Alberta ski hills plan to open soon despite warm fall

Ski hill employees are getting trained and resorts are getting ready for first week of November.

Employees getting trained and resorts getting ready for first week of November

Staff at ski hills are preparing for the season ahead with gondola rescue drills and snowmaking. (Helen Pike/CBC)

In a race between time, temperatures and the will of Mother Nature, Alberta's ski hills are hoping to pull off their early November opening dates — despite above-average temperatures this fall. 

Employees are getting trained up, painting and repairing lodge buildings, building snow fences and powering up snowmaking machines. 

"It was a beautiful fall, but we're prepping for winter," said Leigha Stankewich, spokesperson for the Lake Louise Ski Resort. 

Ski hills are looking to open in just a few weeks: 

  • Lake Louise Ski Resort on Nov. 4.
  • Nakiska Ski Area on Nov. 5.
  • Sunshine Village on Nov. 10.
  • Mount Norquay on Nov. 4.

At Sunshine Village near Banff, Kendra Scurfield said they already have about 35 centimetres of snow on the ground — the trees along the access road look like something out of a snow globe. 

"We are very fortunate with our location high on the continental divide," Scurfield said. "That does make us a magnet for snow."

With limited access to water reserves, Sunshine doesn't have a big snowmaking program. Scurfield said they build up snow fences and move the powder around to where it is needed, packing down a solid base.

"It's like that snowman you build in July when you get a freak snowstorm," Scurfield said. "When you put it into a ball, it will last so much longer. So we're working on getting that first base solidified." 

Staff at Sunshine prepare for opening by doing a gondola rescue drill. (Helen Pike/CBC)

While they wait for more snow, staff get trained and complete safety exercises, and lifts get tuned up. It's a busy time. 

At the Lake Louise Ski Resort, tufts of browning grass are still visible at the base of the hill, with snowmakers blasting. That tentative opening date is looming. 

"Yeah, less than two weeks away," Stankewich said. "But we're now underway with our snowmaking operations, which makes that possible … the temperatures are where we need them to be. Mother Nature is helping us out. So we're on track, for sure."

This year, Stankewich said, they've been able to upgrade their snowmaking machines, with 48 new snow guns that are more energy efficient. 

Lake Louise's snowmaking operation is in full swing. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Up at the higher elevations, there is more snow on the ground, Stankewich added, and visitors can check in when snow reporting boots up for the season.

The rest of their preparations will come down to training staff and finishing some maintenance.

Resorts of the Canadian Rockies manages the Fernie Alpine Resort, Kimberley Alpine Resort and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in British Columbia, and Nakiska in Kananaskis Country. 

Some of their B.C. hills, Matt Mosteller said, could open early. But Nakiska's anticipated opening date is Nov. 5. 

"Ideally, we'd like the ground to freeze before we get snowfall, and that still may happen with this quick, intense temperature change," said Mosteller. "But more than likely it looks like we're going to have a series of storms, and we'll go with that because we can work with Mother Nature."

Mosteller said ski hills like to see more moisture in cooler months like November and December so they can keep that accumulation on the ground — especially in southern Alberta, where dry winters are common. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada is calling for some warmer temperatures, so the snow may melt in the city but could stay intact on the mountain peaks. (Helen Pike/CBC)

It was the eighth warmest and 19th driest September in Banff since Environment Canada began recording daily weather statistics 130 years ago. Meteorologist Sara Hoffman said the warmer-than-normal temperatures have continued in October. 

While a recent snowstorm blew through southern Alberta, Hoffman said the dip in temperatures is only temporary. There's still some warm weather left in the forecast. 

"I think it's a good chance that the snow will melt," Hoffman said. "I would expect a lot of that snow to melt unless it's, you know, up high on a mountain."

For much of the summer, there's been a consistent ridge of hot air hanging over Western Canada. Hoffman said that could be because of a weak La Niña interaction with a Pacific decadal oscillation (temperature fluctuation).

"All you need to know is that when these two combine, it seems to favour the development of these ridges of hot air at the upper levels forming over Western Canada instead of further west over the Pacific Ocean," Hoffman said. 

But once those forces are out of the way, Hoffman expects another La Niña winter — which, she added, means above-average snowfalls and good news for powder seekers. 


Helen Pike


Helen Pike led CBC Calgary's mountain bureau in Canmore. She joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues and wildlife. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.