Peaks, less than an hour’s drive north of Kamloops, prides itself on taking advantage of its dry, cold interior location and cranking up the snowmaking guns as early as mid-October.

“Snowmaking technology has become very scientific and continues to become both a science and an art form,” says Barney Mouat, director of outside operations at Sun Peaks. “For example, automated snowmaking equipment has an onboard weather station that will automatically open the water hydrant and deliver a set amount of water that is optimal for a given temperature. The automation is fantastic because the gun adjusts the volume of water it sends out to adapt to the changing weather conditions.”

The other aspect of snow management is grooming. “Six conventional snowcats and two winch cats are capable of grooming 360 acres a night,” says Mr. Mouat, adding that groomers experience the mountain at a beautiful time, when the slopes glisten beneath the moon and stars or snowflakes drift in the beam of the snowcats’ lights. He’s been in the business of snow for 20 years and still can’t get enough of it.

“How do you measure the amount of happiness the snow provides to the hundreds of thousands of skiers and snowboarders who slide over it throughout the year?” he asks.
Perhaps by the smiles produced.

 Ski resorts in British Columbia have teams of snow experts to ensure the slopes are always in the best possible condition. Ian Houghton

Ski resorts in British Columbia have teams of snow experts to ensure the slopes are always in the best possible condition. Ian Houghton

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