Calgary·Video

Low-energy snow farming technique yields softer powder at mountain peaks

Canada's first ski resort to open its gates this year was able to get a jump start on the season thanks in part to its unique, low-cost method of harvesting natural snow for its runs.

'The quality of the snow is far better, quite frankly. Because it's natural, it's drier'

Sunshine Resort minimizes its annual snowmaking by using roughly 20 kilometres of snow fence to catch and harvest natural snow, which is later packed down with snow cats on the main routes at the mountain peaks 0:42

Canada's first ski resort to open its gates this year was able to get a jump start on the season thanks in part to its unique, low-cost method of harvesting natural snow for its runs. 

Sunshine Village's low-energy "snow farming" technique uses roughly 20 kilometres of plastic fencing to trap snowfall on its upper peaks, reducing the need for traditional snow-making. 

A ski patroller demonstrates how the snow fences are set up and maintained. (Evelyne Asselin)

Located on the Continental Divide, the resort naturally receives up to 11 metres of powder each year. 

These fences capitalize on that by effectively protecting snow from alpine gusts that would otherwise blow it off the peak — at least until snow cats can pack the powder down and pave the trail.

The fences are then transplanted to another area, and the process repeats itself. 

A snow cat packs the natural snow caught between the plastic fences to pave the run. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Everybody wins, Riley says

The snow fencing results in lower energy costs for the mountain and a softer, drier snow for skiiers and snowboarders, said chief operating officer Dave Riley.

"The quality of the snow is far better, quite frankly. Because it's natural, it's drier," he said.

Snow guns, by contrast, create a firmer artificial snow with a higher moisture content, he explained.

'We don't have a large snow making system here because we really don't need it,' says Dave Riley, chief operating officer at Sunshine Village Resort. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Geographical advantage

Sunshine is fortunate in that much of its alpine terrain lies above the tree line, which makes this technique applicable on a large scale.

The process begins in early September, long before any snow dusts the peaks.

Several thousand pieces of 1.8-metre steel are pounded into the ground, which later freeze into place so that fencing can be tied around it securely. 

"There's really no other ski resort in the world that does as much snow farming through the snow fence technique as Sunshine Village," Riley said.

"It's really unique in the ski industry because of the scale of what we do."

Sunshine Resort minimizes its annual snowmaking by using roughly 20 kilometres of snow fence to catch and harvest natural snow, which is later packed down with snow cats on the main routes at the mountain peaks. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

With files from Evelyne Asselin