Vista Ridge confident in upcoming season as ski hills battle El Niño

“There’s no doubt it’s an abnormal year, but it’s not an insurmountable problem,” said Bernice Later, general manager at Vista Ridge.

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The weather outside is frightful as an unseasonably warm December challenges Vista Ridge’s ski hills. Bernice Later, general manager of Vista Ridge, is optimistic that the upcoming season will be all downhill as the hills open on Friday.

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Keeping the hills open will be a challenge until more snow covers the hill, though. During budget presentations to council, Later gave her blunt opinion shared by other ski hill operators across B.C. and Alberta.

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“The weather is garbage for snowmaking,” she said at the Monday meeting. “The snowmaking team is fantastic but they’re not wizards. We can’t make ice in a fridge.”

Later added her husband, who is director of operations and a master snowmaker, has slept at the facility to do nightly snowmaker checks. Vista Ridge has a permit to keep mixing snow until New Year’s Eve and some staff have committed to working through Christmas and taking night shifts.

Most of the base at the hill is artificial, Later said in a Tuesday morning interview. Terrain will expand to the public as the weather gets colder. Later said the snow should be indistinguishable from the authentic stuff once Vista Ridge opens.

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“There’s no doubt it’s an abnormal year, but it’s not an insurmountable problem. We’ll adapt, and we’ll make snow longer and build up the base,” said Later. “This is the number one challenge in the industry but we learn to adapt… We’re not just sitting around at home waiting for it to snow, we’re out there and making it happen.”

This is her first year in Fort McMurray and Later has worked with ski hills for 25 years.  The start of the season may be frustrating, but Later said mild and warm winters are common in her industry. This is not her first time battling a rough seasonal start.

Once doors open to the public, she believes the season will be like any other. Community groups and teams that use the facility are also expected to return to the hill. There are events booked throughout the season.

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“You have cold years and warm years, and you have snowy years and you have dry years. It’s just part of the industry. That’s why we all have snowmaking so that we can survive the dry years,” she said. “And it’s northern Alberta. It’ll get cold eventually, right?”

This year’s El Niño weather pattern means it will likely be a warmer winter and is largely to blame for the current weather conditions, said Alysa Pedersen, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, in an interview with Postmedia.

Pederson said you would have to go back to 2015 and 2016 to experience a year with lower snowfall, when El Niño conditions were similar to this year.

-with files from Matt Scace

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