Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fall Report 2016

Yes, it's that time of the year again when I visit the house in Fernie, have a general poke round for a few weeks and give an update on what is happening and the prospects for the up coming ski season. This report will break down into several parts - an update on what Lynda and I have been doing back in the UK, news on our vacation here in BC (both of these should be skipped by those of you only interested in the skiing), an update on what has been happening on the hill and the prospects for the season to come.

Since we went back to the UK at the end of April the summer has really flown by. Lynda's new hip (new last September) has continued to get stronger and now she is totally back to full strength, in fact better than ever even if it does set off the alarms at the airports every time we fly. The sailing has been great in the Falmouth Working Boat and also in the RS400 dinghy with some success in the Working Boat in Falmouth and Fowey weeks. In July we flew up to Bodo in the Arctic Circle in Norway and met a buddy to sail his 44ft Rustler down the coast to Rorvik for 8 days - great fun.

I have taken up the challenge to run three marathons in 4 weeks Oct/Nov so I have been doing some very serious training. I am now up to running 80/100 miles a week  or about 14 miles a day on Cornish hills. I have also given up the booze (let's see if that can last into the winter) or at least cut down to a couple of pints one night a week and am also doing some gym work. Unsurprisingly I have lost about 35 pounds and for the first time in about 30 years my BMI doesn't tell me that I am "overweight" and it's all good news except for my pants falling down unless they are tied up really tight.

As we came home quite quickly after the ski season we had some extra time available to play with this autumn. We flew into Vancouver at the end of August and drove across BC in a couple of days (overnight at the hot springs in Nakusp is always great fun) and arrived here at the house in Fernie last Friday. Since then we have packed a lot of action into the last 8 days. On the last day of summer lift service last Sunday we got a chair up to Timber top and then hiked Polar Peak returning along Timber Ridge. Monday was white water rafting and more hiking and biking during the week interspersed with such tasks as getting the outstanding work done on the truck from the spring service etc

Every day has been at least 14 miles of running training and in fact on Thursday I put in a full marathon distance (26.2 miles) in a time of 3:57 which if I can repeat on race day (first marathon is Dublin at the end of Oct) will qualify me as an elite athlete in view of my age - 65 this year.

We are here for a couple more weeks before driving back to Vancouver and then flying up to Bella Bella for and 8 day bear and whale watching sail on the schooner Maple Leaf After that it will be back to the UK for a couple of weekends theatre at Stratford-on-Avon and running the Dublin, Porto and Cornwall marathons. Then it will be time for the winter

Looking around the hill I have to say that not much appears to have happened in the summer. Going up on Timber Chair I noticed that White Pass Chair had been dismantled and the bull wheel was off - by the way the summer lift rides came free as part of last season's winter pass benefits so worth bearing in mind if they do the same this year. I assume that the White Pass Chair will be put back together some time soon although I hear they are still awaiting parts for the gears.

There were rumours of brush cutting and alder clearance on the Big 3 and at the foot of Steep and Deep and goodness knows both areas could do with a trim. I have to say that on my hikes on the hill I haven't seen any evidence of trimming in those areas. in fact I didn't notice any evidence of much work at all on the runs but then there is still plenty of time before the season begins. If anyone from the hill wants to make some comments on the work that has been done at the foot of this report please feel free.

The weather may be trying to give us some signs for the up coming winter which are in some respects quite encouraging. This year appears to be a record season for berries and on a hike of the Mt Baldy Loop there were still loads of berries to be had. Good berry seasons are usually followed by a good snow winter and at the very least it means the bears get well fed without having to come down into town and risk human conflict - hardly anyone has seen a bear round town this fall. Temps are already below normal with today's high at about 8 degrees and when the cloud and rain clears I expect to see the first significant snowfall of the winter on the mountain tops.

The big news revolves around the El Nino/La Nina situation. The last two winters have been El Ninos which gives warmer winters than usual and the winter before last really sucked and last winter was only a bit better despite the official version. For most of this year the forecast has been for a swing to La Nina cause by colder water temps in the Pacific which would give a colder wetter winter than usual with all that implies for snow conditions. In the last few days Environment Canada have changed their forecast from a La Nina to a neutral oscillation winter due to the cooler water not yet having had the anticipated effect on air in the weather systems. Put in simple terms tis means that the winter will probably be an average one which while being nothing to hang out the flags about should be a vast improvement on the past couple of years.

So it really comes down to an old fashioned Fernie crap shoot this winter when no doubt we will have some awesome days, some average days and one or two that suck - in there somewhere we will probably get a week of -30 temps, in fact a normal Fernie winter. We will be back late November to catch the possible bonus weekend if conditions allow other than that I expect a season kick off first weekend in December as usual. This year I qualify for a Senior's pass for the first time (as does Lynda but don't tell anyone) so with the reduced price if I can't get my daily cost of skiing below 5 bucks a day I am not the man I think I am. We have already booked our flights which will involve returning to UK in the spring via the Galapagos Islands (makes a change from going round the world and it's one more thing of the bucket list) so see you all in Fernie at the end of November.

In the meanwhile Keep Your Stick on the Ice.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Season Summary 2015-16

To encapsulate things in very few words I would summarise this season as being just about ok but slightly below average. Now, I know this isn't the official line which is that this season was very good, maybe even awesome but as far as I am concerned that just isn't the case and I call things as I see them.

When I got less than enthusiastic about the season someone always said "at least it's better than last year" this became such a mantra that by the end of the season I was threatening to punch out the next person to say it. Last year was the worst season for 40 years if you can believe some of the long term locals or maybe 60 years if you believe others. To use last year a a yardstick is setting the bar pretty low and I prefer to use my last 12 years of skiing Fernie more or less every day (all day) as my measure and by those standards this season was below average.

The reason for the less than good conditions can be summed up in two words "El Nino". To massively over simplify the El Nino (the little boy) is a cyclical warming of the waters of the eastern Pacific which is where most of our weather comes from. It's counter part is a cooling of the waters known as La Nina (the little girl) which affects our weather in a very different way. Last year was an El Nino year and initial forecasts which were for the El Nino to subside proved wrong and it did in fact strengthen giving the warmest water temperatures since records began. The result was that from the time of the year when the Pacific systems really start to come in (around mid to late January) temperatures were way above normal with February coming in at 5 degrees on average above seasonal norms.

Of course certain commercial interests are doing their best to talk up the season and they quote the hard numbers to show that the season was pretty good. We had 800 cms of snowfall, a base which reached above 3 meters in January and a finishing base of 270 cms, falling below 3 meters only in the last couple of weeks. So looking at the numbers, on paper the season seems quite good, the problem is that we don't ski on paper we ski on snow. If I were one of those commercial interests I would also ponder the wisdom of describing a below average season such as this as "great". Anyone who skied the season and reads that will never ski here again if they think that is our definition of great. Much better to tell the truth so that they know that in even a good year Fernie is way better than we saw this season - that will keep them coming back.

With the El Nino effect much stronger than last year there was every likelihood that this year would be even worse which it certainly wasn't. It is worth examining why the season was actually better than last year and despite the hard numbers why it was nowhere near as good as average.

Why the season was better can mostly be explained by the early season conditions. After a slightly disappointing wet and warm start we had spectacular winter conditions day after day with good if not super deep powder and nice cold temps. These conditions held all the way through to the end of January. The result was that we had a snow base well over 3 meters (last year it never reached 2 meters) and good coverage all the way down to the day lodge. Cold temps allowed significant snow making to take place giving good coverage and plenty of reserve snow piles that could be used to repair the lower hill later in the season. Put simply we had a much bigger safety margin at the end of January than we had last year so when things started to go wrong (and they did go wrong) they were not as bad as last year.

From the start of February things really did start to go wrong and we had many days (including a full week) when temps in the valley never dropped below zero even at night. The reason for this is that the El Nino effect doesn't cut in until the jet stream starts to drive the Pacific systems into the interior and this year that was about the start of February. On the hill we had spring skiing with soft daytime snow freezing hard at night and softening during the day - I am not the worlds greatest fan of spring skiing at any time but in February when we have known temps of -30 before it was pretty awful. As I said before February average temps were 5 degrees warmer than the norm.

As we moved into March everyone talked about how we often get some of the best snow in March - wrong. Things just became more spring like day by day with the snow becoming very soft in the afternoon and significant closures having to be made because of wet snow avalanche danger. The only success stories at this time were Kangaroo (newly cleaned out and skiing soft bumps instead of the usual icy terrain) and the Polar Chutes which benefited from the hard ice early season base in that it kept the skiing surfaces flat. The chutes are usually hard and cold but in the warm soft conditions they skied about as mellow as I can remember them.

For the last 3 or 4 weeks of the season I abandoned  ski gear and skied in my cotton pants and a fleece - sometime I even discarded the fleece in favour of a T shirt in the afternoon. We were regularly skiing in temps of over +20 and outside of summer skiing on the glaciers this was a new experience for me. Perhaps this was the inspiration for me hitting my first ever slope soaker on closing day.

We did have some snow in the second half of the season and hence the 800 cms of snow fall. The problem was that with things so warm the rain line (snow line if you prefer) was not down on the lower mountain as usual but just about up at (and some times above) White Pass Load. In simple terms this meant that at the very top (as measured by the official snow plot) we did get snow but a couple of turns below it was rain all the way to the base, The effect was that whilst the snow increased the base for a very small part of the upper hill, for the most part it reduced the base as the rain fell on the snow all over the rest of the hill.

To make matter worse because of the warm conditions even where the snow came down it was soft and heavy mush frequently getting rained on later as the rain line moved up the hill during the day. This meant that rather than our usual experience where a snow cycle gave us several days of good winter snow to ski on we were in fact lucky to get a whole day of good skiing on the soft snow out of each cycle. At best after the first day the temps stayed high and we ended up with elephant snot and at worst it refroze over night giving icy conditions so bad that patrol had to close large areas of the hill for safety reasons.

So there you have it my view of the season with explanations of why the skiing didn't feel too good despite figures that might have indicated something better. We have to hope that the El Nino actually does subside as it is forecast this year but we must bear in mind that last year they forecast a subsiding El Nino and look at what we got. We must live in hope.

Have a great summer and see everyone for the Fall report sometime in September.