Alberta and B.C. ski hills hope to return to profit

Skiers and snowboarders expect Mother Nature to serve up a down year every now and again, but last season was exceptionally brutal in many parts of Alberta and British Columbia.

El Nino latest challenge for ski industry trying to recover after devastating year

Castle Mountain announced it was shutting down for the season on Feb. 16. (Donna McElligott/CBC)

Skiers and snowboarders expect Mother Nature to serve up a down year every now and again, but last season was exceptionally brutal in many parts of Alberta and British Columbia and there is anxiety about what this winter will bring.

Last season, some resorts had to stop the chair lifts early and close up in February. Hemlock Resort, near Chilliwack, B.C., was shutdown for the entire year. 
A snowboarder unlatches after a run at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary in February 2015. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Hemlock GM Kevin Bourdin described it as a zero snow year as the dreaded Pineapple Express brought wet and mild weather from the West Coast.

While it's rare to be shutdown for an entire winter, Bourdin said, the ski hill is still feeling the effects as potential staff members are nervous it might happen again.

"We have quite a few temporary foreign workers that we've sent off our letters to and accepted. They're hearing the weather story about El Nino this year and the potential for no snow," Bourdin said, "so we're finding they are dropping out now and choosing to go elsewhere — Utah, Colorado and places like that." 

El Nino is the latest threat to ski areas, a cruel development for an industry needing a bounce-back year. While the numbers are not yet final, it's believed more than half of all ski resorts in Alberta and B.C. lost money last season. 

 
Big White Ski Resort is taking advantage of a recent big dump of snow and is now open, two weeks earlier than expected. (Big White)
British Columbia ski resorts reported 4.7 million visits during the 2014-15 season. That's down from 5.9 million the previous year and below an average of 6.5 million in a good year, according to the Canada West Ski Areas Association.

"The disappointing part is the focus on El Nino. We've had two substantial El Nino events in 97/98 and 09/10," Bourdin said. "We still got open prior to Christmas and had a really solid year." 

That's why some resorts aren't overly concerned about the type of weather to expect this winter. Even if an El Nino hits, it still shouldn't be as bad as last winter on the slopes.

A view from Goat's Eye Mountain at Sunshine Village in Banff, Alta, in February, 2015. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)
"Some concern about the El Nino system," David Lynn with the Canada West Ski Areas Association said. "But we're fortunate because so far the early pre-season snowfalls have been really positive and the opening dates in B.C. and Alberta look quite favourable, with resorts opening in the month of November."  

It's expected an El Nino could result in temperatures about one or two degrees higher than long-term averages. 

This week the World Meteorological Organization said El Nino was already "strong and mature" and the biggest in more than 15 years.

Ski resorts can take out insurance against bad weather years, but few if any do because of the high premiums, Lynn said.

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