What a Shames!

🕔Jan 29, 2009

OK, I admit it: I had a love affair with Winter.
Some years ago, I packed a bag and left Victoria for the mountains, an impressionable twenty-year-old with a pocketful of money and a head full of wanderlust. I stepped off a bus at the Okanagan’s Big White Ski Resort during what I later learned to call a “big white-out.” Fat flakes of snow the size of fuzzy toques drifted out of a wall of white fog and the lights of the village glowed straight out of a fairytale. I fell in love instantly.
That season, I learned to snowboard. Wearing slick, unfashionable Helly-Hansen rain-gear, I went faster at first on my ass than I did standing up. But by the end of the second week I was a hopeless addict.
I stayed for three years. The affair has never ended, but I’ve since had to make a few concessions. I moved from the mountains back down to sea level; now I commute to the snow, instead of simply stepping out the front door. And things have just changed again—I moved to Prince Rupert at the beginning of the year.
When my wife and I decided to move north to have our second kid, I had a mild panic attack. Where am I going to snowboard? Then I remembered: there’s a resort between Rupert and Terrace called Shames Mountain. But the big question: is it any good?
“When you come to Shames, it’ll change the way you look at every other ski hill,” says Marty Elston, the new GM at the mountain. He’s convinced Shames is a snowy piece of paradise, enough so that he moved his family out west from Mont Tremblant. “It’s an honour to be here,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve won the Stanley Cup.”

Worth heading north for
Elston boasts that Shames is the ultimate destination for the snow-hungry masses, and the statistics back him up. Shames averages a mind-boggling 1200 centimetres (40 feet) of snowfall every year. “We get one of the largest snowpacks in North America,” he says. “It attracts a certain demographic.” He means Shames is inundated with the particular breed of enthusiast that doesn’t mind shivering uncontrollably at eight o’clock in the morning while waiting for the lifts to open, all because fifty centimetres of fresh snow fell overnight; the type you see sporting ludicrous goggle tan-lines and toque-mussed hair, marks of pride in the community. Usually, you can identify them by the perma-grins plastered across their faces, at odds with the way they limp from the powder-burn in their thighs. I’m told Shames causes a lot of these grins.
Everybody working at the mountain, says Elston, is there because they want to be there. Matt Kenny, this year wearing the badge of Shames’ snowboard coach, is the perfect example. As he told Northword last issue, he happily left eight years of Whistler behind for this little northern mountain. Why? Because Shames was worth heading north for. “I’d heard a lot about Shames, and knew it was a good little ski hill,” he says. He and his wife left Vancouver for a slower pace, choosing Terrace partly on the merit of Shames’ reputation.
Shana Selinger, manager at Terrace’s Azad Adventures, also left the Vancouver area to come to Shames. She relates the story of a local who came to the mountain four years ago because he’d seen just one picture of someone skiing there. “There’s a lot of people like that,” she says. “The snow is incredible.” Selinger worked for a heli-skiing operation on the lower mainland but won’t go back now because of what Shames has in comparison.
“It’s small,” she cautions, “but it’s got a wicked community vibe to it. Any day you can go up there by yourself and find a group of people to ride with.” That’s comforting. These days, most ski hills have lost a lot of their community charm, turning to corporate sponsorship, advertising, and events that place almost as much importance on fashion as on the sports themselves.

Simple but idyllic
“If you want to look cool, go somewhere else,” laughs Elston. “If you want to have fun in the snow, come here.” His whole ethos as the new GM is to keep things simple—a ski hill is about having a good time in the snow. Small and simple sounds pretty idyllic, actually, compared to long line-ups and glitzy shops. “Our new slogan,” he tells me proudly, “is ‘We’re the jewel lost in the wild.’”
But wild Shames does have its problems. The lodge is old and the lift even older. “The lodge could use some love,” admits Selinger, picking her words carefully. Elston and Kenny agree, and all three sound somewhat apologetic. Then there’s getting there. “The access road is exposed to Class 5 avalanches in three places,” says Elston. He tells me one such avalanche wiped out the road a few years back, forcing three hundred people to overnight on the lodge floor. He qualifies it by saying, “Everybody has good memories about it.” When a logistical nightmare can turn out to be the best moment of the winter, you know you’ve got something good going on.
Elston’s outlook is positive. “I don’t see the problems at Shames, I see the potential.” Shames will never be Whistler of the north, but no one seems to care and, in fact, no one wants it that way. “We are one solid community-based ski hill,” says Elston eagerly. “We love that; that’s what we’re proud of.”
What about the terrain? “I’m not supposed to endorse this,” Elston begins tentatively, “but it’s all about backcountry.” At Shames, the accessibility to amazing, unpatrolled terrain is unmatched. “Out of bounds, it’s immense,” confirms Kenny. “There’s a lot of people that that’s all they do—they just show up in the morning, get up on the lift, and you don’t see them for the rest of the day.” While Shames doesn’t officially sanction backcountry travel, it’s not blind either.
“We have a choice,” Elston concludes. “We can either service the people who come to us, or we can get really hardcore about it and no one will come anymore.” Not much of a choice really. And that’s not to say the in-bounds terrain isn’t worth making the journey. “It’s actually got a good variety,” says Kenny. “It even has a couple of double-black runs and it’s all pretty easy to get to.” Selinger agrees. “For being such a small hill it has some pretty good black diamond runs,” she says. But that sounds like icing on the cake; the bountiful snow, the friendly vibe, and the backcountry are what make Shames a jewel.
Glancing furtively over my shoulder, I place my snowboard on the carpet in the bedroom and stand on it with my eyes closed, imagining the moment when I first drop into the north bowl Kenny described over the phone. I can almost feel the fluffy snow kicking up into my face as I make the first couple of weightless turns down the slope…and I can’t help but grin. The bedroom becomes the mountain, snow ghosts whisper their welcome, and the immense landscape rushes by. But then, suddenly, the door opens and I open my eyes to see my wife standing there, wearing a bemused smile.