Opinion » Editorial

Weatherproofing Whistler


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The beginning of the week started with the news that Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island was closing until further notice.

In business for 35 years, the resort had already cut services, night-skiing and reduced pass prices — but there is only so much you can do with a very low snowpack, temperatures around 10C and no snow in the forecast.

"We've done everything we could over the past week to try to survive this Pineapple Express — these warm temperatures and the rain," Don Sharpe, director of business operations and marketing for the resort told the Globe and Mail, as the southern part of the province, including Whistler, suffered a deluge of rain.

Mt. Seymour has suspended operations, while on Grouse Mountain only one run out of five was open for the Family Day stat. Other operations are on standby.

Cypress has closed until further notice and Hemlock has closed for the season.

Late last week Grouse Mountain staff made a plea for conditions to improve, writing an open letter on Facebook.

"Please, Mother Nature, let's work together," said the social media missive. "Collaboration is all the rage. We're happy to do a snow dance, meditate, do a little self-reflection. Whatever you need us to do. Just give us back our winter. We know our passholders — and our staff — would certainly appreciate it."

Whistler Olympic Park at The Callaghan closed down Nordic skiing as well last weekend to try and preserve what they have until the snow starts to fall. On Tuesday it said it would re-open this week with limited operations — no fat bikes or tobogganing.

This week social media was full of photos of Whistler's River of Golden Dreams bursting its banks and of the "lake" at the bottom of Glacier Express lift — a drain-blockage problem, and an optics problem too.

There is no denying that it is warm. But let's be thankful that we have alpine skiing where some of the wet stuff is falling as snow.

Are conditions ideal? Obviously not, but Whistler and Blackcomb are open and mountain staff are doing pretty well anything they can (bonfire dances to Ullr, human sacrifice... hmm) to ensure visitors have the best experience they can under the circumstances.

Early in the season snow guns were going full bore, and with an additional 12 added to the fleet this year the investment is proving to be a wise one. Continuing to enhance snowmaking is just good business sense as ski resorts face climate change — Whistler Blackcomb has doubled its snowmaking capacity in the last four years alone to 270 snow guns (it can fill Vancouver's GM Place three times over with snow each season).

Mitigating the growing impacts of climate change has been underwritten into all WB operations since at least the turn of the century, environmental resource manager Arthur De-Jong has explained to Pique in the past.

"We've looked at this in great depth," he said. "Climate change has been the umbrella focus with our sustainability policy, and that policy has been in existence for about a decade and a half."

Should the valley experience devastating snow years in the future like the ones seen in 1976 and even 2005, the resort should have the capacity to continue offering skiing at higher elevations, explained De-Jong. "Half of our terrain is above the tree line, so we have considerable vertical to work with.

"We'll always be able to keep our white lines to the valley with snowmaking, we've already made that investment, but you may see lift capacity become more of a focus — and we're talking decades ahead — into the alpine zones."

Nevertheless the rain raises an issue that comes and goes every year — weatherproofing the resort.

Last January, as the resort experienced a similar weather pattern, the topic came up, and so did some creative thoughts about how to weatherproof, including such grandiose ideas as an indoor themepark/waterpark (think Jay Peak, Vermont).

The need has also been recognized at the municipal level through the Economic Partnership Initiative Committee, which has as one of its strategies to review opportunities to, "Expand Weather-Independent Attractions."

The topic has been included in the RMOW's Economic Development Officer's work plan for 2015 pending approval by council through the budget process.

We continue to see the success of short-term measure taken such as the outdoor icerink and the multiple Family Après evenings at Whistler Olympic Plaza ­— but they are still outside.

And we have a significant number of other activities too, like zip-lining, indoor climbing, indoor tennis, swimming at Meadow Park, indoor trampolines, the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, and more.

The municipality has funding assigned for a study on the expansion of the conference centre to boost conference business, as well.

So do we need to look at weather-independent attractions for year-round use and if we do, what would they look like? How do we marry sport, culture and art into this? With the Audain Art Museum opening this year, could art truly become an attraction, and how can local artists take advantage of this — after all much of our local art reflects the natural wonder we feel living and playing in the Sea to Sky?

Occupancy rates over the first 10months of 2014 were at 55 per cent. This means, of course, that sometimes there wasn't a bed to be had while at other times the resort was quiet. The stated goal is to raise this to around 60 per cent over the whole year so that the resort is busy year-round.

I would argue that increasing destination weather-independent attractions, in line with our brand, must be part of the strategy to achieve this.