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.


  1. Thanks again Bill for your reports. I enjoyed reading them everyday done here in Melbourne. We are looking forward to the season kicking off here, a good one fingers crossed.

  2. Thanks for the comment - have a good season. At least you don't get affected by the El Nino - Bill

  3. Thanks from me to Bill, I'm here in Calgary getting out to our local mountains pretty much each weekend, and we love getting to Fernie when we can. I match your descriptions of snow with whatever info I can get from various weather sites and feel like I can get a great handle of where things are at which goes a some small way to satiate my desires to be skiing everyday - I'll take anything!;) right on. Thanks again, Mike