Thursday, January 17, 2008

East vs West - the ski culture clash

As someone who had originally spent many years in Calgary, close to the mountains and able to rip down some huge verticals and taste the powder (on the seasons we had powder) in the Rockies and the Purcells, I could be considered a ski snob. And the corrollary to that argument would have me not appreciating the skiing in Eastern Canada and being bored with the local hills.

After the last few years in this fine town and after having skied some of the Quebec ski resorts, I must admit...the hills are obviously not as big, the terrain not as scenic, the conditions not always reliable, at least when compared to the majestic and seemingly always snowy mountains out West. But I am learning the love the skiing (and snowboarding) culture out here.

When you ski at Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, Kicking Horse, or at the heavenly place known as Whistler, you are one of many. People come there for the views just as much as they come to glide down the slopes. Sure, the terrain is potentially awesome but it is only a small fraction of the clients who are actually able to ski it or ride it. For an elite skier, it's a dream come true on a clear, bluebird day, or after that dump of fresh pow'. But for most of the crowd on these hills, it's a trip to tackle congested blue runs, overpriced beers, coffee and snacks at the on-mountain lodges, a few hours spent negotiating all this terrain - and for a steep price. Sunshine used to cost 45 bucks when I'd started university in the early 90s, now it's almost 80 bucks for a daypass. Parking situation is getting crazy on all the major Alberta hills. The popularity of the venues also brings out the sheer snobs, who would otherwise not ski anywhere else. And, I couldn't help notice a lack of kid's races and events...there are too few people out West to support strong local ski club organizations.

By contrast, when you ski at Mt Ste Marie or at one of the rather miniature Ontario hills, or even at the much-higher Orford, Mt Ste Anne or Tremblant, you will be surrounded mainly by people who want to ski (or snowboard). No one is there for the stunning vistas of 3000 m peaks, no one has decided "it's nice today and there's nothing else to do, so I might as well hit the slopes", no one is there to take a pause from his 'regular' alpine touring or ice-climbing schedule. You are unlikely to rub shoulders with British lads on a Canadian drink-and ski expedition, high-rollers from Toronto or New York, or the ubiquitous groups of Japanese. No one is here squeezing in that one day on skis between the shopping, dining, spa at Banff Springs hotel or something like that. 95% of the people who ski out here are there because they love it, can not stand to go through the winter without practicing their religion so to speak, or because their kids are enrolled in a local ski training programme. Those people here who ski regularly are hard-core, dedicated, willing to go out on minus twenty five windchill days, put up with ice, flat light and generally shitty conditions. They will often drive ridiculously long distances or grab a very early morning bus, if there is one. There is never going to be a World Cup downhill event around these parts, even if some of the disciplines could actually be held on some of the runs.

When kids learn to ski in Ontario and Quebec, it's hard work and a school of hard knocks. It's not very trendy and, unlike junior hockey, not many girls chase after the best slalom skier in the school. And this is why Ontario and Quebec continue to produce some of the best technical skiers on the planet. Kate Pace, Brian Stemmle, Melanie Turgeon, Eric Guay, just to name a few from last fifteen years. And thousands of ordinary men and women who simply love the sport, the way of life, and make the trip to the local hill every weekend.

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