Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Season Summary 2014-2015

Well, it would be very easy just to say that the season just gone was the worst in living memory and leave it at that. The problem is that this might not be entirely true and in any event I feel I ought to put some flesh on the bones.

Talking to long term locals there appears to be some dispute as to whether or not this season was worse than 1975. One school of thought is that it was not quite as bad, another school is that in those days we didn't have  - lower mountain snow making, as many groomers as we now have to farm the snow, a lift served New Side giving us the White Pass area most of which is higher than the Old Side and we certainly didn't have Polar Peak chair - so whilst the skiing this year wasn't as bad as 1975 the conditions were actually worse. It's a fair point as when I look back at the blog over the last few weeks 90% of the skiing was on the New Side because the conditions on the Old Side were just too poor. That having been said, when the main topic of debate is "was this the worst or second worse season on 40 years" then that speaks for itself as to just how bad it was.

I must make it clear the poor season in no way reflects on the guys and girls on the hill who were working flat out pretty well since the end of January just to keep the hill open. Because of the conditions I don't think that anyone expected the hill to make it through to closing day and the fact that it did is a great tribute to their fantastic efforts, however this does not change the fact that the skiing was just awful for large tracts of the season. It has been pointed out to me that at least we were skiing right to the end and many ski hills had to close early, this is true but it does not mean that things were good, it just means that in other places their season sucked even more than ours did.

There seems to be a move, driven by various commercial interests, to try and down play just how bad this year was. This kind of self deception is helpful to no one who is interested in understanding the kind of skiing and riding we had this year. On a practical level, if you try and pretend that this season was ok, then anyone who actually visited Fernie during the season and saw it for themselves will never come back if they think that's our definition of "ok". On the other hand if we are honest about just how bad it was they will be back to give us a try in  better years - as so often is the case, honesty not only is the right moral choice but it also makes more commercial sense.

Lets have a look at some hard numbers. This is the first year since the ski hill moved to Snow Valley back in 1962 that the snow base has not got above 2 metres at any time during the season - in January it got to 187cms for a short time but mostly it was much nearer 150 cms. In every year that I have lived here the base has hit well over 3 metres and in two of the last 3 years it actually got above 4 metres. The total snowfall for the season was 571 cms which is less than half what we would expect to see in even an average season. So the numbers speak for themselves - the season was poor.

Actually the hard numbers don't tell the full extend of just how bad things were as they were taken at the snow plot which is almost at the top of the Bear on the Old Side and not at the lower elevations. The snow plot is an undisturbed piece of snow at elevation and bears little or no relation to the snow that we are skiing on and is subject to skier traffic. Furthermore much of our "snow" this year came as a Pineapple Express which is a warm wet weather system which may give us some snow on the upper hill but comes a as rain on the lower hill - this not only does not add to the snow base but in fact reduces it as it washes away. My guess would be that if a weather station had been situated on the lower hill the base wouldn't have got above 50 cms and the actual snowfall would have been less than 200 cms but that is speculation. A fact is that the only money I spent on new ski gear this year was on a plastic jacket and rubber pants and gloves so that I could ski on rain days - there weren't many of us who did.

This was a 129 day season for me which involved me skiing every day usually from before 10 in the morning until 4 in the evening but with occasional late starts and early finishes as life got in the way of skiing. The season started ok with some fresh snow and enough coverage to get us around - about as good as you can expect for December. The run up to Christmas was cold and snow free and gave us what we thought at that time some rather poor conditions. Christmas and New Year gave us our usual holiday fresh snow and it looked like the season was panning out as usual after a slow start. Christmas Eve was particularly spectacular with deep powder, no crowds, everywhere open and we were ripping stuff like the Big 3 and the Saddles in near perfect conditions.

In January things started to go wrong with a snow drought and cold weather for the early part of the month as the Christmas snow got packed in a scraped off. We then got hit by 3 Pineapple expresses in quick succession which washed most of the snow off the lower mountain and gave us some ugly rain crust skiing. Things then warmed up to double figure plus temps and I remember skiing one afternoon in my spring fleece and riding the Polar Peak chair with no jacket, something totally unheard of in January. We all said this could get ugly if it freezes but little did we know how ugly.

It's worth giving Polar Peak a mention all of it's own. It didn't open until January and then only on the Coaster side as the early season top to bottom rain event had produced an ugly ice crust in the Chutes. For a long time it looked as though we would never get the Chutes, having to make do with the Coaster which was frequently boiler plate blue ice. Occasionally we got Shale Slope which because of the hard base held up well to skier traffic and was probably the only place on the hill this year that actually skied better than usual. It was not until the spring melt in March that we got the Polar Chutes and that was only rarely on odd days when conditions allowed - I think I am right in saying that they were only open 6 days this year but in fairness skied ok on the days they were open as did the Clown Chutes - the Head Wall stayed closed all season as the lower parts remain uncovered cliffs all the time.

In February it got cold and our worse fears for the soft wet snow refreezing came to fruition. Huge areas of the hill were closed (most of the off piste actually) as being too dangerous to ski - I went almost a month without being able to get to Skydive, I almost needed therapy. This didn't make for easy skiing as day after day we were restricted to groomers which were pure sheet ice where getting and edge was nearly impossible and all of us were sliding sideways at least as fast as we were going forward. The small areas of ungroomed that were open were hard churned up ugly ice.

February moving into March a pattern of weather cycles established themselves. First we would get a pineapple express with rain right up high, sometimes even to the top of the hill while at the base the snow was just washing away. This would be followed by a few days of very warm temps when what had been ok skiing would turn to heavy elephant snot within hours. The final part of the cycle was a big freeze up where everything became hard and icy and the ungroomed went back to it's good old unskiable self.

These cycles which gave us only a half day of decent skiing each time continued to mid March by which time most of the lower hill had washed away. Bit by bit ski areas started to close, the ski off on the New Side was the first casualty so that the only way to get down was to download on Timber Chair if you didn't want to try your luck with the Saddles or Easter Bowl. Next was the whole of the lower mountain so that the only ski off on the Old Side was the single track under the Bear load in Lizard. Finally we lost Cedar Bowl as the ski out had turned to grass. In summary by late March the lower mountain only had one thin run on it. I have never seen so much grass showing on the lower mountain even in May when the hill is closed.

For the final couple of weeks we actually got some classic spring skiing with surfaces freezing up over night and softening during the day when there was sun and staying hard when there wasn't. At this time the only run off the New Side was via the Saddles, Easter Bowl or the top of one of the Big 3 (or the Brain) and then cut out on Megasaurus Trail - not the greatest skiing in the world but better than downloading which was the only alternative. Closing day came almost as a relief this year.

I suppose the best way to summarize the season is to say that we spent most of our time fighting the hill (ugly surfaces, rain, freezing cold or more rain or ice pellets and of course day after day of poor viz up top on the only skiing surfaces that were half way decent) and getting beaten up. In a normal season we have great skiing with a few days ugly fighting the hill - this year it has been day after day fighting the hill with just a few days of great skiing. Looking on the bright side everyone who has skied this year is a better skier as a result as if you didn't have good technique and balance you were going to get injured which a surprisingly large number of people did. On balance I would rather have had a better ski season and kept some of my bad habits but that's just how things go.

So looking forward we have to be optimistic about next season as Fernie has never had two really bad seasons in a row and let's face it we are owed a good season. Also no one is going to be dumb enough to chop down the new underwear tree like they did to the old one last summer and is what many of us think upset the Griz to the point that he gave us a season like this. I am off in 2 days to fly to Seattle and then drive a Mustang convertible down the coast to San Fran. After that it is a short flight to LA and long one to Fiji for a week chilling on the Coral Coast. We are then to Port Douglas in Oz for diving on the Gt Barrier Reef and a trip up to Cape Tribulation before a few days in Melbourne for Lynda to see to little penguins of Phillip Island. Then it's a short break in KL and home via Dubai in time for the late May holiday and a late start to the sailing season.

Sorry for the poor season and look forward to the fall report in September as we look forward to what we hope will be something rather better next year.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Day 129 Closing Day

First off a bit of am apology for tonight's report which unsurprisingly is being typed after having drunk industrial quantities of alcohol to celebrate closing day and as such may reflect some less that perfect use of the English language, not to mention spelling, grammar and logical reasoning. Now, where was I ... oh yes ....

It was quite warm on the way to the hill at +2 and whilst the hill didn't claim any new snow we seemed to have had about 2 cms which was sitting on top of yesterday's base. It was overcast and although the cloud broke up a bit during the morning it came back with a vengeance in the afternoon and temps dropped. During the morning things warmed as you would expect in the spring so that everything was softening but by the afternoon (particularly on the New Side) everything was becoming hard and icy with temps of -2 at the White Pass load and -6 at the Polar Peak load. We even had some light snow ( well at least ice pellets) so that things were really feeling a bit like Christmas but without Jimmy Stewart in Wonderful Life being on television.

We went to the Old Side as part of our usual last day tradition of skiing as much terrain as possible. Keen followers will be aware that Cedar Bowl and everything beyond is closed, as is North Ridge, Boomerang, Boom Chair, Haul Back and all the associated runs - this obviously had a limiting factor on the terrain available to us.

We went out into Lizard with a view to skiing Bear, Arrow, Bow, Cascade and Dancer which we did and which were very nicely groomed surfaces. Much better was the fact that all the skiing in between these runs was good ungroomed skiing. It seemed to me that all those surfaces had melted back into themselves to smooth the base which Lynda described as "soft ice" which sounds crazy but all real skiers know exactly what she meant. On top was about 2 cms of new snow and we laid track after track of new lines all over Lizard on the strange but very mellow surface.

With the morning gone we headed to the New Side and for a big disappointment. Everything on the New Side was hard and icy - slick where it had been groomed and just plain ugly where it hadn't. The Gun bowl was particularly challenging and I seemed to be the only one stupid enough even to give it a go. We went up Polar Peak which was open and found that the Coaster was the hardest slick blue ice imaginable which took all our concentration to ski. We ran off to a late lunch through the Reverse Traverse (ok on the blow in but challenging where we were down to bare ice) and Easter Bowl which skied really well with the blow in on top and the softening base low down just like the Old Side in the morning.

In the afternoon I put on and extra layer and headed back up the New Side. This proved to be a good call as temps were dropping fast to well below zero, everything was setting up very hard and in general winter was making a big come back. I made a few runs Back through White Pass which was chunky and icy particularly in the Gun bowl before heading out to Decline which was just smooth and fantastic although you had to exit via the Megasaurus Trail half way down.

Next time up the New Side it was getting near closing for Polar Peak so I put a couple of loops in there which were just as slick and icy in the Coaster as before - perhaps even more so. I had hoped to get last tracks in there but a three person chair came up last and so I failed to get first and last tracks in Polar for the season, but not by all that much. The run back to White Pass was slick in the extreme with Currie Powder reverting to it's blue ice slick surface that had given us so much fun for most of February. The good news was that Trespass Trail was at least fast.

After a quick White Pass loop to burn time it was the last run of the season which of course was Skydive but only down to the Megasaurus ski out. The traverse out to the top was still ok and the run itself was smooth and lightly track if a little crusty in places. The ski out took me to the closed and deserted Lizard bowl for the final run of the season. The run off was mushy and brown but at least we got away with it.

I know I usually say that we have had too many drinks in the Griz Bar but this time I really mean it - Jagermeister and beer never really mixes that well. So that's it for another season - give me a couple of days to gather my thoughts and I will publish my review of the season but given the season that we have had be prepared for a triple x review.