Eastern Canadian ski resorts wait for snow as it piles up out west

CALGARY -- A reversal of fortunes is afoot in Canada as the snow continues to pile up at western Canadian ski resorts while the grass is still on display on slopes in the east.

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The conditions are in contrast to the past couple of years when warm winters wreaked havoc at many western ski resorts while frigid and snowy conditions in the east ensured hills packed with skiers and snowboarders.

Blue Mountain ski resort in Collingwood, Ont., north of Toronto, was all set for a Nov. 27 start date, but the snow just didn't show up -- and hasn't in other parts of Ontario and Quebec either.

"We were all ready for the 27th; nature was not," said Tara Lovell, public relations manager for the resort.

This year could be the latest season opening for the resort ever, said Lovell, pushing past the Dec. 26 opening in 2001.

Blue Mountain has responded by reopening some of its summer activities like the rope course, zip line and climbing wall while still offering its usual holiday activities like live music, fireworks and wagon rides.

"Santa is still there with or without the snow," said Lovell.

The conditions are in stark contrast to free-falling snow in the West.

"B.C. in general has had an unreal opening start," said Cynthia Thomas, communications manager for the Canada West Ski Areas Association. "It was really amazing we had so much snow in November because I think it really mitigated those fears from last season and helped people get over that and book for this season."

The heavy snowfall is being welcomed at Mount Washington on Vancouver Island, which was forced to close early the past two seasons due to lack of snow.

"The conditions have just been outstanding," said Don Sharpe, director of business operations for the resort.

Mount Washington has already had over 300 centimetres of snow in December, allowing it to open its more technical terrain after a two-year hiatus and attract more skiers.

"There are a lot of people out that have been holding off for a couple years, I think we're starting to see them all pretty pumped about what we have going on," said Sharpe.

In the Rocky Mountains, the snow is also falling fast to the relief of resorts like Castle Mountain that were also forced to close early last year.

And so far, Alberta's economic downturn doesn't seem to have had an impact on the ski resorts, with Sunshine Village near Banff, Alta. showing a 10 to 15 per cent increase in ticket sales, says Lindsay Gallagher, marketing co-ordinator for the resort.

She said more Albertans are staying closer to home this season rather than travel for vacation, helping to boost season-pass sales. American travellers taking advantage of the low Canadian dollar are also helping to boost attendance.

"We've seen definitely more Americans visiting, and over this Christmas break I'm sure we're going to see a lot of them coming up to take advantage of the 25 per cent off," said Gallagher.

With its high elevation, Sunshine hasn't had to invest in snow-making equipment, but Mount Washington is bringing in a few snow guns later this week as the start of a planned investment to make snow when needed.

Ontario and Quebec resorts have often had to rely on snow machines early in the season, and have invested heavily in them.

Mont-Tremblant, north of Montreal, has 15 runs open despite zero natural snow accumulation thanks to more than a thousand snow guns at the resort, said Annique Aird, vice president of marketing and communications for the resort.

She said snow machines cover 75 per cent of the runs, but to successfully make snow, resorts need temperatures to dip to at least -2C, or ideally closer to -5.

The weather forecast is predicting somewhat lower temperatures for eastern Canada in the next couple of weeks, but one of the strongest El Nino systems on record could mean warmer and dryer conditions continue into next year, said meteorologist Kirk Torneby.

"Historically speaking, it usually means warmer-than-normal winters and more or less dryer winters as well," said Torneby.

He said already Ontario and Quebec have experienced higher than normal temperatures thanks to the weather phenomenon, but adds that the effects are strongest between January and March.



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