Sima operation on a slippery slope

The Mount Sima ski hill is closed, missing out on its busiest part of the slope season for the second year in a row and forcing ski club members to…

The Mount Sima ski hill is closed, missing out on its busiest part of the slope season for the second year in a row and forcing ski club members to find powder elsewhere.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years in the ski industry,” said Alpine Ski Association Yukon program director and freestyle coach Jon Standing.

“Christmas time is the equivalent of a month and half of training compressed into a week and a half, so we’ve given that up,” he said.

Last year, the club lost 23 days of training over the holidays because of broken chair lifts. And this year members are faced with a similar situation.

Malfunctioning snowmaking machines, unco-operative weather and uninspected chair lifts have kept the hill from opening.

Light snowfalls forced the hill to rely on snowmaking machines to adequately cover the 12 downhill runs. But the heavy use caused problems with the equipment, including broken pipes and line contamination caused by rocks and gravel.

Local skiers had to find alternatives for the training season, said Standing.

Last year, when the hill closed to allow for chair lift maintenance, the club used sleds to take members up the hill.

The lack of snow this year has made that impossible and the club has just returned from a trip to the Watson Lake Ski Hill at Mount Maichen.

“I’m pretty discouraged right now,” said Standing. “When I was in Watson Lake, they do a beautiful job of running the hill and they have a fifth of the population of us.

“There’s no excuse — the (Mount Sima) hill shouldn’t be running this way.”

Watson Lake gets more natural snow, there are no chair lifts and the snow patrols are smaller, which help keep the operation viable.

“We’ve got some advantages here, like the ability to open early, but when you don’t open until January you give that advantage away,” said Standing.

“It’s certainly disheartening for the athletes and coaches and board members who’ve worked hard to put things together.”

Some kids have bought loads of equipment and have trained year-round on trampolines and trained this summer in Whistler, but excitement is waning, said Standing.

“They’re really hopped up on the season, they’re all ready to go,” he said.

“I think we’ll hang on to them, but it’s taken a lot of work.”

The non-profit Great Northern Ski Society operates the hill and counts on volunteers and businesses for support.

President Ernie Berken could not be reached for comment and ski hill officials deferred questions to him.

Last winter, the ski hill lost 23 days of operation spanning December and January because of chair-lift malfunctions.

Oil leaks and smoking emergency brakes closed the lift. Large cranes dismantled the string of chairs to remove faulty parts.

The non-profit group lost about $40,000 in revenue over a 10-day period during the Christmas holiday, usually the busiest time of the year, said the hill’s then-general manager.

Hill officials estimated the cost of repair at between $20,000 to $30,000.

Built in 1975, Mount Sima bought the lifts from an Alaskan resort in the early 1990s.

The 350-metre tall Mount Sima opened in 1993 and employs about 20 people.

A good season usually begins in mid-December and runs into April. Up to 400 people hit the slopes each day over the holidays. An adult season pass costs $435.

Gary McWaters, the new general manager, has been doing a fantastic job, said Standing.

But the equipment has been neglected for too long, he added.

“It’s a like a car or anything else — if you don’t do the maintenance, things will fall apart.

“If we had a modern snow-making machine or kept up the maintenance on the ones we have, we could, in theory, have enough snow to open basic areas in October.”

People have done a great job of organizing the hill from the beginning, but a long-term vision is now needed to keep the operation viable, said Standing.

 “The Watson Lake community is really involved in (its) hill, and it doesn’t feel that way here,” said Standing.

“People need to take a more active role (at Mount Sima) and demand the service they deserve because this is their hill.”

Environment Canada predicts a 30 per cent chance of flurries Friday, but clear skies for Saturday and only cloudy conditions for the following two days.

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