By Andru McCracken
In the mid-1960s Valemount had a ski hill. Although few traces of the hill are left, at least one of the men who helped build the facility still lives in town and remembers it well.
Long-time resident Henry Olofsson played a key role in developing the ski area. He helped fabricate a rope tow that brought skiers to the top of a short run on 5 Mile Road, close to town. The rope tow was powered by a truck that was up on blocks. The differential was welded shut (so the unloaded wheel wouldn’t spin freely), a 1-inch rope was purchased, and one of Valemount’s earliest ski hills saw its birth.
Olofsson, in his mid-20s at the time, was a millwright in Hedberg’s veneer mill, and although his work at the mill kept him busy six days a week (he called it ‘the salt mine’), he spent his spare time at the ski area.
It was a simpler time. Safety regulations weren’t considered, let alone enforced, but one night Oloffson had a premonition of something that could go wrong.
“I wake up in a cold sweat at night because sometimes in the winter, people would have gloves that are wet, mittens that are wet, and they hang onto the rope and sometimes they would freeze to the rope,” he said.
All of the people involved in the project agreed there was a problem, so he set up a string at the top of the slope that would trigger a kill switch and stop the lift if someone was indeed frozen to the rope.
While the initial call for volunteers to help clear the land and prepare the run were incredibly successful, he said that the number of volunteers soon petered out… and there was still a lot of work to maintain it.
“We were out there welding and maintaining things to the middle of the night at times,” he said.
Olofsson was part of a broad swath of young men with families who were involved in the project and he provided a list of others, but the Goat has been unable to track them down or they haven’t responded to our requests.
Olofsson said the ‘head push’ for the ski area was Don Clark, who ran Clark’s Men’s Wear where the Mountain Driftwood Gallery was located.
Clark and his family had just moved from Jasper.
Catherine Hiroe (nee McKirdy) was a teenager at the time and remembers skiing there.
“You could either join the ski club or it was $2 per day,” said Hiroe. “I thought it was quite a lot of money, but I wanted to ski with the other people.”
Hiroe would herringbone, sidestep or take her skis off and hike up for the pleasure of skiing there.
Henry Olofsson was watching this and after a while he gave her two bucks.
“I just thought he was just the nicest man,” said Hiroe.
She said the Clark’ family was at the centre of the movement.
“They had lived in Jasper and he was a business person. They were a progressive ‘get things done’ kind of family and so they joined with with a few other people and they got this ski club [running],” she said.
Daniel Loseth remembers the hill, and though he didn’t ski it, it left a big impression on him.
“I was probably just 7 or 8 years old,” he said. “I remember seeing Henry at the ski hill. He was my Swedish skiing hero,” said Loseth.
“We tried to find out if the land was available and somehow we were told it was,” Olofsson said.
Community volunteers cut the trees off the five acre lot and would eventually even construct a warming cabin on the property.
“One day somebody drove up and said, ‘This is my land,’” said Olofsson with a laugh.
It was grim news but it didn’t shut down the venture.
The hill was ‘going great guns,’ so the group of volunteers decided to find another location.
The ski hill was moved to Canoe Mountain, a new run was prepared, the equipment was installed, another warming cabin was built, but nature threw a wrench into the project.
“I drove up there one Sunday and it was in the middle of February – it should have been the middle of the season – but the snow was gone,” Olofsson said.
The seemingly endless supply of energy that had driven the project was tapped out and the community venture was abandoned.
The Goat is keen to ensure that the ski hill and the lessons contained therein aren’t forgotten. If you’ve got photos of the ski hill, let us know. We know this is one of several ski hills that have operated in the area, and we’d love to help document all of them, especially those that aren’t well-remembered or represented in the museum and archives. If you have photos, documents or memories, let us know. Call or email the Goat office [email protected] or 566-4606