Words and photos :: Steve Tersmette. The up-track at Kimberley Alpine Resort was the first sanctioned and designated skin track at a Canadian ski resort, although the route had been well used for years prior under the cover of darkness. The decision to establish an in-bounds skin track came ahead of the 2018-2019 ski season, with the population of Kimberley booming and the popularity of outdoor recreation soaring. To maintain safety and avoid conflicts among downhill users, equipment, and workers, the unofficial route on the run Boundary became endorsed after many years of contemplation. The inclusion of a formal up-track solidified Kimberley as a hardcore mountain town.
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
I clip my ski boots into their bindings and pull goggles down over my eyes; echoes of whoops and hollers rise above the trees at Kimberley Alpine Resort. There are about ten centimetres of fresh snow on the ground and the stoke is audibly infectious. It looks and sounds like any other powder day in this small mountain town: the white canvas of each run is thoroughly laced with tracks. With the sun out and the sky blue, this promises to be one of the best ski days of the year.
Missing from the ambiance is the familiar hum of the lift station turning and the occasional siren of a patroller’s snowmobile. The ski hill is closed, and has been, for about two weeks.
In the spring of 2020, the early days of the COVID pandemic, Kimberley ceased operations for the season. With businesses suddenly closed and a month of spring skiing remaining, countless out-of-work locals took to the idle hill to continue getting their turns in. Most did so with the aid of backcountry touring equipment, while others walked or snowshoed directly up the hill carrying their skis and snowboards on their backs. Some donned skins and touring bindings for the first time ever, while for others this was business as usual.
“Skinning the hill for me was the perfect escape to spend time outside in my own backyard, good medicine for mountain folks such as myself and for many of my friends,” says local ski bum Marc Trudeau.
With the lifts silent but snow still in great abundance, the quad-burning ascent up the skin track quickly became the most popular form of exercise in Kimberley as well as one of the last acceptable social activities.
Saturday, December 18, 2021
The upper lift control station sits smoldering atop Kimberley Alpine Resort.
After a challenging season prior, businesses and accommodation providers around town are excited to welcome a new ski season and a return to a semblance of normalcy. But as the sun rose on what should have been a busy opening day, residents and businesses woke to the news that another ski season had gone up in smoke. The callous act of arson saw the ski hill and much of the town quickly disabled.
Once again, local businesses were scrambling: trying to salvage what they could from what should have been a livelihood-saving winter season. A town, whose sole existence is predicated on tourism, was instantly brought to its knees. This was a knockout punch after a series of glancing blows. Amid the collective despair, many reached for their skins and took to the up-track once again to seek respite from what was to become another long winter.
Rising to Meet the Challenge
The resort reacted quickly, securing three cats to shuttle skiers to the top of the hill and providing access to the backside of the resort, as well as the two remaining operational lifts. Snowmobiles were employed to ferry ski gear to the base of another chairlift for those who opted to hike the 20-or-so minutes along the service road. Others simply skinned up and over. For many, life would go on—one gravity-defying step at a time.
Many businesses in town found themselves on life support with losses quickly piling up. “We are counting on and looking forward to a surplus of pent-up demand going into the 2022/2023 ski season,” says Jesse Ferguson, general manager of the Northstar Group, Kimberley’s largest accommodation provider.
While the pandemic resulted in nothing less than a two-year-long rollercoaster ride for the business, the announcement of the arson resulted in the immediate cancellation of nearly 90 per cent of the group’s winter 2022 season’s bookings. Rooms, condominiums and rental homes sat empty through what is normally their busiest season. All they could do was idle and look forward to summer.
The city of Kimberley is no stranger to adversity—just ask Michelle and Nils Fuhge, owners of The Old Bauernhaus Restaurant for more than 23 years. When the Sullivan Mine closed in 2001, the city lost its key industry, businesses closed and there was a minor exodus from town. 9/11 kept American travellers at bay and shook global tourism for years. The worldwide economic recession of 2008 lingered in the years that followed, with many local shop owners shuttering their businesses or forced into retirement. A lengthy evacuation alert due to nearby wildfires stymied tourism for many of the 2018 summer months.
The Fuhge’s restaurant has been in a constant state of flux since day one, and the past three years have certainly been no exception. “With 23 years of constant pressure to adapt, I feel we were prepared for COVID on a certain level,” says Michelle Fuhge. “Last winter’s ‘incident’ was definitely a shock. It changed the nature of our town. However, we can thank our local guests once again for getting us through.” While Michelle estimates that their revenue is down about 33 per cent, adjustments that include a smaller menu, and reduced hours and staffing have helped offset the damage.
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While Kimberley could be considered a microcosm within a larger economic picture, the impacts of a downturn in a small tourist town cut even more deeply.
A Year Later
Walking Kimberley’s downtown Platzl today, it’s easy to mistake the “open” signs and bustling sidewalks as a sign of prosperity. Many of these businesses reached deep into their own pockets to keep the lights on, pay their employees, and stock inventory on the shelves. Matt Lamb, general manager of the Kimberley Chamber of Commerce, is contemplative as he twists a mug of beer in his hands at a local watering hole. Matt has had a front-row seat to the many highs and lows of the business community over the past few years and has witnessed their devastation, heartbreak, desperation, perseverance, and success. Similar to Michelle Fuhge, he credits the dedication of local business owners and a community that stepped up to rally around their own.
As for Kimberley Alpine Resort, the North Star Quad’s upper mountain control station is expected to be operational in time for the 2022/2023 ski season. As the chairlift starts spinning once again, many will choose to forego the lift and take to the skin track. It has become a beacon of hope for locals throughout the past few years in a town now defined by its incredible resilience. It is hard work, but the reward for fighting to the top is always worth the effort.
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