"A kick in the head." That’s what they called the cordoned-off, fall-line strip down the centre of Whitewater’s showpiece run, The Blast. It tempted powder-hungry skiers looking to poach a few choice turns under the hill’s now-famous—and retired—Summit Chair. This coveted alley, named after the looming threat of head-to-ski contact on big snow years due to the low-hanging lift, is now a thing of the past, as this season a fixed-grip quad replaces the dilapidated double that opened in 1976.
Gone are the lifties digging out "snow-creep pits" upslope of the lift towers, so they didn’t collapse (although lifties sometimes did). Gone is the uncertainty that the chair wouldn’t break down on a powder day. And gone, perhaps, is a chunk of the character that makes up this tiny enclave of homegrown skiing in a world of corporate resorts and mega developments. Or so say some locals in Nelson, B.C., just down the road from Whitewater.
But the majority of townsfolk are rejoicing the move. Old chairs purchased at a closing ceremony auction now adorn backyards and bar patios alike.
"I made a love seat out of one," muses Art Mawer, a long-time Nelson skier and electrician who oversaw, as a volunteer, the electrical installation for the Summit Chair over four decades ago. To help cut costs for the community effort, Mawer scrounged surplus electrical-switch gear from his workplace at the nearby Seven Mile Dam.
"They said, 'Take as much as you can,' so I did," remembers the tradesman, who, until a year ago, continued to volunteer his services to help squeeze more life out of the iconic chairlift.
Safety was a critical factor in replacing this vital link in Whitewater’s minimal lift network, although there were never any calamities, other than a few cold hours here and there while patrons waited for the chair to fire up again.
"I never put the safety bar down, in case anything ever happened—kinda like leaving your seat belt off when driving on a logging road," says ex-patroller Orry Grant, who remembers fondly his early morning "snow stability" tests under the chair, and perhaps even a few off- hours safety meetings on the chair itself.
In a place like Nelson, where some people haven’t shaved their beards since showing up as draft dodgers in the '60s, change doesn’t come easy. Refreshingly, Whitewater seems to acknowledge this. Even its website states, "Knee Deep Developments Corp., who purchased the resort in the fall of 2008, is maintaining their commitment to improve the Whitewater experience while keeping the community vibe that makes the resort so unique."
Fair enough. It’s that community vibe that long-time local Scott Jeffery hopes won’t be lost on the next generation of skiers, referring to Nelson’s reputation as a warm-and-welcoming ski town.
"The big change that people might not think about is the social dynamic on the chair," says Jeffery, who blew his ACL boosting under tower 11 on the biggest dump of last season. "With a double chair," he philosophizes, "there’s no option but to fall into a conversation with the person next to you, whoever they might be. The quad is going to change this, but there’s always the fixed-grip double on the Silver King side."
Jeffery, like others, is embracing this incremental change, and is looking forward to the unconstrained, wall-to-wall turns that will be coming soon, under the new chair.
Keep your tips up! Sam Kuch and Trace Cooke at Whitewater, B.C. Photo by Steve Ogle