Curtis Pawliuk, VARDA GM, on Mt. Diefenbaker near Valemount
Curtis Pawliuk, VARDA GM, at the top of Crystal ridge on Mt. Diefenbaker near Valemount, BC. It is the drop-off point for skiing and sledding.

The Valemount Area Recreation Development Association is set to finish clearing the first ski-run on the side of Mount Diefenbaker for its groundbreaking sled-assisted ski hill.

Once completed next year, the Crystal Ridge ski hill will be the first of its kind anywhere, allowing sledders to access a ski hill where they can ski or snowboard down the backcountry powder, within an hour of parking their truck.

“Sled-skiing is becoming a very, very quickly growing segment of our industry,” says Curtis Pawliuk, general manager of VARDA who has spearheaded the project. “A lot of sledders are bringing their skis but often they don’t have a good place to go.”

The sled-access-only hill will not be open this winter. The current access is all on private land. A 100-foot bridge must be installed across the Canoe River to link access from the Westridge parking lot, which won’t happen until summer 2012.

But that doesn’t prevent Pawliuk from sounding giddy as he talks about the amazing opportunity the ski hill will be for local recreationists.

The plan is to eventually have at least six runs using the same uptrack to the top of the mountain. The runs will be thinned of trees, but will be of intermediate-level difficulty – definitely not for the beginner, he says.

“These are far from groomed runs.”

He says it’s going to be an exceptional place to ride and board.

“They drop one crew off at the top and pick up at the bottom. It’s just like mountain bike shuttling at a down-hill bike park.”

Pawliuk says it’s another activity for residents in Valemount and will help attract new people to town, including people from Jasper. He says a lot of the park’s ski touring areas are over-crowded.

As the first of its kind, it’s a work in progress.

It all started with an idea from members of The Power Boarders Association, a group of half a dozen local backcountry enthusiasts in the Valemount Area. Shawn Pelletier is part of the association, and helped to get certain areas put aside for development in the sustainable resource management plan (SRMP) when it was created in 2004-2005.

“We started up an association and fought with the government to get it,” he says.

“We have other areas set aside so we’ll see how this one goes.”

He has been involved in determining the uptrail, picking the area and the runs to be worked on.

Pawliuk says it’s taken about two years to get everything in place, including permission to build a road for sleds to a ridge on Mount Diefenbaker.

Cutting more runs will depend on funding from Columbia Basin Trust, which VARDA will apply for in the spring. That funding is voted on by the community, which largely dictates whether or not the money is allotted.

One thing it has going for it as a draw for tourists is that it’s unique.

“There are no sled-assisted ski hills. This is the first of its kind.”

It takes about 20 minutes to get to the bottom of the hill, which is 16 km from the Westridge parking lot.

A warming cabin, additional runs and possibly a toboggan hill for kids are all things that may be included in future phases of the project, Pawliuk says, but adding runs will be the priority.

Sledders get just into the alpine at the top. They can tour the ridge and there will be multiple drop-offs along the uptrack.

The lion’s share of the funding for the project has come from CBT, but VARDA has also received money from Yellowhead Helicopters and the Vegreville Snow Chasers snowmobile club. No municipal money funded the project.

Pawliuk says it will help increase night stays and visitors to Valemount.

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