The community loved Shames Mountain so much that they bought it.
My earliest memories of skiing were formed at Kamloops Ski Hill. Enterprising locals used an old VW motor to power a rope tow whose greasy cable could shred a pair of gloves in an afternoon as it dragged you repeatedly 100 vertical metres up a steep hill. There were four runs, with a warm-up shack at the bottom. This anonymous little operation became extinct decades ago, the north-facing hillside of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir long since blasted away to accommodate a massive Costco outlet and parking lot.
I’ve skied a lot; it’s a habit hard to kick. I’ve experienced them all: big, glossy resorts and subsistence hills that stagger from one year to the next fuelled by little more than diehard community spirit. And it’s the latter incarnation of the skiing experience that always leaves the most indelible impressions: places like Shames Mountain, tucked into the rugged Skeena range of northwest British Columbia, 35 kilometres west of Terrace. Shames has the stats to grab the attention of skiers. It routinely claims more snowfall than any other lift-serviced resort in the world, with an annual snow base that tops 10 metres—enough to bury a three-storey chalet—and the variety and abundance of lift-accessed backcountry, or “slack country” in ski jargon, is legendary.
Equally legendary is the story behind this little ski operation. In 2011 Shames appeared destined for doom. The local investors who had nursed along the mom-and-pop ski hill since the early 1990s wanted out. If a buyer couldn’t be found, Shames would close before that autumn’s first snowfall. Panic swept among avid skiers like Dean Wagner, a Prince Rupert commercial fisherman who hand-makes Divide skis on the side. But the community rallied. Shames supporters formed My Mountain Co-op and, by late spring, volunteers had sold enough memberships to secure financing and take ownership, which they did in December 2012. It’s the only co-op-owned and operated ski hill in Canada, and today it is 1,354 members strong and still growing.
There’s no better way to tap Wagner’s passion than to go skiing with him. “Shames is a huge reason people choose to live around here. The energy and enthusiasm behind the mountain is better now than it’s ever been,” Wagner says as we stop for a snack after skiing a steep off-piste line on the back side of the mountain known as Zymacord Trees.
What makes the co-op model special is that every dollar of profit generated through lift ticket sales, equipment rentals and beer and burgers at Galloway’s Mountain Bar is pumped back into the hill for upgrades and maintenance. It’s no cash windfall, but it ensures Shames remains rooted in Terrace and other communities in the region, like Prince Rupert, that form the core of skiers and boarders supporting the mountain.
Wagner and I begin ascending back up Zymacord Trees, then weaving our way over to the Dome, a golf ball-round summit above the ski resort. Chiselled peaks soar above a nearby valley littered with avalanche paths and known locally as the “valley of doom.” We peel the climbing skins from our skis then drop off a little cornice into the North Bowl, now well tracked-up by powder hounds. Still, Wagner and I manage to mine the slope for fresh tracks. One thing you rarely find at Shames is a crowd; as I’m learning, most people on the slopes today are on a first-name basis with one another.
Back at the day lodge, I head upstairs to Galloway’s. Children cavort on the deck outside, where I find Charlotte Rowse, her bright pink lipstick matching her ski pants, having lunch with husband Dennis. The Prince Rupert couple skis 30 days a year on average. Not bad for folks in their 90s who have been skiing Shames since it opened in 1990.
A few minutes previous, I had met 29-year-old Billy McCrae, a fourth-generation Terrace resident, who was running the T-bar while listening to heavy metal on a portable boom box. With his mohawk coif, diamond ear stud and white muscle T-shirt, McCrae shares neither musical tastes nor fashion sense with Shames’s only nonagenarian skiers. What they do share is a love of a ski hill.