You may be familiar with snow fences, but chances are you’ve never heard of snow farming, especially in the ski industry. I hadn’t heard of it until my recent 3 days in Banff, Canada with Ski Big 3. One thing I love to do while in a destination is learn about its sustainable practices so I took a break from incredible skiing to learn why Sunshine Village is the world leader in snow farming.
With the exception of four snow machines used in the early season to create a base in the Ski & Snowboard School beginner areas and lower ski-out, Sunshine does not make snow. They harvest it for a couple of reasons. First, Sunshine is one of three ski resorts in Banff National Park, Canada’s oldest national park, and Ski Big 3 is constantly looking for ways to minimalize impact on the protected environment of the park. Second, they needed a solution to keeping snow in wind scoured terrain. Third, they needed to stockpile snow to extend spring skiing. Sunshine has Canada’s longest non-glacial season lasting for seven months from early November to late May.
Banff Sunshine sits along the Continental Divide and gets about 30 feet of snow annually. It also has a lot of terrain above treeline that is susceptible to wind blowing the snow away. You may have seen snow fences along highways in Colorado, Wyoming, and other western states with ranch land in high wind areas. Those are used by departments of transportation working with the ranching industry to keep blowing snow from piling up on high traffic roads. Sunshine uses black Kevlar fences set of 6-foot steel poles to capture snow and build the snowpack. Once the snow has been harnessed, snowcats are able to move the snow and make terrain safe for skiers and riders. The trail crew then has to pull up the fences and poles to move to another area.
I headed up to the top of Goat’s Eye Mountain with my buddy Arney, who’s in the marketing department at Sunshine Village. This mountain is mainly expert terrain with a few intermediate runs. The exposure and steepness means wind scouring of snow happens. We could see the trail crew working below the chairlift on the ride up. With special permission, we went under the ropes to where they were snow farming. Trail Crew Foremen, Grace and Will, were kind enough to endure my bombardment of questions about snow farming, how they do it and why. I watched at first along with chatting with others trail crew members as they worked. Then I asked if I could jump into the trench they were building for some hands-on experience. I quickly got the hang of the chop and toss work of digging the trench. I also got gassed quickly too. Keep in mind they’re doing this work close to 9000’ and in ski clothes, including ski boots.
The only thing I didn’t try was pulling out the steel poles. This is a two-person job. I watched as two trail crew members work in tandem quickly raising and lowering a small contraption around a steel pole to pull it out of the deep snow. It looked just as exhausting as digging the trench.
One the fence is pulled it has to be rolled up tightly. This is done by snapping out any slack will rolling the fence up the slope. I struggled at first, then Grace showed me how she does it using more leg strength than upper body. Needless to say, I was gassed pretty quickly and the crew had some great laughs at my expense.
If some fencing is still needed in open terrain, the steel poles are replaced with bamboo for safety reasons. Sunshine’s trail crew build 25-30 kilometers, or 15-19 miles, of snow farming fences each season. Before Arney and I took off to ski some of Sunshine’s stunning terrain, I told the crew I had a new nickname for them. I called them BAC, or “bad ass crew,” as they are truly the fittest people on the slopes. When I got home, I researched to see if any resorts in the United States or around the world are also doing snow farming. While some resorts use some fencing in the United States, I couldn’t find any harnessing snow as an alternative to traditional snowmaking. There are a few resort in Europe doing some snow farming. I hope other resorts will learn from what Banff Sunshine Village is doing.