Climate change closes iconic summer ski slope where winter Olympic athletes trained

For a generation, Camp of Champions was Canada’s premier summer training ground for freestyle skiers and snowboarders — then it melted away.

A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2016. Credit: Camp of Champions
A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2016. Credit: Camp of Champions

By Jeremy Deaton

Imagine that Steph Curry, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant went to the same summer camp growing up. Every June, they showed up to the same gym, trained on the same court and drank from the same cooler of Gatorade. ESPN would make documentaries about that camp. Curry would wax poetic about his bygone summers in postgame press conferences, and every kid in America would know its name.

Now imagine that, one day, it vanished into thin air.

This is the story of Camp of Champions, once Canada’s premier summer training ground for elite skiers and snowboarders. There, beginners could rub elbows with Olympic greats like snowboarder Shaun White, two-time gold medalist in the halfpipe, or Joss Christensen, who won gold in slopestyle skiing’s Olympic debut.

A slopestyle skier at Camp of Champions, 2014. Credit: Camp of Champions
A slopestyle skier at Camp of Champions, 2014. Credit: Camp of Champions

It was at Camp of Champions where former U.S. snowboarding coach Bill Enos first took notice of slopestyle legend Sage Kotsenburg. “One of the days when the jumps were firing and it was sunny, he just went to work,” he said. “You could tell he had a really good chance of doing well at the Olympics. I actually called my boss and said, ‘We got one here.’” Kotsenburg would take gold in Sochi.

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For Ken Achenbach, founder and owner of Camp of Champions, it was almost too good to be true. “Every person on the Canadian slopestyle and big air team for snowboarding used to be campers,” he said. “In Sochi, we swept the slopestyle podium in skiing as well as snowboarding for men.”

The long parade of Olympians would come to an abrupt halt in June, 2017. In a letter to would-be campers, Achenbach explained that dwindling snowpack meant he couldn’t build the ramps athletes needed to train. “I wanted to give you an exceptional experience, and now I can’t,” he wrote. “After 28 years, my dream is over. Honestly, I want to crawl under a rock. I feel like I have died.

“Simply put, it’s the effects of global warming.”

Ken Achenbach. Credit: Camp of Champions
Ken Achenbach. Credit: Camp of Champions

Camp of Champions sat on a glacier on Blackcomb Mountain, a craggy alp around 100 miles north of Vancouver and one half of the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. Snow would build up during the winter and spring, covering the glacier in a thick layer of powder. When summer arrived, it was the cool bed of ice that kept the snow from melting. But in recent years, the glacier on Blackcomb Mountain has retreated — losing 35 vertical feet of ice in 2015 alone, according to Achenbach. Snowfall also has declined.

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“It didn’t snow for three years, and then, when it did snow, the glacier was in such a depleted condition that Whistler Blackcomb wanted us to build super tiny jumps,” Achenbach said. Resort managers tried using snowmaking guns to restore the glacier, but it was of little use. Without the glacier, snow withered in the June heat. “It almost doesn’t matter how much snow we get in the winter anymore because in the summer it’s just so hot for so long.”

Camp of Champions, 2011. Credit: Camp of Champions
Camp of Champions, 2011. Credit: Camp of Champions

Achenbach used to keep the camp open for six weeks, but as temperatures rose, six weeks become four. Then four became two. “In the summer, when it’s hot there, we would be losing a foot of snow a day — two feet a day sometimes,” he said. “30 degrees C used to be a hot day. This year, we had pretty much a month straight of 35- or 37-degree days.”

The problem isn’t unique to Whistler Blackcomb. Temperatures are creeping up around the globe. “We’ve had a couple of very bad seasons, years where we expect to have snow at certain elevations and we don’t get it,” said Adam Higgins, athlete development manager for Canada Snowboard. “If there’s no snow on the mountains, we’re out of a sport.”

The closure of Camp of Champions has deprived athletes of an invaluable training site. “Everybody that’s really shooting for the Olympics or becoming a great pro now is training in the summer,” Enos said. “When a facility like that puts up good jumps and creates a great park with fast lap times, that’s when your guys start to get better.” Now, skiers and snowboarders must find somewhere else to hone their skills.

A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions
A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

In some ways, Camp of Champions is interchangeable with other summer training sites, but ask the people who attended the camp, and they will tell you that it was something special. Achenbach was eager to nurture young talent, creating a space where novice skiers and snowboarders could learn alongside their heroes.
“We will definitely miss Camp of Champions. Absolutely,” Higgins said. “When you can have young kids from all over the world come to Whistler and be able to ride in the same park as the national team, I think it’s great.” Enos shared his sentiment.
“To see the pros interact with the campers was something Ken and that program did really well, year after year,” he said. “You really felt cared for there. It wasn’t just a business. It was a family.”

A skier at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions
A skier at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

Achenbach reminisced about shy kids learning to ski and snowboard, making friends from around the world, and gaining a newfound sense of confidence. “Camp of Champions is where kids got their first taste of what they could do, what they could become,” he said. “It changed everybody’s life that came to it.”

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Some of those young skiers and snowboarders would stick around after they grew up. “We trained people to be professional snowboarders and live their dreams, and then, once they became pros, we would hire them to be coaches,” Achenbach said. “We didn’t hire just anybody. We hired people that came from camp and achieved their dreams and went on to inspire the next generation to do the same thing.”

Among Achenbach’s first hires was Colin Whyte, a snowboard enthusiast who went on to serve as editor-in-chief of Future Snowboarding Magazine and later covered snowboarding for ESPN.

A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions
A snowboarder at Camp of Champions, 2013. Credit: Camp of Champions

“Ken Achenbach has always been snowboarding’s number one evangelist in Canada,” he said. “Camp of Champions was a real cultural behemoth, and I’m sad that skiing and snowboarding have lost this one-of-a-kind institution.” Whyte worked at the camp from 1989 until 2001.

“I met some incredible campers and coaches over my years there, many of whom I’m still friends with today,” he said. “If you could measure the cumulative fun that went down at Camp of Champions in all those decades of camp, I guarantee it would be off the charts.”

For Achenbach, a real estate agent and father of two, it was a dream come true. Asked about his favorite moment from his 29 years at Whistler Blackcomb, he replied without hesitation.

“Every second of every day.”

Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.