Disclaimer: The author is a former employee of Asessippi Ski Area & Resort
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For the past 88 years, Manitobans have travelled to ski down the Pembina Valley hills overlooking the town of La Rivière. It would have been 89 years this winter had Holiday Mountain Resort been able to open.
Despite immense snowfall this winter, skiers and snowboarders from southern Manitoba lost their winter playground at Holiday Mountain. Manitoba ski resorts depend on making their own snow to be ready in time for their December opening dates and to have enough snow — between 2-4 feet — to withstand the hundreds of skiers and boarders that plow down the slopes each day.
Last summer’s drought resulted in the Pembina River, Holiday Mountain’s water source for making snow, being too low to use. Its skiers and snowboarders had to travel elsewhere or find replacements for their usual winter sport.
Is this an anomaly, or will a warming climate render skiing, snowboarding, and other winter activities impossible?
Winter is a part of Manitoban culture — the province’s capital, Winnipeg, is often referred to as Winterpeg. The prairie province is historically overtaken by sub-zero temperatures and blanketed with snow between November and March, sometimes with a few exceptions toward the beginning and end of each month.
Despite spending half the year in what some call miserable weather, Manitobans enjoy many outdoor activities and pastimes during the frigid months.
Frozen lakes are dotted with ice fishing shacks as soon as the ice is thick enough to drive on, outdoor rinks host groups of kids playing hockey after school, and ski resorts welcome tens of thousands of skiers and snowboarders each year.
These activities have a long history in Manitoba and are a major part of many Manitobans’ lives. The Facebook group, Ice Fishing Manitoba, has 26.5 thousand members who share tips, photos, and stories of their cold outdoor adventures. For those who grew up meeting friends at their neighborhood outdoor rinks, it might be hard to imagine a Manitoban winter where they can’t lace up their skates for a game of pick-up hockey.
But the ever-increasing threats of climate change could change that.
Canada’s Changing Climate Report (CCCR2019) shows the global average surface temperature rose by an estimated 0.85°C between 1880-2012. Canada’s climate has been disproportionately affected, with an increase of 1.7°C between 1948-2016. The increase in the prairies was higher at 1.9°C.
The continuing rise in temperature poses many threats for Manitobans: drought, wildfires, and species extinction to name a few.
While these problems could have extreme consequences for all Manitobans, it can be hard to understand how your life will be affected if you’re not a farmer who depends on rain to grow crops or a biologist who can appreciate the importance of biodiversity. Most people won’t experience these issues in their daily lives.
But something almost everyone can relate to is fun — how might climate change impact the ways Manitobans have come to enjoy winter?
Between 1948-2016, the average winter temperature in the prairies rose by 3.1°C. Climate projections in CCCR2019 show that if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise on their current path, the average winter temperature in southern Manitoba will rise by over 2°C by 2031-2050 relative to the 1986-2005 period. By 2080-2100, it’s projected to rise by nearly 8°C. In a low-emission scenario, which would require “rapid and deep emission reductions and near-zero emissions this century,” it’s still projected to rise 2.3°C by 2080-2100.
Such a rise could drastically change our winter seasons. In the research letter “Changing Lengths of the Four Seasons by Global Warming,” published in February 2021, researchers found that winters in the Northern Hemisphere midlatitudes could last less than two months if greenhouse gas emissions continue to go unchecked.
Climate change could eliminate Manitobans’ ability to play outdoor hockey, snowshoe, snowmobile, or enjoy other winter staples in as soon as a few decades.
Two winter sports already facing challenges due to climate change in other parts of the world are alpine skiing and snowboarding. Manitoba has eight ski resorts — all but one in southern Manitoba. Of all winter activities, skiing and snowboarding are especially sensitive to climate change due to the high operating costs of resorts and a short window to recover those costs.
A 2°C increase in the average winter temperature would heighten both of those hurdles. Even this year, Manitoba resorts have struggled with warm winter weather.
Asessippi Ski Area & Resort
An ideal snow-making season at Asessippi Ski Area and Resort (or simply, Asessippi), is a busy time. Before Manitoba’s largest ski resort opens in December, crews of snowmakers spend weeks working overtime to coat the barren hills with snow. They march down the slopes, checking each snow gun that sprays water in fine droplets into the air — making sure the nozzles don’t ice up and moving the guns to bare regions of the hill when enough snow has accumulated beneath them. When the temperature is low enough, a faint hissing sound stretches across the hills as the guns push out close to two thousand gallons of water per minute.
Asessippi’s snow guns are fed by multiple pumps that pull water out of the Shell River, which weaves along the base of the hills before emptying into the nearby Lake of the Prairies. Usually, most of the resort’s 26 runs are covered by the end of December; it takes at least 30 million gallons of water to get to that point. When temperatures remain cold enough to make snow, it’s a difficult, 24/7 operation — but necessary, as Manitoba doesn’t get enough snowfall consistently or early enough to last until the resort closes in April.
This year’s snow-making season was far from ideal. Due to a warm November, in which daily highs reached above freezing for 16 days throughout the month, Asessippi’s snowmaking was delayed until December.
The most efficient snowmaking happens below -20°C, when guns can run at maximum output and create fluffy, dry snow. Asessippi makes snow with a variety of snow guns, the best of which mix air with the water so it can freeze in warmer temperatures before it hits the ground.
Asessippi’s general manager, Richard Crosswaithe, said -6°C is the warmest temperature the guns can make snow at, but the snow at that temperature is wet and ices up, and the guns are only spraying half of what they’re capable of.
“The trouble is you can run for 10 hours at these temperatures, and it’s actually disheartening at the end of a 12-hour shift to see what you’ve actually made,” said Crosswaithe.
If greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at their current rate, Climate Atlas of Canada projects the number of days that reach below -5°C each winter in the Riding Mountain region (where Asessippi is) will decrease by an average of 16.3 days over the 2021-2050 period compared to the 1976-2005 average. The number of days that fall below -15°C — when resorts can start making large amounts of quality snow — is projected to decrease by an average of 17.8 days during the same 30-year period.
Asessippi typically opens the second weekend in December. The number of runs their guests can ride on opening day varies year to year depending on how much snow they make before then. This season, the resort couldn’t open until December 17.
Once Crosswaithe and his snowmakers were able to start making snow in December, they had to repeatedly shut down and restart the river pumps as inconsistent weather turned the snow guns into giant sprinklers, eroding the snow they’d made. Each shutdown and restart takes several hours and multiple workers to complete. It’s an added expense for the resort.
“It’s one of these things we’ve got to make sure we maximize every opportunity we get,” said Crosswaithe. “And even in the beginning of the season when it’s temperatures where we’re not making good snow, we’ve still got to try and make something. At least to create our base layer.”
Eventually, temperatures got below -25°C long enough for Crosswaithe to max out the river pumps and finish the runs for two of the resort’s three chairlifts. Due to the late finish, Asessippi chose not to make snow for the remaining runs.
Making snow for all three chairlifts costs the resort approximately $170,000. That only covers the costs of energy, snowmaker wages, and Snomax — a protein added to the water that allows it to crystalize at a warmer temperature. The cost to repair and replace snow guns, pumps, and snowcats (vehicles used to spread and groom the snow) is extra.
Warmer winters would likely lead to higher operating costs for resorts and a shorter season for resorts to make their money back. Prolonged snow-making seasons mean more time on the clock for employees and fewer runs for visitors to ski. The heavier, icy snow made in warmer temperatures is harder on the snowcats, which means more maintenance costs. A delayed, low-output snow-making season could eventually push back opening dates into the holiday season — Asessippi’s main moneymaker.
Asessippi experienced what losing their holiday income would be like this year when an extreme cold warning shut the resort down over the holidays.
“We were closed so much of the Christmas period because of the bloody awful temperatures that we had. We were minus 40 for most of the Christmas break, which is a financial disaster for us, really,” said Crosswaithe. “That’s a couple of our biggest weeks of the year, so we’re playing catch up now.”
Projections in CCCR2019 show that snow coverage is expected with “very high confidence” to decrease by 5-10 per cent each decade through 2050 across southern Canada. Warmer spring temperatures are expected to start melting snow earlier in the season, and the amount of precipitation that currently falls as snow will shift toward rain.
One of Asessippi’s busiest weeks is the spring break holiday, which for most Manitoban schools is the last week of March. This is also the last week of Asessippi’s season. An early spring melt would be a dagger to resorts and any hopeful visitors.
The amount of snow left at Asessippi at that point in the season varies from year to year. The resort makes stockpiles of snow ready to fill in gaps where the snow has melted. Already there have been years where snowboarders and skiers — riding in T-shirts — have had to carve around patches of earth protruding throughout the slopes. During especially warm springs, entire runs have been closed off completely.
Some resorts in Europe, which are already dealing with later snowfalls and earlier snow melts resulting from climate change, have begun increasing the amount of snow they stockpile and covering it with reflective tarps to preserve it through the summer months.
Crosswaithe said he isn’t concerned about climate change affecting Asessippi.
“I mean we always do get a couple of mild weeks around November, December. We’ve just got to make sure that we’re prepared for that better.”
If climate change eventually causes spring temperatures to encroach earlier in the year as projected, Manitoba resorts may not have any snow left by the time spring break arrives. With two of their busiest times of year most at risk, resorts could suffer major losses.
But the resorts won’t be the only ones losing out.
The town of Russell sits 23 kilometres south of Asessippi and 17 kilometres from the Saskatchewan border. The stretch of Highway 16 that cuts through the south end of Russell is lined by an A&W, Tim Horton’s, and local businesses, including the Jolly Lodger Motel and The Russell Inn. Anybody visiting Asessippi from southern Manitoba — where most of its 80,000 annual visitors come from — passes through the town of 1,395 residents on their way. Many of the skiers who go for more than one day stay in Russell.
Economic Development Officer for the Assiniboine Valley Regional Community Development Corporation, Thomas McLeod, said many Russell businesses and their employees depend on the traffic Asessippi brings in the winter.
“The amount of money that they’re dropping adds up quickly,” said McLeod. “The skiing community has an impact of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, not just the cost of what they spend to get to be on the hill.”
McLeod said the impact would be felt immediately if Asessippi were to close. Last winter, the community got a sense of what it would be like if the resort wasn’t there to bring in a surge of visitors. Pandemic restrictions, like the non-essential travel ban across the Saskatchewan border, drastically reduced the number of riders who visited.
“The hotels and the hospitality, food services, were hit extremely hard, and a lot of businesses considered themselves lucky if they were breaking even,” said McLeod.
McLeod also noted that Asessippi has a big impact on employment in the region, both at the resort and in Russell. The Russell Inn (which owns Asessippi, a gas station, and multiple restaurants along Highway 16), employs over 130 workers from Russell and the surrounding area.
Beyond its economic and labour benefits to the area, Asessippi provides locals with a way to spend their winters. Many locals, especially youth, spend multiple days a week riding at the resort. Crosswaithe recalls how often he used to ski with his son, Russell, before he worked there.
“I think there was one year, we never missed a day skiing that I could possibly [go]. We used to go a lot.”
It’s not just the locals who use the resort for winter fun. Asessippi hosts skiers and boarders from across Manitoba and Saskatchewan. As the biggest hill in the province, competitive ski racers depend on it.
Winnipeg Alpine Racers
During the ski season, Jon Metcalfe clicks on his skis every Tuesday and Saturday to train the Winnipeg Alpine Racers, one of Winnipeg’s two alpine ski clubs. He started skiing at seven years old and is now head coach of the club.
“My parents had always taken us out to Birds Hill to go cross country skiing on the Chickadee Trail, and my brother and I realized it’s a lot funner to go down the hill than across it. So that sort of got us into downhill ski racing,” said Metcalfe.
Metcalfe now coaches 39 skiers between five and nineteen years old. He said he takes pride in coaching and being part of the ski community.
“As much as ski racing is an individual sport based on times, it’s really a family affair,” said the 41-year-old father. “When we’re out in the hills or out at the different races, you cheer for the kids on your team, but you also cheer for all the other kids regardless of which clubs they represent and who they are. It’s just a great sport to bring everyone together.”
The Winnipeg Alpine Racers train at Spring Hill Winter Park in Winnipeg, which stands at 150 vertical feet. It’s a molehill compared to resorts in the Canadian Rockies, like Fernie Alpine Resorts, which offers 3,550 vertical feet. The club’s top skiers often spend weeks training at mountain resorts like the one in Fernie, but most of them start out in Manitoba.
Former Winnipeg Alpine Racer, Danielle Poleshuk, represented Canada in Women’s Ski Cross at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Some of the club’s other athletes have earned full scholarships to American universities, like the University of Colorado, to compete in collegiate leagues. If prairie resorts eventually close for good, these opportunities could disappear for Manitobans.
At the club’s first race day at Asessippi this year, Metcalfe said it was emotional to see one of his athletes, Lance Verrier, 16, take the top rank in the province.
Verrier started skiing at four years old and started competing around eleven. He’s serious about improving as a racer but said he still loves skiing for the fun of it.
“I’ve been skiing with all my teammates since we were like six or seven, so I’ve known them forever and we just have a blast on the hills.”
Verrier said he doesn’t know what he would do in the winter if he couldn’t ski in Manitoba.
“If we have to go all the way to B.C. or Ontario or Quebec just to get some training in or just to ski for fun, I think that would probably make most of the team not able to go skiing as much.”
Competitors like Verrier make up a small portion of skiers in the province. Most resort visits come from school kids and hobbyists just looking for a fun winter day outside.
Adrian Hrabarchuk, 27, first strapped on a snowboard at ten years old. He was at Asessippi on a school trip and spent the day on the bunny hill trying to figure out how to stay on his feet. A few years later he got his first snowboard and became obsessed with boarding.
Growing up in Dauphin, Hrabarchuk built jumps and rails to ride in his backyard, watching YouTube videos to learn new tricks. In the summer he would practice spins and flips on his trampoline with his board on.
Hrabarchuk now lives in Winnipeg and still spends much of his free time boarding. These days he mainly goes urban snowboarding — finding handrails, gaps, and ledges in the city to ride onto and jump over. He said the time he spent riding as a kid is why snowboarding is still a big part of his life today.
“I usually try to get out like four times a week for sure. Minimum,” said Hrabarchuk “I don’t think I’ll ever stop… It’s the best.”
Devoted to riding as much as possible, he jumped at the opportunity when his friend offered him a free lift pass to Sunshine Village Ski Resort in Banff at the end of Manitoba’s 2018 ski season. He drove to Banff and lived out of his truck from April to May.
“Totally worth it to get a free pass to ride,” said Hrabarchuk. “I sucked it up with a couple nice big blankets and bought a barbeque for my tailgate and just had a cooler and all my life in my [truck’s] box.”
Hrabarchuk wishes he could still live and ride in the mountains, but the cost of living is more affordable — and he can still snowboard — in Manitoba. He said he might go back west if snowboarding in Manitoba eventually becomes impossible due to climate change.
“I’ve totally thought about this for sure. Like if I live to 60 or 70 or 80, like I might actually see the death of snowboarding in Manitoba,” said Hrabarchuk. “I never used to see rain in the wintertime, and now you see rain in the wintertime.”
For now, Hrabarchuk said he’s going to stay positive and stick to boarding as much as he can.
While winters to come may give resorts consistently cold weather early enough to make snow, climate projections for the prairies suggest the warm November temperatures Asessippi saw this year will become more frequent across the province over time.
A shorter season due to climate change seriously threatens Manitoba’s ski hills. With their busiest times of year at the most susceptible parts of winter — and a season that already only spans one third of a year — Manitoba resorts face a future with less time to recover their investments. Even if resorts can stay profitable in shorter seasons, the skiers and boarders who ride there will have fewer chances to go. Future improvements in snowmaking technology could buy them some time, but nothing will help if the temperature doesn’t stay below zero enough.
Climate change threatens not only our future food supply and infrastructure, but also the games, sports, and outdoor activities we’ve grown up with and depend on. As bad as Manitoba winters can be now, at least there are lots of ways to get outside and enjoy them.