How one B.C. How one B.C.

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A photo of a man and a woman in skiing gear, standing in front of a green mountain

(Photo-illustration by Maclean’s, photo courtesy of iStock)

As 2023 came to a close, British Columbia recorded one of its warmest Decembers in recent history—the third-mildest since 1896. It was great news for hikers, cyclists, and even for ski slopes. Apex Mountain Ski Resort is a ski and snowboarding destination in the Okanagan Valley. It had to postpone the opening of some of its 80 runs. Then, the resort closed for two consecutive days on January 12-13 when the province was hit by an unexpected bout with extreme cold. 

James Shalman, the resort’s general manager, says he hopes that more typical seasonal conditions in the months ahead will allow the mountain to make up the revenue lost to these abnormal temperatures. A lifetime skier himself, Shalman shares how the unpredictable forecast has affected his business, what the resort can do to bounce back, and his outlook on the future of Western Canada’s ski industry.

British Columbia just recorded one of its warmest-ever Decembers—the average temperature from Vancouver International Airport was seven degrees. What did you think of that?

This winter has been strange to say the least. December started off slowly. First, we had a temperature inversion—a rare event where it’s colder at the bottom of the mountain than at the top. Due to this, it was far too warm to make any snow. We have 12 snowmaking machines that spray compressed air and water onto the mountains in November to ensure the natural snow that usually falls in December has a good base. But we need it to be -4° C or colder for them to work properly.

The warm weather continued into the middle month, and we were only able to open half of our runs. In the last week of the year it felt like -40° C with the windchill, and we had to close down the resort entirely for two days. I’ve skied all my life and worked here for 23 years—I cannot remember the last time we had to close due to cold. It made people aware that there is a certain temperature range for skiing. Intense cold is just as bad as extreme heat and can cause dangerous, sliding snow.

So, this wasn’t your typical opening. How rare are conditions such as this on the hill? 

This slow start happens maybe once every decade. Last year we had a massive snowfall in November, and were able open every run on the mountain one week before our planned opening date of December 9 The weather variations from year to year feel mostly random—that time we were lucky.

What do you think of the month of December? Are such weather fluctuations the new norm, or was it just a bad year?

I think this was more of an accident than a sign of future extreme weather. Climate change is scary, and I don’t want to belittle it, but its effects have felt negligible compared to random weather fluctuations. Mother Nature’s whims are a part of skiing, and from what I understand, they’ve affected our business since we opened the mountain in 1961.

Recently, I was talking to clients who skied here around the ’70s: they remember seasons that were very dry and warm with very little snow. This was 50 years ago. This year is also an El Niño year, which means we’re dealing with a dry and warm winter; that might explain the rise in temperature. 

Why does weather fluctuation make it difficult to maintain a fresh powder?

It’s not just about how much snow is on the ground; it’s also about what type. The ideal temperature to get early snowfalls started is minus two. That’s how you get really big, heavy flakes that pack well and prevent sliding. This year, going from warm weather to extreme cold just didn’t allow us to properly pack snow. It’s also important to have the right snow: we have many steep, aggressive hills that must be covered with snow in order to allow us open them without risking avalanches.

You’re one of the only ski resorts in B.C. You’re the only ski resort in B.C. to make its own snow. Is this key to your success? Are the mountains who don’t make snow more at risk of weather-related shutdowns? 

We are able to make snow all the way down the mountain. Our 1,150 acres are covered with man-made, artificial snow throughout the year. But making one’s own snow is not a necessity for all mountains; we’re one of the few resorts in B.C. It is not possible to rely entirely on the natural snow. Other resorts have so much natural snow that they need no human intervention—for them, betting on Mother Nature is still relatively safe. 

How has all that affected your client base—and your bottom line?  

Our revenue dropped by 40% compared to last year. We had no choice but to offer lift tickets at discounts up to 50 percent because we were unable to open all runs during December. 

Numbers were also down around the Christmas holidays—which are usually huge for us—because people probably chose other activities in double-digit weather. There were also the two days we closed, which hurt. 

What about now, then? It seems that it is snowing more along the West Coast. Has the situation on the slopes improved? 

Yes—things have completely turned around. Last week, some of our regulars were here and said it was some of the best skiing they’ve had in a long time. All of our runs have been opened, the skiing conditions are great, and I believe we are back on course. Recent snowfalls are helping. 

Are you worried that the weather will be harsh in the future? 

Not at all. There is doom and gloom in the media, but that doesn’t reflect the full picture. Skiing is on the rise, and our resort is no exception. The industry grew 355,000 skiers after the pandemic, Western Canada has a variety of alpine sports, including skiing and snowboarding. $2. 5 billionT he Canadian economy. The fact that we had a slower start was a bit troubling, but there’s also a lot of time to catch up. We are open from December until April and conditions tend improve throughout the season, as snow slowly builds on the slope. 

ResearchersAccording to reports, the Canadian ski industry’s snow-making requirements will increase between 55 and 97% by 2050 as a result of climate change. This is because warmer winters and less snowfall are expected. Do you expect this to happen at Apex Ski Resort?

According to some research, temperatures are expected to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050It may not affect the amount that falls. Over the next decade, we only plan to increase our snowmaking system marginally. 

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What can you do to reduce the impact of tough times? 

At Apex we also have a few attractions like an adventure trail for ice-skating and a pick-up-hockey rink. In the off-season, we used to go hiking and mountain biking in the summer. The Okanagan Valley sits 7,200 feet high above sea level. This means that snow can stay until the middle June and the ground remains moist for all but two of the 12 months of the calendar year. In September, it gets colder again. So our summer on the hill is short, and it’s tough to compete for attention with the local lakes, beaches and wineries. That being said, we want to look into summer activities again in the future—especially if we have more tough stretches like we did in December. 

So, despite the odd weather we’re seeing, you’re expecting great conditions for years to come? 

I am, along the variations and anomalies brought by all winters. We are in an industry dependent on weather, and that’s what makes skiing exciting. It’s always a random thing: for us, a snowfall of powder on a Saturday is a big deal. But a snowfall of powder on a Monday when people are working can feel like a missed chance. Sometimes, we don’t get fresh snow for several days, and then have to rely on grittier, corduroy runs. But we just roll with it. For now, after such a successful bounce back, the energy and vibe in the resort are contagious.

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