Powder for the people? Almost a decade since they went community-owned, how are things going at Shames Mountain? Words :: Feet Banks.
I’d never seen anything like it.
And it changed the way I think about skiing, ski hills, and the thousands of everyday details that go into whisking eager shredders from bottom to top. Like a sudden lifting of the clouds on a socked-in alpine day, this T-bar ride changed everything. And it all started when the T-bar broke down.
This was last February, at Shames Mountain just outside of Terrace, British Columbia. The sun had cracked after a doozy pacific storm that’d dumped 157 centimetres of snow over the previous three days. Shames had just missed a day of operations because the road in was buried, and I was coming off a side mission with Northern Escape Heli Skiing (see “Deepest Day of My Life.”) The storied Terrace ski-trip-of-your-dreams had welcomed me into her powdery bosom and gifted me with an extra juicy cherry on top: a bluebird pow day at one of the stormiest little hills in the province.
But the T-bar was down. A rusted, diesel-fueled antique that gets completely buried in snow multiple times a season, the Shames T-bar is finicky. The up-track is essentially a trench flattened out after each storm, and on this day a couple of young kids smacking their poles against the snowy sidewall had drifted a tiny bit too far right going past tower two. The cable jumped off the guide wheels.
Full stop. The few skiers who’d made it to the top now had acres of glades and steep headwall runs to have their powder-schralping way with. The rest of us had to wait…
But not for long. My buddy Brian and I were just three places back from loading and could hear the liftie on the radio, “Yeah, tower two.” Within 30 seconds, a dude came hurtling down the adjacent run on a snowmobile, leapt off before the machine even stopped, and swam—with a hammer in one hand and a broom in the other—through waist-deep powder to access tower two. By this time, our liftie had sprinted up to assist.
Snowmobile dude monkeyed up the tower, liftie dude passed up the broom, and buddy simply leaned out, scooped the errant cable into reach and somehow levered/muscled it back onto the guidewheel within seconds.
A handful of cheers and applause drifted up from the crowd below, but not near as much as there should have been. I stared slack-jawed as the T-bar groaned back into motion. Did no one realize how astonishing this was? Lifties who hustle? Two dudes, kids really, getting a ski lift back online with a broom and a high five, in two minutes?
Meanwhile, the head of ski patrol is selflessly shoveling out the door to an old wooden lift shack, letting everyone else get the freshies. Welcome to Shames Mountain, the biggest little communist ski hill in the country.
Skiers of All Lands, Unite!
Sitting in the Kitimat Ranges of the northern Coast Mountains, in the traditional territories of the Metlakatla, Lax Kw’alaams and Kitsumkalum First Nations, Shames Mountain opened in 1990 after a group of businessmen salvaged and relocated some unused lifts and a lodge from a defunct ski operation nearby. Thanks to an industry boom in the region, and huge, wet, just-cold-enough coastal snowstorms (average winter snowfall: 12 metres/40 feet), Shames quickly became home to some of the most devoted pow hounds in Northern British Columbia. During the 2001-02 season, the hill reported 36,150 skiers and snowboarders on their 29 inbounds runs.
“That was an industry heyday and there was more population in the area back then,” explains Kelly Gingles, whose father was one of the original Shames shareholders. “The hill was open seven days a week and I skied 100 days when I worked up there in ’94-95.”
Unknown to many, even during those busy, glory years, Shames was propped up by the goodwill and personal finances of its ownership group. “Everyone thought the owners were making fistfuls of money,” Gingles says, “but actually, it was costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.”
By 2008, after a couple of bad snow years and an even worse economic turn, the shareholders had had enough. Shames went up for sale amidst swirling rumours that it would close indefinitely. Faced with a loss of lift access to some of the best powder in the world, local skiers and boarders organized, strategized, and eventually communized, first forming the “Friends of Shames” non-profit society, and eventually going full-pull with the member-owned My Mountain Co-operative. Price for a lifetime seat at the table: $300.
As the North American ski industry watched with bemused intrigue (buoyed by a Shames episode of Jordan Manley’s A Skier’s Journey video series), the co-operative took over Shames’ operations in 2011 and officially became Canada’s first non-profit community-owned ski hill in 2013. A ski hill run by skiers, for skiers (and snowboarders)—powder for the people. Karl Marx would be proud.
Membership is our Strength!
Of the people, for the people. Despite the often-bottomless powder runs (and 7,800+ acres of pristine backcountry), Shames’ biggest assets are the people. Almost a decade into the rider-owned experiment, one lesson is clear: government grants and corporate donations are integral to growth, but the hill’s success hinges on an engaged, passionate community of volunteers.
Co-op members donate time and expertise to survey potential new runs, paint towers, limb trees, build infrastructure, bus dishes in the lodge, or field the ever-increasing media requests. Business owners donate cash, services, bro-deal pricing, or heavy equipment to be used all summer for just the price of gas.
“Volunteering is a huge part of it,” says Dave Gordon, My Mountain Co-op vice chair. “When we needed to paint the lodge, 25 people showed up with brushes.”
Gordon himself volunteers countless hours as Shames’ primary grant writer and local business liaison. “We’ve secured $1.4 million in the last year and a half,” he says. “Government money is out there, but you need a solid project plan. Local government is supportive and so is local industry. Businesses here know their workforce loves the hill and they support us. We wouldn’t see any of that under a for-profit model.”
Shames’ ski patrol director, Adrien Grabinski, even showed up a week early for his first day of work to “help get things going.”
“Sometimes we have 100 cm of snow overnight and we can’t open the hill because it is buried,” he says. “The volunteer community helps us shovel out the lifts and buildings early in the morning so everyone can have a full ski day. That’s passion. You don’t see that on hills that are just there to make money.”
Grabinski grew up ski racing in Alberta’s Bow Valley and discovered Shames while driving west to a commercial tuna fishing job out of Prince Rupert. “I had no idea Shames existed until I drove past a sign that said, ‘ski hill’. I saw another sign at the turnoff, so I hit the brakes and drove up and hiked around. The terrain blew my mind.”
The Infinitude of the Snowfield
Oertel was onto something. French-born, he ended up kicking around Bavaria, working as a judge, lawyer, and writer while surviving the first World War and subsequent rise of the Communist Party of Germany. An avid skier and mountaineer, Oertel believed skiing was a transcendental practice and a retreat from what Marx called, “the tyranny of capital.”
Rather than flounder in the modern, capitalist rat race, Oertel pushed the idea that skiing, and outdoor sports in general, brought the body, mind, and spirit back into balance through movement, spontaneity, creative action, and engagement with the natural landscape. It was he who coined the phrase, “the infinitude of the snowfield.” And 111 years later and half a planet to the west, no term better describes the feeling of staring out into the Shames backcountry.
“My first time up there was stormy,” says Swedish-photographer-turned-Terrace-local Mattias Fredriksson. “I couldn’t see anything other than deep pow with snowy trees and I had no idea how it looked up there. Then we came back to good visibility and felt ‘Wow!’ It was mind-blowing—we could see possibilities everywhere.”
Officially, Shames has 3,156 hectares (7,800+ acres) of not-yet-developed backcountry: huge bowls, steep ridges, and old-growth forests—all highly accessible from the T-bar. This is where the little community-owned ski hill starts punching far above its weight—there are 12 named bowls in the tenured area with another nine just outside the line that all drop back down to the Shames access road. Possibilities everywhere indeed.
“It’s kind of the dream scenario,” says veteran ski pro Mark Abma. “Accessible and massive, you can get up there easily and walk as far as you want—trees in close and big spines farther out.”
Abma visited Shames and the Northern Escape Heli Skiing tenure last winter to film with Grabinski for the upcoming Matchstick Productions flick, The Stomping Grounds. “It’s such a fun vibe there,” he says. “An incredible environment with people hanging out in the parking lot, a true authentic experience. Adrien was our local tour guide, and he was skiing faster than any of us.”
For Grabinski, this season marks just his third winter at Shames, but he’s already made a big impact, both with his burly backcountry descents and his on-mountain work ethic. During my visit, it was always Grabinski selflessly shovelling out staircases and buildings instead of pulling the patrol card and skipping the lift line to get turns on one of the best bluebird pow days of the month.
“I believe in leading by example and putting in the effort,” he says. “This community has a deep passion for skiing—it feels like a family where everyone carries their own weight—and more.”
Embrace the Bourgeois?
In a slick twist of irony, the most capitalistic nation on the continent has had communist (or at least community-owned) ski hills operating for decades. About 22 of the 470 or so ski operations in the United States are owned by non-profit organizations. Bridger Bowl outside of Bozeman, Montana has been operating under an open-membership co-op model since 1951 and has since grown their hill from a single rope tow to a 2,000-acre resort with eight chairlifts.
After a decade or so under the co-op model, Shames is still a few years away from that kind of expansion, but they have been successful enough to realize some on-hill growth plans.
Summer of 2021 saw the replacement of the gnarly rope tow in their learning area with a covered conveyor/magic-carpet-style lift (volunteers built and erected the 300 feet of canopy tenting), and the addition of much-needed parking. But the most exciting new development is on the slopes—an extensive tree-limbing initiative inbounds will increase terrain and reduce tree well hazards, and a new gladed run on an adjacent backcountry ridge will deliver the kind of pow turns white dreams are made of. Longtime local shredder Brad Zeerip spearheaded both initiatives.
“We limbed every tree patch between the black diamond runs,” Zeerip says. “That will double the inbounds skiable terrain. The glades; that’s the result of two years of permitting and paperwork. These enhanced backcountry runs help spread out skiers and reduce crowding, but I also think it will bring destination travellers. Shames is the glue that holds this community together, but we need every skier we can get, we can’t be a business with no customers.”
And there’s the rub. As much as Shames is a living room for the locals and a place to cast off the shackles of a hectic life, the membership only provides so much. At least some of the money for a new chairlift, a longer season, a new lodge, a backcountry hut system, a new snowcat, sewer upgrades, or whatever else the Shames proletariat feel is necessary… some of that cash will need to come from out of town.
“One of the big challenges has been running this as a business and not as a club for backcountry skiers,” says Gordon. “Our chair is 49 years old. Our lodge holds 300 people and we have 900 pass holders. We had an on-hill staff of two last summer, and one of them was in Mexico on his honeymoon. Grant money comes and goes, but I think the membership recognizes that having people come here to eat, ski and stay is good for the community. But of course, we also hope it doesn’t get too busy.”
The good news is that a resort with minimal grooming and world-class backcountry skiing and splitboarding still attracts (mostly) the right kind of people—self-sufficient, appreciative, respectful adventure seekers. The even better news is that Terrace isn’t really your spot if you’re looking for ice hotels, places to have your dog’s toenails painted, restaurants with coat-check girls, or shops selling those furry, $1,700 Bogner boots that skiing’s bourgeois class seems to like so much.
But the best news is that no matter what happens at Shames, it will happen because the people who live and love the mountain decided on it. “To not be part of a big corporate machine that can go against what is best for the community is huge,” says Fredriksson. “We have all seen that happen, selling out for profit.”
“The co-op model has been validated,” adds Gordon. “A ski hill is a hard business to run, we’re closed 290 days a year. Thankfully it keeps snowing, we are still alive, and where else do you go and meet a diverse group of people from across your community and everyone has their hands in the air saying, ‘This is the best day ever’? I’ve run businesses that had a few days like that but not every day, not everyone.”
And so, Shames soldiers on, forcing the question: is communism, socialism, or at least common ownership the future of small-town ski hills? That remains to be seen. For now, Shames is thriving, the snow is deep, and people are moving to town to get in on the action.
Steve Salem and his family arrived in Terrace in 2015, fell in love with the community, the mountain, and the all-for-one, one-for-all vibe of Shames. “The general stoke of everyone involved is my favourite thing,” says Salem, a proud Shames co-owner and board member. “I don’t think any other ownership model allows for the kind of passion we see up there… and if the lift breaks down, I don’t have to go far to complain to the owner.”
More about Shames Mountain Co-op here.
Deepest Day of My Life
Pow-gasms in Northern BC. Words :: Feet Banks.
As a skier, I’ve had it pretty good. More than 40 years on the boards, three decades of that on the big, varied terrain of what is generally accepted as the best ski resort in North America. I’ve road tripped the Powder Highway, gotten lost at Powder King, British Columbia and sunk turns in clear view of both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Also, I’ve never been to Ontario.
And while there is still a whole world out there waiting for my skis to explore, I can’t deny that my skier’s journey so far has been what the kids these days call #blessed. So, it is entirely without exaggeration or hyperbole that I say Northern Escape Heli Skiing gave me the deepest snow of my life. Turn after turn, run after run of absolutely bonkers deep, dry, 1,000 per cent shred-able north coast BC powder.
“It’s deeper up here,” says John Forrest with a sly grin. “Our last day like this was just over a week ago. We get 20 days like this a year.”
The day in question was smack in the middle of a more than 150-centimetre storm, and calling it “balls deep” is a disservice—it was deeper than that. On a fast turn through steep glades, the powder needed surfing terms to describe it: overhead. The pow was literally bottomless—I know because I blew a ski and had to dig for it—there was no bottom.
Starting in the mid-’80s as one of the youngest ACMG guides in Canada, Forrest is a BC heli-skiing legend who started, or helped start, one catskiing and five heli skiing companies in his 35-year career. He first put roots down in the Terrace area in 2004 to open Northern Escape in the Skeena Range and share the deepest pow in BC. With a new off-grid lodge in the mountains, a Leonardo Koala six-guest helicopter (“the best, most powerful, safest machine for heli skiing”), and a snowcat primed in case the weather won’t allow him to fly, it’s safe to say Forrest gets as many huge pow days each winter as anyone on the planet.
“Meeting great people, seeing their joy—that’s why I keep doing it, “he explains. “Some of my best friends are up here right now, and I have a group coming next week that I’ve been skiing with for 30 years.”
Lodge life is the best life, and the friends you make in a heli-skiing lodge will always share that bond created by pure joy and stoke, but the best thing about skiing a big storm at Northern Escape is that those big fat north coast pow flakes just keep piling up. So, if you take accumulation into account, each successive run is the deepest of your life. My balls are tingling just thinking of it.