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Predicted El Nino not fazing ski biz

Meteorologists are saying we’re heading into a warm and wet El Nino winter, raising questions about how Metro Vancouver ski resorts will fare in the 2014-2015 season.
A snowboarder makes his first grind of the season on Grouse Mountain’s opening day. Photo Paul McGrath

Meteorologists are saying we’re heading into a warm and wet El Nino winter, raising questions about how Metro Vancouver ski resorts will fare in the 2014-2015 season.

Grouse Mountain and Cypress Mountain both opened their primary runs in mid-November thanks to good snowmaking conditions.

But the cold snap and natural snow we had earlier this week proved to be more of a dalliance than a long-term relationship and there is a warming trend in Pacific Ocean currents, according to Jennifer Hay, Environment Canada meteorologist.

Those warmer-than-average currents often lead to warmer-than-average West Coast winters and more precipitation.

“Sometimes it can be bad news for our local mountains because the freezing levels will be higher,” Hay said. “If our mountains are at lower elevations or closer to the ocean, sometimes we can be in for not much snow and (it’s) too warm for much man-made snow.”

But Hay added climate patterns are easier to spot after the fact and the end of the winter could end up looking very different from the start.

“In terms of the whole winter, it’s tough to determine. It looks like we’re in for a late start to the ski season. Sometimes when you have an El Nino early in the season, it will shift to La Nina late in the season. It’s possible we could have a good dump of snow late in March,” she said.

Grouse currently has a 43-centimetre base, largely thanks to snow-making operations, according to Jacqueline Blackwell, Grouse’s manager of public relations.

“Even if it doesn’t snow in the next few days, we still have a really good base that’s been built up so further runs can’t be far behind. We’re really happy with where things are,” she said. “When we had that nice stretch of cold and dry weather there, we were pumping out tons of snow. On our upper peak, you could see it accumulate like crazy and our grooming team does a really great job moving that all around. The coverage is definitely there.”

For North Vancouver safety advocate Richard Kinnar, however, the North Shore ski resorts open too early in the name of kicking off their ski season.

Skiers should be protected from low snow packs on rocky terrain, Kinnar said.

“They’re relying on the good will of an industry saying ‘We’re open for business.’ That doesn’t mean they’re safely open for business,” he said.

The province should step in and regulate the ski industry more given its important role in the B.C. economy, Kinnar argued.

But Blackwell said Grouse only opens its hill if the runs are safe for guests.

“On a daily basis, Grouse Mountain opens each run for skiing and riding after our mountain operations and safety patrol teams have determined that snow levels are sufficient and that all safety measures are in place,” she said. “Furthermore, our mountain operations team does extensive work every summer and throughout the winter to ensure all of our terrain is in optimal condition before winter arrives and throughout the winter season.”

El Nino isn’t a term that scares Paul Zirk, owner of The Destination Slope and Surf Outfitters. Zirk has been keeping a close eye on the weather for more than 32 years in business.

“It’s a one or two degree fluctuation that can make either massive snowfall or rain,” he said with a laugh.

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