Unfortunate skiers and boarders were left out in the cold during Mount Sima’s holiday-season troubles.
A lack of snow and problems with the chairlift and snowmaking equipment delayed the opening until last weekend.
It was a limited opening at that, with only one run, Dan’s Descent, and the bunny hill, ready for skiers.
“Next weekend we’ll have a closer to full opening,” said Ernie Berken, president of the Great Northern Ski Society, which runs Sima.
“We have done some work on the base of some other runs, and with this new snow, we can go in there and finish grooming this week.”
The hill’s chairlift will most likely be ready to go by the weekend as well — safety inspections required the lift to be dismantled and examined.
There have been some complaints from season pass holders about the late opening and Berken assures hill users that Sima is doing the best it can under the circumstances.
“It’s a tough business to be in,” said Berken. “The only reason we have a ski hill in Whitehorse is because it’s run by volunteers; the reality is, no one in the private sector would touch a business like this.”
The Great Northern Ski Society runs Mount Sima as a non-profit facility — but as Whitehorse’s only downhill ski and snowboarding option, it has grown to include services that most community hills would only dream of — specifically, the chair lift and snow making equipment.
“The trouble is, they are on the fringe,” said former general manager Richard Roy, who oversaw the pre-Canada Games period of growth at the hill. “Most non-profit ski hills that do well are operating strictly T-bars, they don’t do snowmaking, they don’t have a huge lodge.”
Although services have increased at the hill over the last five years, ridership has not.
“It’s a limited market, people aren’t going to come up from BC to go skiing at Mount Sima,” said Roy. “They are pretty well stuck at 14,000 to 17, 000 skier visits in a season — if they have a good year, opening early, they might pick up 10 per cent more.”
Compared to larger commercial hills and resorts, that number is quite small. Roy estimated that ski hills like Manning Park, near Hope, BC, (where Roy is working now) operate with about 50,000 to 55,000 skier visits.
Because it’s a non-profit, Sima has been able to take advantage of government grants for improvements to the hill, especially with big events like the Canada Games happening there.
The terrain park, halfpipe, freestyle area and the improved snowmaking all came out of the Canada Games buildup. The flipside of that growth is that the hill has to cover it’s own operation and maintenance budgets — and now there’s a lot more to maintain.
“The cost of operating the system is expensive, with no increase in skier visits,” said Roy.
A small number of hill users means a small operating budget and the ski society is reluctant to raise ticket prices. “The people in Whitehorse are getting a pretty good value for their dollar, almost cheap, really,” said Roy.
Ultimately, the lack of money is the root of Sima’s trouble.
The society hires a general manager, lift operators, kitchen staff and ski-school instructors but once the snow is gone in the spring, so are the staffers.
Berken said it’s hard to keep seasonal workers around in the spring to do the necessary maintenance, even if the society had money in the budget to do so — which it doesn’t.
“Our intentions are to keep the staff on in the spring to get some of that maintenance done before we shut down — but in reality, people start leaving, they see the end of the season as a relief, and they want to get on to other things.”
That means the limited summer maintenance, specifically on the snow-making equipment, was done mostly by volunteers.
“That’s a big effort on their part, and I’ll give them credit for that — but the problem is they didn’t get all the gravel out,” said Roy.
It was gravel in the lines that forced a shutdown in the snowmaking — and had workers repairing the system in late December and January, instead of putting skiers on the hill.
Roy added that the snow-making system at Sima was never intended to be run as hard as it was in the run-up to the Canada Games and the test events the year before.
“We made snow up to two weeks before the Winter Games last year, because we had to meet the requirements of the Games.”
Holding on to talented people is also tough for Sima. Roy said he would have loved to stay on but Manning Park offered him year-round employment, something Sima couldn’t match.
“You have a tough time developing expertise when you can’t compete in the industry for staff,” said Roy.
It’s not just recreational skiers that are itching to get on the slopes. Coaches are in the same predicament.
“As you can imagine, I’m relieved that the hill is open,” said Jon Standing, program director for the alpine and freestyle ski program.
“Unfortunately, due to the late opening, we lost a bunch of kids from our entry-level program.”
Standing has put together an abbreviated five-session program for the combined alpine-freestyle entry level, which is starting this weekend. E-mail Standing for more info at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Berken wants frustrated skiers to understand the problems at the hill. “If the snow isn’t there, then no, we can’t open for business, because we want the hill to be safe.
“Some people think it’s a fairly straightforward business, that we can open and close our doors easily — same with snowmaking: people may think that you just turn on the switch and snow appears.
“It’s not as simple as that, there are a lot of dynamics and strategy around snowmaking — what kind of weather’s coming in, and taking advantage of it.”
“Certainly in other places, where they have a bigger infrastructure and money to spend, they’d just throw money at it; they make snow, it melts, and they start all over again,” said Berken.
“I’m hoping people will bear with us … the snow we’ve just received is a nice complement to conditions on the hill.
“We’ll need some more, but this will get us started, and hopefully this will be a good season from here on.”