With the next ski and snowboard season approaching, officials are looking back at the evolution of the Mount Sima, Whitehorse’s local ski hill.
More than 30 years ago, then-Whitehorse mayor Don Branigan commissioned $20,000 for a fact-finding mission and feasibility study on the most suitable location for a community ski hill based on proximity to town, north facing exposure to hold the snow pack and terrain for all skier levels.
Needle Mountain, off Annie Lake, and Haeckel Hill Mountain were both considered. But Mount Sima, just 15 minutes away from downtown Whitehorse, was selected because of its easy access, infrastructure and proximity to town.
Friends of Mount Sima Society (FMSS) president Tom Luxemburger said after a suitable location was found, about a dozen families put together their own money and personal equipment to work on a new ski hill.
“They started kind of carving in and creating a mountain, creating a ski hill,” he said.
Luxemburger said shortly after that, the Great Northern Ski Society (GNSS), a not-for-profit organization, was created to govern the new ski hill.
The Great Northern Ski Society had a turbulent year in 2008 due to finances and the hill was closed for the season. It was just a season after it was the site of downhill skiing and snowboarding events for the 2007 Canada Winter Games.
Luxemburger tells the News there were two main reasons that caused the ski hill to face insolvency. He said the GNSS deviated from its core product by developing the Wildplay adventure park in 2012 and its launch resulted in unexpected operational costs that were more than the society could handle. Wildplay was shutdown in 2014.
The second reason, he said, was when GNSS searched for more funding externally, it became increasingly difficult as the society was not in good standing with the territory’s Societies Act.
“The end result with the combination of these two things led to the closure of Mount Sima. We actually had no ski hill for about a year and a half,” Luxemburger said.
But he noted many in town realized how important it is to have a ski hill for outdoor recreation in the winter.
“Winter can be pretty brutal here in the Yukon, and so it’s important if there’s something we can do to jazz it up and make it more sympathetic.”
He said there were a lot of like-minded people in the community who realized the importance of having a place to meet and spend some time having fun during the winter periods.
The Friends of Mount Sima Society was created in 2013 to govern the hill. The new society grew out of a group of dedicated individuals who were passionate about reopening the ski hill for the 2013 and 2014 winter periods.
Luxemburger said the FMSS was starting not only from scratch financially, but also having to deal with the politics and economic situation of the time.
“At that time, politicians didn’t want to have anything to do with Mount Sima. It was seen as basically a bit of a local pariah, not a local asset,” he said.
Evolving and reinventing
With support from the government, communities and individuals, Mount Sima started to bounce back from the initial challenges it had faced.
Luxemburger attributed this to the generosity of local corporate sponsors and companies like Air North and Aasman Brand Communications, in addition to Whitehorse citizens who committed to buy season passes.
He said the ski hill saw an increase in season passes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the numbers almost doubled. He said Mount Sima provided a really good refuge for people’s social, emotional and physical well-being.
“The sales of those season passes were a revenue generator to get us going,” he said. “When I first joined the board, we were celebrating when we broke 1,000 season passes. It was a big deal. And during COVID, that number shot up to 2,500 season passes. There just weren’t a lot of areas and options for people to go and travel. They were kind of locked in, they had to stay here.
“We were also blessed with phenomenal natural snow conditions, those years during COVID as well. So, it was the perfect storm in a good way to let us prosper and we’ve retained many of those clients and guests from the COVID years till now.”
Luxemburger said after a new quad chair lift was installed, the hill got rid of the older, archaic two-person chair.
“It’s giving the mountain more volume, more accessibility for more skiers, more convenience and more reliability as well,” he said. “The other chairlift had a couple of tragic arrests or it stopped during really cold weather. People were stranded up on the chairlift for hours in the cold. This chair we have now is a lot more reliable.”
He told the News there has been quite an evolution of the ski hill, not just with regards to having a four-person chair, but in terms of the services that it offers and the infrastructure.
“We’ve had people from terrain-park builders build world-renowned terrain parks for freestyle skiers and snowboarders and we are now a stop amongst the best North American snowboarders and freestylers, offering that freestyle facility,” he said.
Last year, Mount Sima hosted a FIS World Circuit event with the Coaches Cup Race. It has also been selected to host the event this year.
The ski hill will also be hosting the Yukon’s first Para Snowboard World Cup event titled “Lost in Paradise” from March 28 and 29, 2024.
“We’re very proud of that and very happy in terms of how the product has changed and how it has evolved,” Luxemburger said.
Luxemburger, who has been leading the board for the past two years, said the board has learned a lot from the ski hill’s turbulent years which has helped them to prepare for the future.
“I think what we’ve learned is we need to stick with our core product. Basically, what it comes down to is we have to ensure that that four-person chair is going to keep spinning safely, and that we can ensure good quality snow products for our guests,” he said, noting that everything else is a bonus.
“The bar, the restaurant, the park, the racing, everything else we do are all bonuses. We need to just stick with our core product and make sure that it is sustainable. Anything additional should be helping our core product, not taking away from it.”
The ski hill has more than 30 staff. Luxemburger said his team has worked very hard over the last few years to create partnerships with local First Nations.
“We have made it a lot easier and accessible for people that traditionally have not been coming to the ski hill to try to get the place to be more inclusive. We’re seeing more minorities who otherwise wouldn’t have been at the ski hill now participating in skiing and we’re trying to create a culture at the ski hill which is a lot more inclusive. We’re trying to get away from the idea that skiing or snowboarding is for the elite or the wealthy.”
The hill will open to the public on Dec. 1. But Luxemburger said out of territory teams will be training there in mid-November.
He said the hill’s snowmaking system has recently been upgraded from an old fossil fuel system to an electrified system.
“It is much more modern, cleaner, easy to maintain, manage and operate,” he said.
Luxemburger said a big part of their business strategy and the plan is to start making snow early before snowfall starts.
“We have realized that if we need snowmaking anyways, we have the ability to start making snow months earlier than the rest of the continent can,” he noted. “What if we started making snow a month and a half or two months earlier and then allowed other teams from out of territory to come to Mount Sima to train because we’ve realized that out-of-territory teams are willing to pay money, good money to extend their season and to start it earlier.”
Contact Patrick Egwu at firstname.lastname@example.org