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Snowmaking provides ski-outs

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Even though Mother Nature is now peppering the mountains with snow, skiers and snowboards have a man-made source to thank for being able to ski-out this weekend: 269 snow guns.

Since the beginning of October — when the freezing level started creeping down the mountains — staff at Whistler Blackcomb have been firing up the fleet of snow guns harder than ever before to get the mountains covered.

Jodie McCutcheon, Whistler Blackcomb’s snowmaking manager, said at one point the guns were making nine million gallons a day. That is the equivalent of a football field of snow 44 feet deep.

Now, because of dropping temperatures and lowering water supplies, McCutcheon said the guns are making 3.5 million gallons a day.

The hard work has paid off.

As of Saturday — before the snow started falling — skiers and snowboarders could ski out at all the major points on both mountains: to Upper Village and village from Blackcomb, and to the village and Creekside from Whistler.

“I have just hit some pretty big goals obviously in the last couple days getting that done, so that is huge for us here at Christmas time,” said McCutcheon.

McCutcheon said he is now working on Dave Murray, Raven and Ptarmigan runs.

The snow guns, however, suck up a lot of electricity.

According to Arthur De Jong, environmental resource manager for Whistler Blackcomb, the guns use up one-forth of Whistler Blackcomb’s total energy each year, or 32 gigawatt hours.

Right now, with snowmaking at full-force, the guns consume 50 per cent of Whistler Blackcomb’s energy.

The company is carefully watching their energy levels, said De Jong.

Since B.C. Hydro has set up parameters to prevent erratic spikes in the electrical grid — and charges a higher rate for those who go over this threshold — Whistler Blackcomb has put monitors all over the mountains. The monitors set off alarms when the energy use approaches the second threshold.

“As long as we understand what the implications are both financially and environmentally, we will decide whether we go to the next level of demand or we simple pull back,” said De Jong.

“In this operating situation, every acre of skiing matters significantly right now… It is an easy management decision. We would easily accept a peak going beyond a set threshold because of the imperative to the resort to produce as much snow as possible.”

Now that snow is in the weather forecast — and falling from the skies — De Jong said Whistler Blackcomb will start to pull back its snowmaking.

Fourteen centimetres of snow fell between Saturday and Sunday, and more has come since then.

Whistler Blackcomb is also working to offset its electricity needs.

De Jong said driving a car from Nordic Estates to the Upper Village and back each day emits more carbon than spending the whole day on the mountains.

Part of this offset is being achieved through the Fitzsimmons Creek Hydro Project, he said. When completed, the hydro project will be able to produce 33.5 gigawatt hours of hydro-electricity a year.

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