Ski Tips #7: The charts tell the story

This report is mostly about Sunshine Village ski conditions. However, I have skied most of the resorts in western North America (many in the east, too), so have a personal basis for comparing Sunshine to other places.

Those of us who live in “my space” (the Calgary/Banff region) really need to sit back and count our blessings. There’s lot’s of phenomenal competition in the area for our ski dollar. Ten seriously large scale, world class resorts — Fernie, Panorama, Kimberley, Sunshine, Nakiska, Kicking Horse, Lake Louise, Norquay, Castle and the being-reborn Fortress — are all within easy driving distance of Calgary. That’s on a par with Salt Lake City’s 9 near-by resorts. Vancouver may have Whistler/Blackcomb, but they’ve also got 2.5 million people, double the population of the Calgary region, and not that many other places to go (Cypress & Grouse & not much else).

So in our area, why do I prefer Sunshine? This past few weeks are beautiful examples. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s been warm. Yet the conditions at Sunshine have been great. Castle sadly just announced a temporary closure due to lack of snow, especially down low. There’s ice down low. So why does Sunshine win? Altitude and snow. Let’s start by comparing the base & top elevations of ski resorts in western Canada, sorted by descending base elevation.

Ski Resort Elevation Comparison

Sunshine’s top elevation is the highest of any resort. Lake Louise and Marmot are a close second, both 100 m lower. Note that no one else breaks 2,500 m. High elevation means longer snow retention & colder temps.

Now look at the base elevations. Revy is king of the bottom at 512 m ASL. Fernie is just over 1,000 m. The Horse & Pano don’t break 1,200 m. Low base elevations mean the risk of rain. Last week, the freezing level was 2,000 m in my area, and there was rain below that.

I’ve sorta cheated and shown Sunshine twice; once to the official base elevation and once to the base of Goat’s Eye. The dirty little secret everyone knows: 99% of Sunshine’s skiing is Goat’s Eye base & above; it’s just the ski out below that. Goat’s Eye base — the effective bottom of Sunshine — is higher than the top of Kimberly and Silver Star, and almost higher than the top of Norquay, Sun Peaks, Whitewater, Red and Fernie.

For fun, lets put Sunshine & Louise side by side and compare them, in a chart I put together several years ago.

Louise vs Sunshine

Note the following:

  • The parking lot elevations of Louise & Sunshine are virtually the same
  • Goat’s Eye base is about the same as the elevation of Whitehorn Lodge, the base of the Top of the World chair, and the Temple Lodge
  • Ride the Summit platter to the top and you’re about half way up the Divide chair.

This is why Sunshine’s spring skiing is among the best in the world, and why the season is so long. Louise has a ton of terrain below the Whitehorn level. When it rained last week to about the 2,000 m mark, Sunshine was virtually unaffected (except for the mess it made of the ski out and parking lot). Louise was harder hit.

Now let’s compare the snow between the two. Alberta Environment has a snow pillow at the top of Wildfire at 2,230 m elevation on Goat’s Eye, and another at Skoki Lodge at 2,040 m elevation in the range behind behind Lake Louise.

The Sunshine pillow data

The Sunshine pillow data

Skoki Snow Pillow

Skoki Snow Pillow

Same shape, but note the following:

  • As of today, Sunshine has 375 mm of snow water equivalent, more than 50% more snow than Skoki’s 220 mm.
  • Sunshine’s chart peaks out 725 mm, Skoki at 390 mm.

Now, Lake Louise gets about 20% more snow than the Skoki, and about 10% more than that up at Sunshine’s 2,230 m snow pillow level. And the 2,230 m level is about the level of the base of the Summit Platter. But the data all shows Sunshine gets ~30% more snow than Louise.

In fact, Sunshine gets about the same amount of snow as Big White.

The Big White snow pillow. 1,794 m elevation

The Big White snow pillow. 1,794 m elevation

This year, Sunshine even has almost as much snow as the top of Fernie. The snow pillow level there is just below the summit.

Fernie snow pillow. 1,966 m elevation

Fernie snow pillow. 1,966 m elevation

Always the king, Revy is sitting pretty up high, and always does. But again note that the snow pillow is way up at the top ¼ of Revy, not down at the base where the daily high has been above zero since the first week in January.

Revelstoke snow pillow, 1,770 m

Revelstoke snow pillow, 1,770 m

The charts tell the story. Sunshine’s snow is awesome because the majority of the mountain is the highest lift accessible skiing in western Canada. During warm snaps, you need to “get high and stay high” and no resort offers as much of that as Sunshine. Sunshine gets a lot of snow (though not as much as Revy), more than any of the other nearby resorts. And it has the longest season because of all of the above.