No snow forces Mt. Washington to shut down ski season

COURTENAY — Poor weather conditions have forced Mount Washington ski resort to close until further notice and lay off more than 400 workers.

It’s been a struggle for ski hill staff to keep runs open for the 14 days of ski operations the resort has managed to salvage so far, said Brent Curtain, spokesman for Mount Washington Alpine Resort.

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“It’s a huge financial impact on the mountain,” Curtain said Wednesday. “We’re going to be down to minimal staff as of [today].”

The resort, which is up for sale, had hired close to 700 workers for this season, but because it didn’t open until Jan. 12, many left town.

“We lost some staff from that original push,” Curtain said. “Some of the staff are transient or are working holiday people.”

Numerous workers have been on “snow farming” duty — shovelling or moving available snow to areas with less coverage or to runs that are more heavily used.

It is possible the mountain could reopen this season.

David Phillips, senior climatologist with Environment Canada, said not only are there multiple days with potential for snow in the coming week, the long-term forecast puts British Columbia into average or below average temperatures into March.

“I don’t think it’s over,” he said. “After all, it’s only the halfway mark.”

While much of the rest of North America has been caught up in the polar vortex deep freeze, the West Coast has been unseasonably warm this year.

“You couldn’t manufacture a worse scenario for Mount Washington,” Phillips said. “It’s obviously unfortunate.”

One of the factors in the shutdown was temperature inversion, which saw temperatures of 16 C on the mountain while the Comox Valley below had cooler weather and remained shrouded in fog.

In December, Environment Canada forecast a cold, snowy winter, but the Island’s only commercial ski facility has seen just 150 centimetres of snow to date, well below the 500 cm that fell before New Year’s Day during the 2012-13 season.

“We were wrong in the forecast of the West,” Phillips said, noting spectacular winter storms are generally more common for Vancouver Island. “Usually, they’re like jumbo jets lined up on the tarmac. They come one right after the other.”

When the mountain finally opened, Victoria resident Lee Jackson was pumped to hit the slopes.

“It was a long wait to get working and get skiing,” said the 29-year-old ski patrol worker. “The thing about the Island, which is exactly what happened, is overnight you can get 50 centimetres.”

But with no followup snow dumps, conditions went from a few feet of powder to a solid snow pack to an obstacle course of rocks, dirt and tree stumps.

“We were seeing more rocks popping out of the snow,” Curtain said. “Obviously, the tuning shop was busy.”

In Courtenay, businesses that are typically hopping have suffered the brunt of a warm winter.

“We need this business to keep bread on our own table,” said Kevin Lawrence, owner of the Ski Surf & Kayak Shop, noting he’s had to get creative to keep from laying off any of his own workers. “We’ve been quiet.”

He’s already launched a mid-winter clearance.

“What’s the point of having a store full of winter stuff when people are looking for spring items?” he said. “We’ve had more people asking about boats.”

Across the street at the sports gear shop OneThirtyThree, manager Trevor Weir hasn’t even been on the snow this season.

“I went to look at it up there,” he said. “It wasn’t worth it.”

Sales of goggles are down, and he’s noticed there haven’t been as many tourists in town as in other years.

“We’re usually pretty spoiled,” he said of the mountain conditions. “It’s fairly brutal in comparison.”

If more snow doesn’t arrive, it could have implications for everything from power generation to irrigation to trout fishing on the Island.

Mount Washington is instituting a new provision for season pass holders that guarantees 100 days of skiing or boarding over the winter season.

For every day under 100 that the resort is unable to open, pass holders will receive a one per cent credit toward the cost of a season pass the following year. So far, passholders are entitled to an 86 per cent credit for next season.

A decision about credits on 6ixPak packages of discounted lift tickets will be made by the end of March.

A deal to have passholders ski and snowboard for free at Whistler Blackcomb ended Jan. 16.

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