The Science of Snowcasting

Why you should head west for a B.C. ski holiday this winter

Paula Worthington

If you've ever gazed out at traffic gridlock from the 504 TTC streetcar in Toronto, watching the snow fall endlessly, you've likely wondered how great it would be to put all that snow to better use. Well you can by heading west, strapping on your skis or a board and escaping the big city winter blues.

John Muir, the founder of the conservation organization Sierra Club, once said, "The mountains are calling, and I must go,"” and people from across Canada heed the call every year to find the joy of winter.

The names of some of the ski runs alone sound otherworldly. At Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, B.C., cruise “My Blue Heaven,” holler “Hallelujah” and say an “Amen” as you navigate the 2,800-plus skiable acres. Further west, at Whistler Blackcomb, scout out “Secret Bowl,” coast down “Angel Dust” and get “In the Spirit,” just a sampling of its more than 200 marked runs.

Whistler Blackcomb
Photo: Andrew Strain

But what makes these two British Columbia ski resorts so heavenly, besides the staggering beauty, world-class amenities and terrain? It all comes down to snow and Whistler Blackcomb, on average, gets 1,170 cms.

In Ontario, the term “lake effect” snow leaves people dreading winter, but in the west, the equivalent could be a “Pineapple Express” or an ”El Nino” or “La Nina” winter. And for skiers, that's a good thing, because B.C.'s winter snowstorms are often measured in feet, not inches in as little as 24 or 48 hours.

But how can you use it to your advantage when planning a B.C. ski holiday this year?

First, don't plan your trip around an El Nino or La Nina year - both have their bonuses. La Nina is a cooler weather pattern, which is great for snow quality, and can mean a slightly drier season. That said, it can be a plus for high precipitation areas such as Golden and Whistler.

El Nino can bring some huge storms and snow packs, but with a warmer current it can be mean wetter precipitation at lower elevations.

Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Photo: Leigh McAdam

Thankfully, those ski resorts both have huge vertical to make up for the unpredictability of the weather:  4,133 feet at Kicking Horse and 5,020 feet at Whistler Blackcomb. This creates a massive variety of skiing terrain for the groomed run lover, or the steep and deep chaser - with almost always fresh powder conditions on mountain.

While the various storm cycles of B.C.'s mountain areas can be as tough to predict as the swings of the TSX, do not be fooled, adventure always awaits for those who make the pilgrimage out west.

According to Dr. Doug Gillham of the Weather Network, "“Our preliminary forecasts for this winter indicate near or below normal temperatures for the Prairies and British Columbia, along with an active weather pattern."

“Below average” forecasts should entice any skier or rider, because cooler temperatures help create that light, “champagne” powder that people dream about.

“La Nina winters are often changeable, and we do expect periods of mild and dry weather, but we expect those periods will be more than offset by periods of colder and snowy weather,” says Gillham.

While forecasting the “perfect” time can come down to luck, the regular storm cycles interspersed with sunshine can mean sensational ski days.

As for the Farmer's Almanac, some may follow it religiously, while others just take a wait-and-see attitude. One mountain local, who has seen his share of the best surprise powder days in his lifetime, just shrugs and says, "Who knows, you get what you get. What do farmers know about skiing, anyway?"

Point well taken.

If You Go

Getting to Whistler is easy, fly into Vancouver's International Airport and catch a two-hour shuttle up the sea to sky. Stay slope side - ditch the car.  Plan here.

Getting to Kicking Horse or anywhere along the Powder Highway is pretty straight forward as well by landing in Cranbrook and the Canadian Rockies International Airport.  Plan here.

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