Is snow just snow? The inside scoop on B.C.’s snow lingo

Paula Worthington

You never forget your best-ever ski day. For me, it was on a frigid cold January day, in Fernie, B.C.

A multi-day ski trip had come to a close, having provided some great times with an average daily dose of 10 cm of fresh snow. On our last night, the snow really arrived – light and fluffy as the temperature continued to drop. While work obligations were beckoning us back to the city, the mountain had other plans for us. With the highway suddenly closed in both directions, we had no choice but to float through the 70 cm of powder that had fallen over the course of 48 hours. I giggled like I was a kid again, and my friends and I have never forgotten that day.

The Inuit have more than 50 words for “snow,” and for some, it seems the same rings true when it comes to snow lingo in B.C.’s best-known mountain towns like Fernie Alpine Resort and Whistler Blackcomb. There are flurries, snow showers, snow storms, heavy snow, light snow, sleet, squalls, blizzards, hoarfrost, blowing snow, drifting snow, old snow, new snow. Is snow just snow? Heavens no!

What do you need to know about snow, and can you really predict when to take the perfect ski holiday?

Photo: Abby Cooper

B.C.’s Kootenay region (which includes legendary ski resorts such as Fernie Alpine Resort) is known for being a snow mecca, thanks to its location. While many hail the legend of Griz for its abundance of powder, Fernie also resides between two titanic air masses: the cold Continental air mass and the incoming moist Pacific air mass. These air masses can provide the perfect combination of cold and moisture and the result is an average snowfall of 875 cm – that’s close to 29 feet!

Add in what’s called the “Fernie Factor,” and you could be in for a very welcome surprise. The Fernie Factor is a phenomenon due to some unique features of the Lizard Range, where the mountains grab and trap precipitation overhead, dumping more snow than had been forecasted. It quickly turns a “now new snow” day into some welcome boot-top powder turns.

According to Dr. Doug Hillham, meteorologist at The Weather Network, it’s the combination of a few elements: “This area benefits from an active jet stream that brings frequent storms to the coast of B.C. that are laden with moisture from the Pacific Ocean. The Coastal Mountains often block this milder air from reaching further inland, but the higher elevation and northerly latitude creates lots of snow as the active storm track crosses the province.”

In fact, Fernie even has a “20-cm” rule, which essentially gives local businesses and workers the right to shut down the shop until noon and go skiing, if it snowed at least 20 cm the night before. So, if you see your favourite coffee counter closed in the morning, it’s time to skip the Joe and head up the hill for some turns.

Whistler Blackcomb
Photo: Andrew Strain

Even further west, nestled north of Vancouver in the Coastal Mountain range, Whistler Blackcomb can see all types of snow conditions, from summit to base. All those rain storms that batter the coast at sea level? They tend to fall as snow in this area all winter long, adding up to an average of 1,170 cm of snow per season. While most skiers prefer to go during the “primetime” months of January and February, in recent years Whistler has seen huge amounts of snowfall in November and March, so don’t dismiss early- and late-season ski trips.

So, what’s in store for this season? If we had a magic snow globe, we’d all be rich and skiing every day. One mountain local says it best: “You get what you get, don’t get upset.” And in B.C., skiers are more often delighted than disappointed, thanks to understanding the snow and knowing how it tends to fall.

And let’s face it: an average day on the mountain is often still better than a great day at work.

Watch Ski The Powder Highyway - Fernie Alpine Resort - #LOVEFERNIE on YouTube.

If You Go

Check out these Whistler Blackcomb deals and packages.

And for more inspiration about skiing and snowboarding in BC, check out our SnowSeekers SkiBC expedition page, full of additional stories and video.

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