How Alberta ski hills are coping with a lack of snow

Making snow, farming snow and hoping for snow as El Niño affects temperatures

Avoiding icy patches while out snowboarding, Albertan Ikale Lowe is hoping to see some powder soon.

The El Niño weather pattern has sparked particularly warm and dry conditions, which have forced Alberta ski hills to make, farm — and hope — for snow.

"This mountain's awesome when there's a ton of snow up there … when it's powdery, it's like you barely have to do anything. It's like being on clouds. So hopefully if we get more snow, it'll feel like that," said Lowe, who was skiing Wednesday with his parents at Castle Mountain Ski Resort in southern Alberta.

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Calgary had its warmest December and second warmest year on record in 2023, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

And other parts of Alberta are experiencing dry conditions, as well.

Cole Fawcett, sales and marketing manager at Castle Mountain Resort, said about a quarter of the way through the season, staff have seen about half the visitors they normally do.

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He said that without the resort's snowmaking infrastructure, which was implemented in 2019, it might not be open.

"We're doing everything that we can to make as much snow when we can. That's the first and foremost strategy. Getting conditions on the mountain as good as we can get them, period, point blank," Fawcett said.

"So that means moving snow around, going to great lengths to even farm snow with the use of snow fencing, and then push that snow around with Cats [Caterpillar heavy equipment] to maximize our snow coverage."

He said the resort has about a third of its terrain open, and it's taking a "wait and see" approach for the rest of the winter, while hoping for cooler, snowier temperatures.

Skiier/Ose Irete/CBC

Ikale Lowe was skiing Wednesday with his parents at Castle Mountain Ski Resort in southern Alberta. (Ose Irete/CBC)

Matt Mosteller, senior vice-president for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which operates the Nakiska Ski Area in Kananaskis, said due to that resort's upgraded snowmaking system it has been able to operate consistently with lots of runs open.

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But the resort is also looking at January's forecast, he said on CBC's The Homestretch.

"We've got lots of potential new snow in the forecast and cooler temps. So that's really super positive," he said.

Kendra Scurfield, brand and communications director at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, said Sunshine has had lighter snow than in previous seasons and its mountain operations team has been farming snow.

Cole/Ose Irete/CBC

Cole Fawcett is the sales and marketing manager at Castle Mountain Resort. (Ose Irete/CBC)

But it's still recorded a lot more snow at its altitude than Calgary has.

"You have to have a sense of humour. This year, we had maybe a little lacklustre of an opening, and instead of crying and boohooing and wah-wahing about the situation, we decided to have some fun," she said.

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Sunshine Village opened in November without a chair, and instead invited people to its Mitey Mite Carpet, hike park, toboggan hill and Trapper's restaurant.

"We're not trying to tell people that this is the deepest season ever, but we are saying that it's a great season to get outside, to get some fresh air, to see the Rockies."

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Thumbnail courtesy of Ose Irete/CBC.

The story was written and published for CBC News. It contains files from The Homestretch and Ose Irete.