The weather gods weren't kind to Mount Washington Alpine Resort this winter, but the Vancouver Island ski destination is still optimistic about next year and is making big plans for 2010.
The Comox Valley-area resort had a lot to look forward to this past season. More than $3 million was invested in a new lift called The Boomerang, a double-lift the resort calls the first of its kind in North America. The Boomerang was built to access 400 new acres of extreme terrain dubbed the Outback, increasing the size of the resort by one-third.
New accommodations were built, and $500,000 was spent paving the road to the Raven Lodge, the Nordic centre for cross-country enthusiasts.
Despite these changes, Mother Nature was unco-operative this past season - producing so little snow that the resort was never able to fully open, says spokesman Dave Hampshire.
|Illustration courtesy of Mount Washington Alpine Resort|
|When the snow does arrive, Mount Washington skiers will have plenty of options at the Vancouver Island resort.|
"Christmas and Easter are our two most lucrative times, so when we didn't see any snow for Christmas, it was tough," says Hampshire. "When January hit, we had two great weeks with lots of snow, but it all just disappeared in just over 36 hours."
All told, Hampshire says Mount Washington managed 30 days of what he calls "substandard" skiing and snowboarding for the season.
The resort managed to achieve a two-thirds opening for two weeks in January before the rain hit, but there never was enough snow to open the Outback and fire up the Boomerang lift.
It all adds up to a tough pill to swallow for the resort's operators.
"It's still going to be a new lift next year," says Hampshire. "Let's just say it was our worst season ever, financially."
Trying to make the best of a bleak situation, the resort planned a no-snow festival for spring break, organizing a range of outdoor activities to attract visitors and to entertain vacationers who hadn't cancelled their spring ski trips. Again, the weather gods had other ideas.
"A bunch of snow arrived, completely wiping out our outdoor plans," says Hampshire.
Mount Washington was able to open for two weekends in April. The resort has announced it will fully honour all 7,000 season passes for next season.
Hampshire says the poor weather also meant hardship for staff. With 800 seasonal and 100 year-round employees, Mount Washington is the largest private employer in the Comox Valley during the winter months. Nearly all were laid off, with just 15 workers left by late January.
"Many of these people came from as far away as Australia and Japan to work here and live in the Comox Valley. It was really sad," says Hampshire. "A lot of them hung out, hoping for snow, but it just didn't come."
The impact was felt beyond Mount Washington to other parts of Vancouver Island, including accommodation and tour providers, beer and wine stores, and ski-snowboard shops.
Dianne Hawkins, executive director of the Comox Valley Chamber of Commerce, says the lack of snow hurt local businesses. Mount Washington is a destination for people who don't live in the area, as it is for regional residents who look to escape with a weekend of skiing.
But she says businesses were also impressed with the way Mount Washington handled the situation, including honouring all season passes for next year and the aborted no-snow-fest.
"It does a lot for morale in the community, because we do rely on Mount Washington," says Hawkins. "They really made the best of a bad situation."
On the plus side, the lack of snow and the warm weather through much of May means the resort may begin its summer season early.
Hampshire says optimism is high.
"We're really building our summer season with a range of activities available - mountain biking is becoming increasingly popular and we're the only lift-access mountain bike park on Vancouver Island," says Hampshire. "We're hoping to see some big gains there."
With an eye to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver-Whistler, Mount Washington plans to market itself as a training site for Nordic events.
Hampshire says resort officials have applied for 2010 legacy funding to expand Nordic infrastructure, and are hoping the Games Organizing Committee will name the resort as an official training site.
"We would love to have that stamp of approval from the Organizing Committee saying we recognize Mount Washington as an official Nordic training site. But frankly, we don't need that to make this business a success," says Hampshire.
He notes that the terrain and altitude at Mount Washington is similar to that of the Callaghan Valley near Whistler, which will be the 2010 Nordic venue. With the new Comox International Airport in operation and the second-longest runway in the province, national teams can also fly directly to the Comox Valley.
"Nordic teams will go to a similar venue near the Olympic venue as much as three months before the event to get acclimatized and to train," says Hampshire.
"We're already making vast inroads - we're really in a good position to have this happen."
Canada's national team already comes every year for Nordic training at Mount Washington and dry-land training in the Comox Valley. Hampshire says other national teams have expressed interest in the resort's expansion plans.
The plans include doubling the existing 55 km of trails to provide the ability to play host to World Cup-class events. A new stadium has been built that includes a wide oval where spectators can watch a race begin and end. Officials also want to construct a new building next to the Nordic lounge to offer athlete accommodation and fitness services, along with dressing rooms and meeting facilities.
"These things take a long time, and there's many different channels to go through," says Hampshire. "We would like to get it up and running within two years to have a chance to offer it to the world teams."
The timeline for official approval remains unclear. Renee Smith-Valade, a spokeswoman for the 2010 Organizing Committee, says it's not in a position to confirm official training sites at this time.
Over the next two years, Smith-Valade says, the Organizing Committee will compile a list of possible training sites, largely in British Columbia, where national teams will be able to train - both in the years leading up to the Olympics and for acclimatization in the weeks before the Games.
"But ultimately, it will be the sole determination of each National Olympic Committee to decide on where they would like to go to train, given that they will be responsible for all costs with the training and logistics of making arrangements," says Smith-Valade.
(Jeff Jedras can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)