words by Jeff Schmuck
Resorts of the Canadian Rockies isn’t your below average, po-dunk, middle of nowhere ski hill with rickety and rusty double chairs and well-worn day lodges. With four major resorts spanning the Canadian Rockies, one of which has the second most skiable acres in North America, along with a tag team of well-traveled mountains in Quebec, and pish-posh hotels surrounding all of them like bloodthirsty wolves, RCR is pretty damn big fish in the ski resort pond. So when they announced their ‘industry-leading initiative’ to discontinue the construction of all man-made jumps in their terrain parks last week, it’s no surprise that the magnitude of the news was considered to be freestyle skiing and snowboarding’s equivalent to the assassination of JFK, and for the avid park rats that call Lake Louise, Fernie, Kimberley, Nakiska, Mont Sainte-Anne or Stoneham home, it was just as reviled.
In a time when nearly every other major resort in North America is throwing money into their terrain parks like Donald Trump does to his ex-wives, and advertising it twice as heavily in every magazine and website that even mentions snow, RCR’s decision sent some fairly justified shockwaves throughout the ski and snowboard world, and more people seemed to be jolted than tickled.
Messages boards overflowed with angry customers insisting they’ll demand their seasons pass money back, Facebook groups planning protests during this month’s World Cup race at Lake Louise and encouraging people to simultaneously call RCR’s office to complain popped up like zits on the kids that started them, retailers near the resorts' respective areas began to worry about the number of freestyle-specific skis and snowboards they brought in, and looming in the distance, neighboring resorts seemed to turn their backs, quietly snicker, and pour more money into their parks, while everyone else and their dog seemed to ask, what the hell is RCR thinking?
A phone conversation with Matt Mosteller, RCR’s Senior Director of Business Development, provided some answers, although it’s safe to assume that most reading this wont exactly be as quick as a bunny to understand the reasoning.
“We’ve made this decision on the moral high road, and that’s it. We want to ensure our guests’ safety and encourage them to focus more on our natural terrain. We don’t want to be dealing with parents whose children get severely injured or worse yet paralyzed at one of our resorts. We’ve had people on our team who’ve had to deal with that in the past, and words cant describe how difficult that is. This isn’t about money or anything else, as we will be putting more money into the rails at our resorts, which will remain. We just wanted to create a safer environment for people to come and ski and snowboard and enjoy themselves.”
Mosteller claims that despite the overwhelming amount of online backlash, they’ve actually received more positive than negative feedback at head office, mostly from parents who support the decision from a safety perspective. However he says that they were conscious and prepared for those whole felt otherwise, and because of that, stated that RCR will be offering a full refund to anyone who’s bought a season’s pass from them that is unhappy with the decision. In contrast, Sunshine Village, neighboring competitor to Lake Louise, RCR’s crown jewel and host of snowboarding’s Superpark in years past (which Mosteller says may continue to happen, along with other events catered to pro riders, which will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis) is reportedly spending an extra $20,000 on park upgrades this winter.
“Yeah, it’s going to be cool, ” says local pro skier Mike Henitiuk, who grew up skiing at RCR’s resorts but just spent the weekend shredding at Sunshine. “They’re kind of new to the park thing so it will probably take them a few years to figure things out but it’s good that they’re doing that now. Their (RCR’s) decision is a pretty big surprise actually, because a few years ago when Lake Louise was doing Superpark their jumps were so sick. Ever since Superpark left it’s kind of gone downhill, but they were always doing surveys at the entrance of the park on how they could make things better, but now I guess they just thought it wasn’t worth it anymore. They’re saying safety is the main reason but I think they just didn’t think it was worth the money.”
Despite RCR claiming that they’re not feeling the heat yet, Henitiuk says that from a local’s perspective, the decision will only encourage kids in the area to start skiing elsewhere this winter.
“Looking around now, there’s so many more of that type of skiers, because the scene has grown so much in Calgary over the last few years. I don’t know many kids who just go to the mountain to ski groomers, so everyone will probably end up going to Sunshine and COP, which has a good park and pipe, and a lot of kids will probably end up making more trips out to Whistler.”
“I started worrying about this last year when they cut all their pipes,” says Myles Ricketts, head coach of the BC halfpipe team, who grew up on the slopes of Kimberley. “That’s where it started, and it sucks because now my team can’t train at any of their hills. I was stoked to go home to Kimberly and train there but now we cant. I have a team of 14 kids and there’s over 200 kids in BC Freestyle and close to 1000 more across Canada and now that there’s no training facilities they’re just taking us away from those areas.”
Many seem to feel that RCR’s decision was a result of the incident at Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State in 2004, when 23-year-old Kenny Salvini overshot a tabletop in their park and was paralyzed as a result of the accident. Salvini sued, and last year was awarded $14 million in damages. Smaller ski areas in Michigan and throughout the Midwest are now threatening to follow RCR’s lead because of the suit, however Mosteller says the incident had little to do with their decision.
“I agree that that case was not good for the sport. When a skier or snowboarder gets themselves into that sort of situation, it’s an inherit risk and they should be taking responsibility for their own actions. But contrary to what a lot of people are saying online, the Snoqualmie incident wasn’t a big part of the decision. This was a dynamic decision and we started discussing it years ago. Skiing and snowboarding are sports where people do need to take their own responsibility and their own risk in their own hands, but what we’re doing is taking another step on that by making a moral obligation to remove a component that we just felt we didn’t want to have anymore, because we couldn’t control the actions of these skiers and snowboarders. We don’t feel that a certain number of accidents is okay and acceptable, we feel that no accidents is, and that that is the right way to go.”
Salvini now hosts an online blog where he talks about the accident, the aftermath and how his life has been affected by the experience as a whole. Recently, he was quoted in an email as saying, "I sincerely hope that what my lawsuit accomplishes in the long run are some of the most amazing terrain parks imaginable that are designed in such a way that all the UNNECESSARY risk is eliminated for the most part.”
Which is the exactly the approach Whistler Blackcomb has taken. Along with Park City and Mammoth, Whistler Blackcomb is consistently and annually voted as having one of the best terrain parks in North America. In fact, there is not one, but three parks on the mountain: the low-level terrain garden, which has smaller jumps and rails for those just starting out, the blue park, which boasts medium-sized jumps and hips along with a superpipe, and the high level park, which requires a separate park pass for the cost of $15 a season, is completely fenced off, and perhaps most importantly, has a mandatory helmet rule, something that a lot of resorts across North America have followed their lead on.
“Whistler Blackcomb is ranked number one a lot, by a lot of publications. We consider ourselves to be industry leaders and we think that improving safety in our terrain parks is the way to cut down on injuries,” says Michelle Leroux, Public Relations and Communications Manager for Whistler Blackcomb. “We are totally committed to keeping up our terrain parks and featuring the man-made jumps and obstacles that we’ve always had. We’re not going to be getting rid of our jumps, but it is important to make them as safe as we can. We always make sure to hire groomers who know what they’re doing, and we talk to the riders so we know what the best in-run and take-off and landing angles are going to be, because the reality is, we have to make these areas available to people. If you don’t have a terrain park, then kids are just going to build jumps elsewhere, and that’s when it becomes uncontrolled. Someone builds a kicker on a knoll and an unsuspecting skier gets hit because no one knows the jump is there. Our viewpoint is that kids are always going to find a way to jump and although you’re never going to be able to remove the risk associated with skiing and snowboarding, you can be smart in reducing it, and the way to do that is by educating users on how to use the terrain properly. So we, along with many other resorts across North America, take part in terrain park signage and various educational systems, because we feel it’s the responsibility of our guests to know what they’re getting themselves into and to take responsibility for themselves, and we want to be able to help them do that.”
“I totally agree,” says Ricketts. “I don’t get it at all. I mean I can understand if they’re concerned about safety but if they’re worried about people getting hurt they just need to hire the right people to build their jumps. If they do that, they’ll be fine. That’s all it is. Injuries are going to happen on the ski hill no matter what, but if everything’s built right, there’s going to be less of them. What’s really weird to me about this is why they’d cut their jumps but not rails. Rails are just as dangerous as jumps, but because they’re cheaper to maintain and cheaper to build it leads me to believe this is a money thing too.”
Over the course of the last week, many have wondered out loud why RCR didn’t consider emulating Whistler Blackcomb and other resorts with the helmet and park pass rule as opposed to just throwing in the towel, but when asked why, Mosteller says he feels the system has its flaws.
“The problem with the fencing off the park and the park pass system is that you can’t monitor it enough. You can’t prevent people from going in the park just by putting a fence up. They’ll just duck the rope and do it anyway. And as far as the jumps go, it’s impossible to monitor them enough as well because every 15 minutes the temperature warms or cools and every half hour or so the number of skiers and riders that go over it changes the take-off and landing area. So those are issues that the industry is going to have to deal with as more and more accident happens, but we don’t even want to go there. We’re not out here to say that others should follow our lead. All we’re saying is that this is our decision, and it’s a moral decision that has been made for the safety of our guests.”
So as the winter of 2007/2008 approaches, it will be more than interesting to watch what the future will hold for RCR’s terrain parks. Will the backlash, potential lower number of skier visits and upgraded competition from their neighbors eventually get to them, forcing them to relent, or will they continue to stand firm on their decision beyond this year and do what little to no other resorts would seemingly even consider? It appears only time will tell.
“You never know what will happen in the future,” Mosteller says. “But for now our team has made this decision, and we believe it’s the right one and we’re going to stand by it and move forward with it. But for this year, we wont be changing our minds in the next month. There will be no jumps this winter.”
So despite the negative response online, the angry phone calls and emails they may receive, the protests that may take place, and the amount of cash handed back to those who’d now rather ski elsewhere, one thing’s for sure. If you’re looking to enjoy a powder day at Fernie or Lake Louise or some stellar tree skiing at Mont-Sainte Anne, then RCR’s resorts are undoubtedly to the place to be, but if you’re wanting to dial in that switch cork 7 truckdriver that everyone’s doing in the movies, you’re going to have to do it someplace else.