Camp Vibes

Will unseasonably warm winters affect snow-based summer camps?

Located on Blackcomb's Horstman Glacier above Whistler, Camp of Champions' fortunate location means it will still open despite the low-snow year. PHOTO: Courtesy of Camp of Champions
Located on Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier above Whistler, Camp of Champion’s fortunate location means it will still open despite the low-snow year. PHOTO: Courtesy of Camp of Champions

Skiers across North America are no strangers to this story—the East Coast is getting hammered while the West suffers through warm temperatures and, in some places, a total lack of precipitation. The long-term consequences are yet to be seen. In the immediate future, thousands of dollars and lifelong memories hang in the balance as Whistler, B.C., Mount Hood, Oregon, and Lake Tahoe, California, prepare for summer camp. Or do they?

As weather changes, summer camps prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and employ new techniques to ensure perfect park builds for most of the summer season. While they don’t deny this winter’s drought and climate change forecasts, they do rely on the fortune of high elevations, snow farming, and diversified business plans to offer young skiers and riders the summer of a lifetime.

Ken Achenbach has owned and operated Camp of Champions in Whistler, B.C., for 27 years. Achenbach, 50, says despite the lower half of Whistler/Blackcomb “not being that great,” the upper portion of the mountain, including the Horstman Glacier where the camp takes place, is at the same snow levels as last season.

“We’re lucky when it comes to climate change projections,” says Achenbach. “The corner of the glacier we’re in is where it wind-loads every year.”

Achenbach still has an eye to the future, lobbying Whistler/Blackcomb to put snowmaking in on the glacier. More so than climate change, says Achenbach, the price of oil and the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate affect the Canadian camp.

“From the ’80s ’till 2002, we were probably 90 percent American campers and 10 percent Canadian,” he says. “Then it flipped and we’re 90 percent Canadian and 10 percent American. With the exchange rate being what it is, we’re probably back to 50/50.” (The day this story was filed, one Canadian dollar was equal to $.80 U.S.)

Down the Pacific Coast and into Oregon, Tim Windell started Windells back in 1989. He’s seen his fair share of ups and downs on the glacier. Windell, 50, maintains this year isn’t as bad as previous years and snow-moving techniques ensure the camp’s legendary 22-foot halfpipe—a massive snow building undertaking—will be open most of the summer.

“We work with Timberline to snow farm,” says Windell. “We build what we call wind rows.” Mount Hood is a gigantic cinder cone. It’s unlike most mountains in the United States, says Windell, in that it creates its own storm patterns and its own amount of precipitation.

Farming for snow at Mount Hood to keep summer campers happy. PHOTO: Tim Windell/Windells Camp
Farming for snow at Mount Hood to keep summer campers happy. PHOTO: Tim Windell/Windells Camp

“You take a snowcat and dig in four to eight feet into the snow. It creates these berms. You build row after row after row. If a one- to three-inch storm rolls through, the snow blows around the cinder cone of Mount Hood and deposits snow into the rows. Snow blows across the Palmer Snowfield into these wind rows and then we’re good,” says Windell.

In 2005, an infamous Oregon drought year, Windell says the camp went through an attendance down year. He estimates the drought lost around 10 to 12 percent of his annual business. That April the region received over 100 inches and stayed open until August.

“The fact is,” says Windell, “it’s snowing up high and it’s a down year down below. We’re still here. We still have snow. This isn’t our first rodeo.”

Strategic run placement and meticulous care of the snow will keep Woodward Tahoe on slopes this summer. PHOTO: Courtesy of Woodward Tahoe
Strategic run placement and meticulous care of the snow will keep Woodward Tahoe on slopes this summer. PHOTO: Courtesy of Woodward Tahoe

Further south, Boreal/Woodward on top of Donner Pass above Truckee, California, relies on off-the-snow activities to draw campers in. Donner Summit is not a glacial mountain.

While Boreal shuts down winter operations in mid-April, Woodward Tahoe opens June 14 and runs on-snow portions up until the Fourth of July, meaning half of the camp’s duration features snowy jibs and jumps.

To guarantee an on-snow portion of camp, Woodward Tahoe is strategic in where and how they build their terrain parks in the winter. A four-pack big jump line is plowed over after closing day and becomes the bedrock of summer camp. At the moment, the jumps are 40-feet high. “They’re like solid ice cubes,” says Matt Peterson, director of marketing and communications at Boreal/Woodward Tahoe. “They hold up pretty well during the spring melt.”

In the future, Woodward Tahoe is looking into different ways to preserve snow, from snow blankets and strategic positioning of snow features in shaded areas. Despite their best efforts to maintain a snow-based summer camp, Peterson says the company doesn’t deny their need to diversify in the face of global climate change.

Lake Tahoe and California-at-large are in year four of a devastating drought. In the face of no-snow predictions by Bay Area and national periodicals, Peterson says the company diversified their business to attract campers.

“It’s hard to say what Mother Nature will do,” says Peterson. “We’ll continue to invest in more and more seasonal activities that are less snow-dependent, like wake-cable parks in our lake, more skate features, more BMX stuff, more terrain for roller-park skis. We want to be less beholden to the weather while still offering the best snow product we can.”

The diversification exemplifies the future and nature of camps in general. Peterson, Achenbach, and Windell believe summer camp isn’t so much about telling kids what one activity they should do. “It’s about having fun,” says Peterson.