Nordic ski numbers exploding, although alpine ski numbers are down

By Steve Hubrecht
[email protected]

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven people outside in the Columbia Valley this winter, but they’re not getting outside in quite the same way as they did before. Alpine ski numbers are down in the valley’s first ‘pandemic winter’, but numbers for nordic skiing are up, way up, and several other winter recreation pursuits have seen a bump in participants as well.

Many Columbia Valley residents could be heard talking about how the ski hill lift lines had never been so long during and after the Christmas holidays. In January, the Pioneer reached out to Panorama Mountain Resort to find out if the chatter was true, and whether or not there had been more visitors than usual. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case, with alpine skier numbers down at the resort compared with before the pandemic. But as Panorama chief marketing officer Marke Dickson noted, the resort had seen an increase in people doing nordic skiing and fat biking.

“We were pleased with the holiday period for many reasons, including terrific snow. The number of skiers and riders on the mountain met our expectation, but in reality these numbers were quite a bit lower than we’re used to. We are really grateful for the very strong support we saw from locals, with many season pass holders on the mountain every day,” wrote Dickson, later outlining that Panorama has spent the past few years significantly developing international markets, drawing skiers and riders from the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand and Australia.

“It’s the absence of these overseas guests that we’re really feeling this winter,” wrote Dickson, adding that the resort team is already working with partners around the world to bring international travellers back next winter. “While B.C. travel advisories are in place, we’ll continue to see fewer skiers and riders than normal. The data we have and the calls coming in show that Prairie guests are excited to get back to the mountains when advisories are lifted. Indications are that we’ll have a really strong March and April, if the pandemic starts to ease.”

But as Dickson pointed out, alpine skiing is not the only activity on offer at Panorama, and these other winter pursuits have been a hit during COVID-19.

“Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat biking have been increasing in popularity for years, but this season we’ve seen a real boom in trail use – numbers are way up. Experienced (nordic) skiers and first-time snowshoers are filling the parking lot at Greywolf,” wrote Dickson, adding this spike in cross-country ski volumes mean that the main trails are now groomed every day, and the resort has purchased new grooming equipment, opened a nordic hub (at the Greywolf clubhouse) and expanded the Mountain Friends program to include nordic trail hosts.

“Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, sales of recreational products like bikes, skis and snowshoes went through the roof. We think we’ll see the first-timers of this season back for years to come,” wrote Dickson.

Nipika Mountain Resort has also seen a tremendous surge of interest in nordic skiing.

“We are booming. It’s unbelievable. For the whole winter, we have been at about 90 per cent occupancy,” said Nipika co-founder Lyle Wilson. “For nordic skiing, it’s been an absolute atomic bomb explosion of participation. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Wilson said Nipika has had 120 to 130 cars in its parking lot most weekend days, with the lot, in fact, full capacity most of the time, and cars parked down the road. “There’s new people out cross-country skiing, left, right and centre,” he said. “You actually can’t buy (nordic) gear right now, all the suppliers have it flying off the shelves as soon as they stock it.”

Nipika is currently doing double the number of nordic ski lessons as it would in a typical winter, and has sold quadruple the number of daily trail passes. Season pass sales for the nordic trails at Nipika are 300 per cent their normal level. Even on mid-week days, Tuesday through Thursday, Nipika is seeing 100 or more people out on its trail system, outlined Wilson.

The resort has had to change its facilities to adapt to COVID-19 protocols, but even so, “we are run off our feet,” said Wilson. “Stuff that’s never happened before is happening…COVID-19 has a lot to do with it, and people who usually go south for their winter holidays, or who do other winter sports, are looking for a way to get away from crowds…They’re looking for something safe and they want to relieve stress, and cross-country ski trails are great for that.”

Wilson, who is also a longstanding member of the Toby Creek Nordic Ski Club, also noted that ice skating has been incredibly popular this winter, with the Whiteway on Lake Windermere as well as the smaller Lake Lillian Whiteway both seeing a near constant stream of users, especially on the weekends, despite this winter not being the best season in terms of skating conditions.

“When the pandemic finally does settle down, there’s going to be some good trends for the environment and for physical and mental health and wellness that hopefully will stick around. We’re learning some things that are helping the planet and that helps us,” said Wilson. “A lot of people who maybe normally head on down to Mexico for their winter vacation have learned instead to look around and see what’s close to home. And with Zoom and remote working, people are finding ways to strike a better balance between work and getting outside every now and then. I think these things are great, for everybody, for society as a whole. And of course, for a place like Nipika, they are good for us as a business.”

At Inside Edge Boutique and Sports in Invermere, Cheryl Maybuck said that the store has noticed a definite increase in interest in cross country skiing, fat biking and snowshoeing.

“Especially people wanting to buy equipment. In fact, there’s so much interest, and there’s not much left to buy,” said Maybuck. “If the COVID-19 travel restrictions weren’t in place, I’m sure our gear rentals would be up as much as sales.”

Maybuck adding it makes sense that nordic skiing, fat biking and snowshoeing have all become more popular. “There’s safe distancing in each of those sports, and they get you outside and active. And it’s fun. We’ve noticed that a lot of people who might normally head south for most of the winter aren’t heading south. Because they usually spend the winter somewhere sunny, they don’t have cross country ski gear, or snowshoes, or other winter gear, so they want to buy it,” she said. “We’re definitely seeing a lot of that.”

Phil Gorman at Far Out Adventure Hub also told the Pioneer that interest in renting cross country skiing gear at his store “is way up” and interest in renting snowshoes is up a bit too.

From December until early February this year, Gorman has had 56 guests renting cross country ski gear, a big increase from the 30 guests renting cross country ski gear during the same period last year. “I am also seeing more multi-day ski rentals this year,” added Gorman. Snowshoe rentals were up, but not as dramatically: Far Out had rented out snowshoe gear to 49 guests from December through early February, as compared with 40 last year. Ice skate rentals, however, were down, with 13 pairs having been renting so far this winter, compared with 40 last winter.

“That (the drop in ice skate rentals) probably has a lot to do with it not being the greatest season for the Whiteway, with the struggle to get open at the start of the year and then several chinook-like weather events melting everything,” said Gorman.

Gorman noted that rentals have been “quiet and then busy”, coming in waves and lulls, with, for instance, one weekend in January having only one snowshoe rental (which was later cancelled), and then the following weekend having half a dozen cross country ski rentals. He confirmed Wilson and Maybuck’s comments about a boom in participation resulting in a lack of winter recreation gear available for purchase and said, “I’ve been talking to the guys at SportCheck in Calgary and they can’t keep snowshoes on the shelf.”