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Snowmaking concentrated on bottom of mountains

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Skiers and snowboarders weren't the only ones hailing last weekend's snowfall and the fresh powder.

Those responsible for keeping the mountains blanketed in white also breathed a sigh a relief.

"We haven't seen one of those in a long time – a good old-fashioned snowfall," said Bob Dufour, director of operations for Whistler-Blackcomb.

The mountains were covered with about four feet of snow over the weekend. And while highway closures prevented some from getting to Whistler, those who were already here had some of their best days ever on the slopes.

"From (U.S.) Thanksgiving to this past weekend it was an incredible change," said Dufour. "This is an incredible start. That four feet made a big difference."

About 24 inches of snow fell on Saturday alone, and as a result of the heavy snowfall, about 50 per cent of the Whistler Blackcomb terrain was open – more than any other ski resort in North America.

Locals and guests were also treated to the greatest available vertical drop in North America, at 4,700 feet, according to a recent press release from Whistler-Blackcomb. Skiers and boarders had access to about 3,500 acres over the past weekend, only half of Whistler Blackcomb's 7,071 acres. Those areas that were open were serviced by 11 lifts, including seven high-speed quads.

Dufour remains very confident that the remaining terrain will be open by Christmas.

To achieve this end, he said they are changing their snow making tactics and beginning to focus their attention on the lower mountains.

With mid-mountain now about 80 per cent open, the snow guns will be moved to make snow further down the mountains.

"Our main goal is to secure the ski out and have skiing from top to bottom," he said.

Over the weekend the Whistler ski out was open and now the guns are concentrating on Blackcomb.

Then the next big push is to get Creekside ready, and after that Dufour says they will be concentrating on the top.

"Weather permitting, we are confident that we can have part of the Peak open this weekend," he said.

While Dufour is pleased with the results of the huge snowfall over the past weekend, he still cautions people that these are still early season conditions out there.

"The Peak chair looks fine from the Roundhouse but once you get down that first pitch there's a lot of debris," he said.

He said the groomers, patrollers and avalanche control are trying to get the mountain open as quickly as possible but there are still a lot of hidden obstacles.

"The first thing we want to do is make sure those obstacles are marked," he said.

Both the Glacier Express on Blackcomb and Harmony on Whistler were opened as early as 11 a.m. last Sunday and Dufour said this was quite a feat.

A combination of factors goes into opening up the different sections of the mountains. Groomers are on the mountain throughout the night and the forecasters are at the top first thing in the morning.

Over the past four years the staff at Whistler-Blackcomb has also been relying on snow experts to develop their snow science program.

"We don't have a lot of extremely cold days here so it is a challenge for snow making," Dufour said.

The snow experts explain to the groomers and snow makers what makes good snow and good surface on the mountain. They also explain the phases of what happens to natural snow.

Dufour said this makes the staff much more aware of what they should be doing in different scenarios.

"The guys all follow the recommended procedures and settings to make quality snow," said Dufour.

Even with the push on to make more snow on the mountain, Dufour still emphasizes that natural snow that buried Whistler this weekend is an incredible start to the 2001-02 season.

Especially with all the worry about getting the mountain open in time for Thanksgiving, this snowfall has taken off the pressure quite a bit.

"It just made the complete difference," Dufour said.

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