The Pandemic Closes Down Canadian Ski Operations: Can They Rebound?

The Pandemic Closes Down Canadian Ski Operations: Can They Rebound?

Remember when a heli- or catski trip in British Columbia sounded like the greatest thing on Earth? It seems hard to imagine now: sitting jam-packed in a heli or snowcat, skiing British Columbia pow until your quads quiver, sharing local wine at a communal dinner table, and bunking in close quarters with foreigners from all over the world.

The pandemic has shut down the borders to Canada for nearly a year now, and most backcountry lodges, especially those that use mechanized transport, have officially hung up their keys for the remainder of the season. That means for most of us, those dreams of powder have remained just dreams, and the initials “B.C.” might as well stand for “Before Coronavirus.”

The closures include major players like Canadian Mountain Holidays, which has 12 heliskiing lodges throughout B.C., and smaller ops like Mustang Powder, a snowcat lodge just outside of Revelstoke. The few mechanized ops that have been able to continue are those tied to a resort, such as Selkirk Tangiers, which operates out of Revelstoke.

Photo: Mustang Powder

“Not many of our operators are open,” said Ross Cloutier, executive director for Helicat Canada, the trade association for heli and cat ops in Canada. Most of this, of course, is due to the borders being closed. According to Cloutier, 90 percent of the guests who book trips each winter are foreigners, and the remaining 10 percent of Canadians are being “aggressively discouraged” to travel outside their provinces by the public health officials.

In small communities that depend on jobs generated mostly by heli- or catskiing, this is a huge hit, Cloutier said. The industry usually garners $325 million in sales annually, and this season will likely only bring in a mere 15 percent of that from local bookings. Employees are getting a substantial federal government subsidy, but it doesn’t make up for all the lost wages, Cloutier said. “This has a pretty significant impact on those rural communities,” he said.

The irony here, of course, is that with indoor gyms and other recreational facilities restricted or shut down, more people than ever are flocking to the slopes, especially in the backcountry sector. Cloutier estimates that backcountry use in Canada has gone up 30 to 40 percent (and search and rescue calls have, unfortunately, followed suit). This phenomenon has kept some of the guides in Canada working on human-powered trips, but it’s still only within limited local markets. However, the increased demand for avalanche education has opened new avenues for revenue, which is keeping some guides busier than ever, says Peter Tucker, executive director of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG).

“We definitely have a more limited pool from which to draw clients, but it has been working reasonably well,” says Tucker. “With an increasing number of less experienced recreationists wanting to visit the backcountry, a large number of them realize that they need to be better prepared to recognize avalanche terrain and to deal with the consequences of an avalanche should it occur.”

Cloutier agrees, but he says only the more senior level guides are getting the bulk of the work, because the guiding companies are choosing only their top guides to teach avalanche training. “The people who are suffering the most are the apprentice guides, guides in training, or the guides who don’t have that much seniority,” he said.

As for those folks, Cloutier says many are trying to transition into other things like construction or avalanche forecasting, which leads to another concern: With next winter’s bookings completely sold out, will there be enough guides left to handle the demand?

Tucker is hopeful: “Morale in general is optimistic. Most of our members are expecting a slingshot effect as pent-up demand explodes once travel restrictions are eased. They are hanging on in the anticipation of having this increased demand in the near future,” he said.

That said, he also acknowledged that many are experiencing mental health issues as their bank accounts dwindle and as they grow frustrated with the inability to practice the profession for which they’ve trained so hard. The ACMG has programs in place to assist with mental health issues, including private counselling with psychologists who understand the ACMG landscape, online professional development opportunities, and other virtual events like “isolation socials” that keep the sense of community alive.

Photo: Mustang Powder

As far as the operations themselves go, are they going to be able to weather the storm? At the end of this summer, they will have lost revenue from an entire winter season plus two summers (many lodges offer heli-hiking, heli-fishing, and accommodation for warm-weather getaways). That’s in addition to the loss of last March and April, the two busiest months that bring in 30 percent of annual revenue. According to Cloutier, if the borders don’t fully open by the winter of 2021-22, the industry will be in trouble.  

“If we can have a full winter next winter, the sector will be fine,” Cloutier said. “If we have to operate at 10 percent or 20 percent next year, I don’t know what that will mean. Come next fall, we’re going to have some substantial operations who can’t make it to year three. The heliski and snowcat sector is fairly well bankrolled from an investment perspective, but if they have to go through next winter with no business, then spring of 2022 will see some pretty substantial impacts.”

At this point, the Canadian government aims to get the vaccine available to everyone who is approved and for whom it’s recommended by September of 2021. Things look hopeful. That said, there is still a lot uncertainty. “In a sector that is completely familiar operating in a risk environment, nobody saw this coming,” Cloutier said, his voice full of irony. “There are so many unknowns.”


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