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Beauty and the piste: ski co-ops in Canada

Canadian communities are forming co-operatives to take control of small, unspoilt ski areas, writes Susan Greenwood


"Whatever happened to that simple joy?" asks the narrator of Valhalla, the latest ski film from Sweetgrass Productions. The film features a fictional skiing community who eschew fast chairlifts and expensive mountain restaurants for a purer, gentler life, in harmony with their surroundings. It is rich in nostalgia - for a time when being in the mountains in winter was about freedom and adventure.

In one sense, though, Valhalla is located firmly in the 21st century: it will resonate with anyone who has ever winced at the cost of a week's lift pass in a big resort, or stood in a 30-minute chairlift queue before descending a piste packed with skiers, dodging cannons making artificial snow.

Has it ever occurred to you that it doesn't have to be this way?

It occurred to the residents of Terrace, British Columbia - 1,500 kilometres north of Vancouver - who in January became the proud owners of their local hill, Shames Mountain, making it Canada's first not-for-profit, operational ski co-operative. My Mountain Co-op was formed in 2010 out of Friends of Shames, a group established to create a business model that could take ownership of the mountain (which had been for sale for a decade) and save it from otherwise certain closure. Local businesses, individuals and families bought member-ships to the co-op and managed to raise the C$360,000 (HK$2.64 million) needed to meet the purchase price.

Shames is no resort: it has no hotels, no glitzy bars, no restaurants or shops selling the latest gear. It has two chairlifts, a tow bar and a base lodge where you can buy food and drink and hire equipment.

It also gets 480 inches of snow each year - comparing favourably to Canadian mega-resort Whistler's yearly average of 469 inches.

"We're pretty spoilt," says David Jephson, a member of My Mountain Co-op. "We don't have fast chairs or fast tow bars, but we have world-class skiing, a huge amount of snow, and it's beautiful here."

Until recently there was just one flight a day from Vancouver up to Terrace; Air Canada now runs 34 a week, making the hill more accessible to visitors.

"People generally only come to us when it's foggy somewhere else," says Jephson. "But once they ski here, they're like: 'This is awesome!'"

Visiting skiers stay in Terrace and drive the 20 minutes each day to ski, purchasing their HK$380 lift pass at Shames. The mountain is maintained by volunteers, who do everything from painting boundary lines to servicing machinery.

"Community ownership of ski areas allows for a certain pride," says general manager Christian Theberge. "People tend to take better care of what's theirs. It also allows members to actively participate in the improvements and really understand what makes the magic happen."

And that magic looks set to spread. The co-op model is generating interest among other mountain communities, with My Mountain Co-op receiving inquiries monthly about how to replicate the model.

The latest is Mount Sima, in Yukon, which was recently taken over by another not-for-profit organisation, the Great Northern Ski Society (GNSS), and was due to open for the season on Friday. It's not flash - there is one chairlift and an earthy lodge for refreshments - but the GNSS views the project as a huge asset to the community, especially youngsters.

These new ski destinations don't expect to compete with large resorts, but what they can offer is simpler, more affordable, grassroots skiing.

"Whether it's family-run or member-run, having a local ski area is key for the community," says Steve Carpenter, president of Mystery Mountain Winter Park in Manitoba, about 760 kilometres from Winnipeg, the largest city in the province. "It's extremely welcoming - everyone knows everyone. If you can make it up the lift without having a conversation with the person you're riding with, I'd be surprised."

That's a sentiment echoed at Shames: "Destination ski areas try to offer the same experience - different snow and terrain, perhaps, but in general they are mostly clones of each other," says Theberge. "Small community areas are unique and give a much more cultural experience."

That's not to say the terrain at community ski areas is negligible: family-run Tabor Mountain, British Columbia, will host several events at the 2015 Canada Winter Games, despite having only one chairlift and one tow bar.

About 100 kilometres from Terrace, near Smithers, lies the Hankin-Evelyn back-country recreation area, which is managed by the Bulkley Backcountry Ski Society. It's an excellent off-piste area with decreased avalanche risk because it lies below the treeline. Descents are only achieved after skinning uphill first. Because there are no lifts, there are few operational costs - and none of the environmental concerns surrounding them, either.

Talking about the environment is controversial when your chosen activity is skiing. And it's hard to argue that an overseas visitor skiing at Shames is more environmentally friendly than someone skiing in Whistler, a resort that generates enough hydro-electric power to replace all the electricity consumed by its 38 lifts, 17 restaurants and 270 snow cannons.

However, Shames' visitor numbers and their associated effects - on waste disposal and travel infrastructure, to name but two - are a fraction of those of the big hubs: 20,000 skiers a season come to Shames, two million go to Whistler. The emphasis is on the small-scale, and keeping it small-scale, to preserve the environment.

As Theberge explains: "The co-op got a great deal on buying the mountain, but that was because there was a lot of work to be done. Our goal is to fix and improve all facets of the mountain's infrastructure. Expansion only makes sense with growth in the community."

"We almost don't want more people to come," says Jephson, laughing. "At somewhere like Jasper, someone is getting richer because you're skiing there. But at Shames, everyone who rides here helps to keep the mountain going."

These hills are no mythical Valhalla: they are no-frills, hardworking, for the most part bare-bones ski mountains that depend on community support to survive. And, in that sense, as in others, they tap into the simple joy of skiing.

Guardian News & Media




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