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Anxiety levels rising as snow continues to elude Whistler



"I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.

Just like the ones I used to know…."

This year the humming of Christmas songs around town is taking on a slightly more desperate edge, as the skies remain precipitation free.

In fact its more common to see people on mountain bikes than it is to see them carting their skis and boards around town.

Some are reminded of the winters of the late 1970s when for more than three years Whistler Mountain opened late because of a lack of the white stuff.

Could Whistler be heading for a green Christmas this year too?

It’s beginning to look more and more likely as the resort heads into December with more dry weather and warmer than usual seasonal temperatures predicted for at least the next week.

"It’s not unusual to have a high pressure system at this time of year," sad Cindy Vallis of Environment Canada.

"What is unusual is for it to last this long."

Little snow means few skiers or boarders and that’s playing havoc with local businesses that count on a busy winter to carry them through the shoulder seasons.

In Whistler green is not the colour of money.

"I think there is a tremendous amount of angst," said Monica Hayes of Whistler’s Westin Resort and Spa, just named the number one ski resort hotel in North America by Condé Nast.

The first three weeks of December are usually quiet mid-week but it’s usually busy on the weekends, she said.

"… But without any snow people just aren’t coming from the Lower Mainland."

Typically there are 14 snowy days in Whistler in December, bringing about 111 cm of snow. Last year at this time there was 75 cm of snow on the slopes.

And just to remind us that Mother Nature always has the upper hand, between Dec. 8 and 19 last year 302 cm of snow fell. On average there is 208 cm on the slopes by the end of December.

Currently there is 45 cm of snow to ski on, and much of that is man-made thanks to the 120 snow-making machines on the hills. However, those machines need temperatures to be at least -2 to blow out the white stuff and with the frequent temperature inversions that’s been a challenge.

"It’s appalling," said Ian Corney, of Cambridge, England, as he downloaded off Blackcomb Mountain and headed over to try Whistler.

"It’s desperate, it’s devastating."

Corney said he and his friends knew what the conditions were like before they left home and despite the marginal snow they are having a good time.

"I’d certainly come back," he said.

The mountains are hoping El Nino will eventually work her magic. Historically that has meant drought in October and November then get your snow shovels out for the rest of the winter.

Bookings for the Christmas season are up over last year and most are keeping their fingers crossed that it will be a busy year.

Despite the rumours around town neither mountain plans to shut down operations.

"Absolutely we are not shutting down," said mountain spokesman Christopher Nicolson.

He admitted the poor snow is costing the mountain, not just in loss of revenue, but also in operational costs as helicopters and manpower are being used frequently to maximize snow production.

"But we are committed to our guest and the locals," said Nicolson. "We offer this product, we got it going when we said we would and we will continue to do so."

Mountain staff are also on hold although the situation is little different than last year.

Back then Whistler Blackcomb was waiting to see how the terrorist attacks on New York would affect business so they staggered their start dates leading up to the busy Christmas season.

"It is not much different this year," said Kirby Brown, director of employee experience.

"Most don’t expect to get full paycheques until Christmas."

At the moment the focus is on year-round staff and long-time returning staff.

Strategies are being looked at to deal with employees if the no-snow situation continues.

"We are focusing on keeping people around," said Brown, adding that having enough employees is key to making sure the guest has the best experience possible.

The local taxi service is also suffering and has already had cancellations for pick-ups at the airport over the Christmas season.

So far Tourism Whistler has not had any bookings cancelled over Christmas, but spokeswoman Michele Comeau Thompson said the resort will work with guests to re-book or re-organize holidays if needed.

Even the food bank shelves are empty as the thousands of workers who flood into the resort to work for the season try to stretch their dollars until work starts.