As 2023 drew to a close, British Columbia recorded one of the warmest Decembers in recent history — the third warmest since 1896. It was good news for hikers and cyclists, but not so much for the ski slopes. Apex Mountain Ski Resort, a ski and snowboard destination in the Okanagan Valley, had to delay the opening of several of its 80 slopes. Then, on January 12 and 13, it closed for two days when the province was hit by an unexpected bout of extreme cold.
James Shalman, the resort’s general manager, says he hopes more typical seasonal conditions in the coming months will allow the mountain to make up for lost revenue due to these abnormal temperatures. Shalman, a lifelong skier, shares how the unpredictable forecast has affected his business, what the resort can do to recover, and his perspective on the future of the ski industry in Western Canada.
British Columbia just recorded one of the warmest Decembers in its history: the average temperature from Vancouver International Airport was seven degrees. What did you do with that?
This has been a strange winter for us, to say the least, and December is off to a slow start. First, we had a temperature inversion, a rare event where it is colder at the base of the mountain than at the top. Because of this, it was too hot to produce our own snow. We have 12 snowmaking cannons that spray water and compressed air onto the mountains, usually in November, to ensure that the natural snow, which usually arrives in December, has a base to fall on. But we need the temperature to be -4° C or less for them to work correctly.
Then the warm weather continued until the middle of the month, so we were only able to open half of our slopes. The last week of the year the wind chill was -40° C with freezing winds and we had to close the complex completely for two days. I’ve skied my whole life and worked here for 23 years; I don’t remember the last time we had to close because of the cold. It made people realize that there is an optimal temperature range for skiing. Severe cold can be just as bad as heat and can lead to dangerous, slippery snow.
So this wasn’t your typical opening. How rare are conditions like this on the hill?
You see a slow start like this maybe once a decade. Last year, we had a big snowfall in November and were able to open all mountain runs a week before our proposed opening date of December 9th. Climate variations from year to year seem mostly random; That time we were lucky.
What do you think of that month of December? Are weather fluctuations like that the new normal or was it just a bad year?
I think it was more of a fluke than an indicator of the extreme weather to come. Climate change is scary and I don’t want to belittle it, but its effects have felt insignificant compared to random climate fluctuations. The vagaries of Mother Nature are a part of skiing and, as I understand it, have affected our business since we opened the mountain in 1961.
I was recently talking to clients who skied here in the 70s: they remember very dry, warm seasons with very little snow. That was 50 years ago. This year is also an El Niño year, which means we are facing a dry and warm winter; That could explain the increase in temperature.
Why do climate fluctuations make it especially difficult to keep gunpowder fresh?
It’s not just about how much snow is on the ground; It’s also about what type. The ideal temperature for the first snowfall is -2 degrees Celsius. This is how you get really large, heavy flakes that compact well and prevent slipping. This year, going from warm weather to extreme cold just didn’t allow us to pack snow properly. And having adequate snow is important: we have many aggressive, steep hills that need to be adequately covered with snow to allow us to open them without risk of avalanche.
You are one of the only ski resorts in British Columbia that produces its own snow. Is that the key to your survival? Are mountains that don’t produce snow more at risk for weather-related closures?
The fact that we make snow from the top of the mountain to the bottom is a saving grace for us. Throughout the year, artificial snow covers a significant fraction of our 1,150 acres. But making your own snow is not a necessity in all mountains; We are one of the few resorts in British Columbia that cannot rely entirely on natural snow. Other resorts have so much natural snow that they don’t need human intervention; For them, betting on Mother Nature remains relatively safe.
How has all of that affected your customer base and your bottom line?
The slower start impacted us financially: Our revenue was down 40 percent compared to the previous year. We had to offer discounts of up to 50 percent on lift tickets because we couldn’t open all of our slopes for much of December.
The numbers also dropped during the Christmas holidays, which are usually huge for us, because people probably chose other activities in double-digit weather. Then there were the two full days we were closed, which definitely hurt.
And now that? It looks like it’s snowing more on the west coast. Have things improved on the slopes?
Yes, things have completely changed. Last week some of our regulars were here and said it was some of the best skiing they’d had in a long time. All of our slopes are open, the ski conditions are fantastic and I think we are back on the slopes. The recent snowfall has helped a lot.
Are you worried about harsh weather conditions in the future?
Not too much. There is pessimism in the media, but that does not reflect the full picture. Our resort is going in the right direction, as is skiing in general: the industry grew by 355,000 skiers after the pandemicand Alpine snow sports in Western Canada. 2.5 billion dollars in the Canadian economy. tThe fact that we got off to a slower start was a little worrying, but there is also plenty of time to make up ground. We are typically open from December to April and conditions tend to improve throughout the season as snow gradually accumulates on the hill.
Researchers suggest that snowmaking needs by the Canadian ski industry will increase between 55 and 97 per cent by 2050, as climate change brings warmer winters and less natural snowfall. Is this something you expect to happen in Apex?
Some research shows that temperatures are only expected to rise 1.5 degrees by 2050. That may not affect the amount of snow. We only plan to marginally increase our snowmaking system over the next decade.
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What do you do to mitigate difficult times?
At Apex, we have a few other attractions, such as an ice skating adventure trail and a hockey rink. We also used to do mountain biking in the summer and hiking in the off-season. The challenge is that the Okanagan Valley is 7,200 feet above sea level, so the snow stays until mid-June and the ground is wet and dirty for all but two months of the year: July and August. Then, in September, it gets cold again. So our summer on the hill is short and it’s hard to compete for attention with the local lakes, beaches and wineries. That said, we want to reconsider summer activities in the future, especially if we have more difficult stretches like those in December.
So despite the strange weather we’re seeing, expect great conditions in the years to come?
I am, along with the fluctuations and anomalies that every winter brings. We’re in a weather-dependent industry and that’s what makes skiing exciting. There’s always randomness: a powder snowfall on a weekend is a jackpot for us, while a powder snowfall on a Tuesday when people are at work can seem like a missed opportunity. Sometimes we don’t have fresh snow for several days and then have to rely on sandier, corduroy slopes. But we endure the blows. For now, the vibe and energy at the resort after such a recovery is contagious.