by Mark Page
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice
As snow begins to fall and temperatures plunge, excitement builds for what will hopefully be an early start to a good ski season.
“Last year was a pretty rough season,” said Red Mountain Resort marketing and events manager Melissa Thompstone. “This year, so far, so good.”
Red is set to open on Dec. 10, two weeks earlier than last season. Whitewater Ski Resort is on track to open Dec. 9, while Summit Lake Ski and Snowboard Area will likely open as usual just after Christmas. Further afield, Revelstoke Mountain Resort opens Dec. 3. All these dates can change based on snow conditions.
As of Dec. 1, Whitewater reported a snow depth of 124 centimetres. Most of the mountain should be open on Dec. 9 with the lower elevation Glory Chair not opening until Dec. 15.
Red reported 76 cm alpine snow depth Dec. 2. Thompstone expects Red will make the goal of opening up Dec. 10.
Both Red and Whitewater are having an easy time staffing their ski resorts this season while community ski hills struggle. As inflation causes wages to increase, ski resorts all over North America are having to raise wages and add benefits to attract employees. Vail Resorts, the owner of Whistler Blackcomb, is even offering $20 per hour minimum wages and expanded health benefits.
Representatives from Red and Whitewater were unable to provide up-to-date wage information but both said the hiring process has gone smoothly this year.
“Honestly I feel we’re kind of a unicorn there,” Whitewater marketing director Tom Finkle said. “We haven’t had that challenge with filling roles.”
This is in stark contrast with Summit, which currently has a post on their website saying, “Simply put, without more help, there may be no local ski hill.” Summit is seeking help from volunteers and has paid positions available for ski instructors, lift operations and ski patrol.
Though Red is pretty well staffed for outside operations, Thompstone did say they are still hiring for positions such a line cooks and custodians. She attributed their success to the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions and the dedication of long-time management staff. Unique in the ski industry, RED has unionized employees who collectively bargain for pay and benefits.
The lifting of border restrictions also figures to have an impact on visitation numbers at Red as they get a large number of guests from across the border. Thompstone is confident this will not result in longer lift lines, as Red boasts they have most terrain per skier in North America.
“On a weekend powder day, that’s the longest line-up you’ll ever see and that’s like 20 minutes,” she said.
As Whitewater deals with bigger crowds, particularly on big snow days, they have done a few things to alleviate what can be a difficult parking situation. Finkle said they have increased the size of the parking lot by 15 per cent and are adding extra shuttles for employees between Nelson and the ski mountain.
“So hopefully that will relieve pressure for the big days – pow days and holidays,” he said.
Whitewater is also bringing back the Coldsmoke Powder Fest and Powder Crown competition. Both have been on hiatus since 2020 due to COVID.
New at Whitewater this season will be a backcountry-focused facility called the Hummingbird Lodge, opening in March. Construction of a new lift extending above the current Silver King chair is not scheduled to begin until next summer.
Red has built a new mid-mountain facility consisting of six cabins and a clubhouse called the Constella.
Visitors to Red this winter will have to wait another season for the return of $10 cat skiing on Mt. Kirkup as the snowcat used for it had to be re-purposed. Thompstone is confident the service will return next season. Access to the area will be allowed but users will have to get there under their own steam and follow all necessary precautions to care for their own safety.
Summit Ski Area is also getting in on improvements. They are continuing renovations of the day lodge and are building new equipment storage. Funding is provided through a $699,150 provincial Rural Development grant they received in the spring.