POPULATION EXPLOSION ON THE SKI SLOPES
But all this can't explain how Canadian skiers grew from an eccentric handful to a dedicated host
New gear makes dubs look like experts New clothes make girls look prettier, men look stronger Neto machines put more snow on the hills, carry more people up them
When John Clifford, former Canadian Alpine ski champion, took over a few years ago as general manager of the Ottawa Ski Club, he had less than $100 in ready cash to call his own. Today, Clifford has more than $500,000 invested in ski-tow and lift equipment at the club's Camp Fortune in the Gatineau Hills.
Near Collingwood, 97 miles north of Toronto. a Czech named Jozo Weider who was a penniless immigrant only fifteen years ago is about to spend some $800,000 on a huge, yearround skiing and swimming resort. The rise of Weider and Clifford from inpecunious skiers to incipient tycoons is more, not less, remarkable for the fact that in both cases, most of the investment is borrowed money. Not only fanatical skiers like themselves, but also conservative Canadian bankers and other moneylenders, now agree with Weider that "skiing is going to be Canada’s biggest sport” and that Canada’s biggest sport is sure to make money.
Skiers, like fishermen, are notorious for exaggeration, but Weider's prediction looks as if it might come true. Only ten years ago, about 500 people used to ski at Collingwood; today, weekend crowds of 7,000 are common. In 1948. when about 125,000 people traveled, mostly by rail, into the biggest ski area in the country, the Laurentian hills north ol Montreal, skiing had already been "the fastestgrowing sport in Canada’ for about 20 years. Today an estimated 300,000 drive up the new four-lane toll Autoroute from Montreal to the ski slopes in a winter season, and to serve
them about $10 million worth of ski tows, ski runs, chalets, hotels, restaurants and allied facilities have been built in the Laurentians. Ten years ago Gray Rocks Inn at St. Jovite, Que., gave about 10.000 ski lessons a year. From the mid-Fifties on, ski lessons at Gray Rocks have been booming—34.000 in 1958,40,000 in 1959. The Ottawa Ski Club used to call itself the biggest in North America when its membership averaged around 3,000; now it's closer to 10,000 in a good season, and gets half ot that total membership out on its slopes all at once on a fine February Sunday. Vancouver has enormous crowds at Grouse Mountain. Hollyburn and Seymour within the borders of the metropolitan area, but Vancouver skiers also spend an estimated million dollars a year at Mount Baker in Washington state, a drive of a hundred miles. Calgarians crowd the road to Banff and Mount Temple every winter weekend, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic a few years ago.
Why? That's the question that baffles people who don’t ski. What is so great about sliding down a hill? Why do sane men and women, many of them middle-aged and some as old as eighty, spend anywhere from $200 to $2.000 a winter for the privilege of exposing themselves to grave risk of broken limbs, torn ligaments. fractured skulls, snow blindness and sunburn, not to mention frostbite?
People in modest circumstances pay aston-
ishing amounts to ski. The Osier Bluff Ski Club at Collingwood, with initiation fees and dues totaling about $500, has company presidents and corporation lawyers among its members. but it also has plumbers, electricians and clerks.
"Ten years ago.” says Ernie McCulloch, director of the Mont Tremblant ski school, "the well-dressed skier was rare. Today you hardly ever see an ill-dressed one.” And to be a welldressed skier costs more than ever before.
Stretchy slacks (which make shapely girls look shapelier) cost anywhere from $30 to $60; because they are easier to ski in. men wear them too. These might be topped by a $20 sweater, a $30 Orlon-pile shaggy jacket or a quilted one for about the same price, and maybe a $10 woolen hood. Even the occasional rugged type who doesn't care what he looks like, and who may ski in old blue jeans, will still pay anywhere up to $100 for a good pair of skis, $40 to $60 for hand-sewn, steelshanked boots, $10 for aluminum or stainlesssteel poles, and perhaps $18.50 for safety bindings (which release the ski in a bad fall, and may often avert a broken leg).
On top of the cost of equipment comes the cost of using it. For luxury accommodation at a place like Mont Tremblant Lodge you can pay $18 a day for room and meals, $6 for an all-day ticket on the chairlift, maybe another $5 for ski lessons if you want them, and probably $5 more for drinks and incidentals— say $30 a day, CONTINUED ON PAGE 71
CONTINUED ON PAGE 71
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Population explosion on the ski slopes
to be conservative. At the other extreme, even at the same Laurentian resort, ski-crazy youngsters can get by on as little as $15 for a two-day weekend. Putting first things first, they take out $12 for their two all-day chairlift tickets. The rest would be a dollar for a night in the bunkhouse (bring your own sleeping bag) and $2 for enough food to keep them going. They come home famished but happy.
For these rather massive outlays of money, the skier buys a formidable array of unnecessary risks, which he blandly ignores. Finie McCulloch told me with a straight face that "a fit, trained skier is unlikely ever to hurt himself", but in fact McCulloch broke his own leg a few seasons ago. Tw'o years ago John Semmelink of Montreal, memb:r of a Canadian team racing for the world’s championships, was killed on the icy downhill course at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Two American skiers w'ere killed hist year in a 70-mile-anhour collision. Six broken limbs is the w'eekly average among 10.000 skiers at Ottawa's Camp Fortune, and the ski patrol at Collingw'ood deals with about a hundred "incidents" each weekend, anything from a winded bank president to a typist with a broken thigh.
"It's like dope. You get hooked"
Asked why so many thousands spend so much money to invite such perils, one Laurentian ski professional answered: "Skiing is like taking dope. You get hooked.”
Fven the most articulate addicts have little better to offer in explanation. One friend of mine expounded a learned theory of his own—skiing is a delight, he said, because the fear of falling is a primitive human instinct, and this ancestral fear turns into the thrill of not quite falling as you skim down a slope like a bird in (light. But when I asked Dr. Daniel ('apport, a Toronto psychiatrist. whether he could account for the fascination of skiing, he just smiled and said, "It's simple. We enjoy it." For whatever reason, skiing is one of the few human activities that can make a grown man or woman shout for joy, no matter who is listening.
But that doesn't account for the phenomenal growth of the sport in the past few years. After all. it’s not new. A few frostbitten eccentrics were skiing in Canada 60 years ago, and at least two of the same pioneers are still at it—H. Smith - Johannscn of Shawbridge. Que., and Sigurd Lockeberg of Ottawa, aged 84 and 74 respectively. What made their odd hobby an epidemic?
One reason may be the development of laminated metal skis by Howard Head, a Baltimore aircraft engineer, about ten years ago. By ingeniously pulling a little extra weight in the forward end of the ski. Head made it vastly easier for the skier to execute a turn-— "his skis have power steering." as one satisfied customer said. Some racers and other experts are contemptuous of Head skis, which they say are not much good at high speeds, but for the dub who wants to look and feel like an expert
they are a godsend. Apparently the supply of dubs is ample on both sides of the Atlantic, for even in Austria, where tlyc best wooden skis in the world can be bought for half to two-thirds of Canadian prices. Head's skis sell like hotcakes at even higher prices than here. So do various other makes that use the same principles without quite infringing Head’s patents.
Metal skis are not the only modern device that makes things easy for the beginner. Short skis, much easier to handle and adequate for hard-packed
hills, are now coming into fashion. Little children can learn on bobtailed skis that go no farther back than the wearer’s heel, and only a foot or two in front of his toes. Many hills are carefully cleared of the rocks, stumps, brambles and gullies with which nature endowed them— Herbert .1. O'Connell spends thousands a year manicuring his Little Ober-Gurgl. the popular junior slope at Mont Gabriel in the Laurentians, which he keeps mown like a golf course in summer and rolled like a tennis court in winter.
Ski instructors have a good case for
the claim that their new' methods of teaching have made the sport popular. It used to be rigid dogma that nobody could learn to ski without first perfecting the snowplow turn, a tedious process that's about as much fun as cleaning the basement, and at which neophytes often spent the whole two weeks of a winter vacation, their last. Nowadays the snowplow turn is still taught to beginners, but they graduate from it by the end of the first day, and are soon enjoying the thrills of the parallel turn.
Josef Kates, a Toronto businessman
who spent months learning to ski old style in the Austrian Alps before World War II, says: “I was amazed to see, in the Laurentians last year, 50-year-old men taught to ski passably well in less than a week.”
It is also, of course, much easier to go up the hills than it was in the old days of cross-country touring, or even the fairly recent days of shoulderwrenching rope tows. Jozo Weider used to say his new $100,000 chairlift at Collingwood was the best in eastern Canada, but right beside him a new development called Georgian Peaks Resorts Limited has installed a lift that goes a little faster. John Clifford's new chairlift at Camp Fortune will soon have upholstered seats. The lift at 'Temple, near Lake Louise, Alberta, is of the gondola style, fully enclosed. For smaller hills Alpine T-lifts, J-lifts and Poma-lifts, by which the skier slides up hill, have replaced many if not most of the old ropes, and they're all a lot more comfortable.
Another modern blessing is the ready accessibility of ski terrain. Vancouver’s 50,000 skiers can reach Grouse Mountain, Hollyburn Ridge or Mount Seymour in forty minutes from downtown, about the time it takes Ottawans to drive to Camp Fortune. The Laurentians are about an hour from Montreal and Collingwood is two hours from Toronto, mostly by four-lane highway. The snowbowl at Lac Beauport is half an hour away from Quebec City.
A second chance at death
All these things arc part of a revolution in Canadian skiing that has taken place in the past twenty-five years. In 1932 there were only thirty men in the Quebec Kandahar downhill race, the most difficult course in eastern Canada. It took them about two hours to climb through deep fresh powder snow to the top of Mont Tremblant, 2.500 feet above the frozen surface of Lac Tremblant.
One of the contestants, Peter Gillespie, remembers that as he started his own run he could see others disappearing off the narrow breakneck trail, and could hear shouts and curses and the crash of bodies through the spruce trees. Gillespie skied right over one prostrate competitor who was buried in a drift, and saw the track ahead of him littered with mitts, caps, poles and bits of broken ski. Tam Fyshe, another in the same race, froze both ears and laid his head open in collision with a tree. The winner was George Jost. Time: 15 minutes, 10 seconds. Within six years the great Louis Cochand of Ste. Marguerite had lowered that record to 3 minutes, 40 seconds. Today's record is 2 minutes 38 seconds, held by Guy Peri Hat of France, and there were I 15 entrants in the Kandahar last winter.
Some old-timers, mourning the days of cross-country skiing when the Maple Leaf Trail in the Laurentians ran all the way from Nantel to Shawbridge, 80 miles away, will tell you that the tows and chairlifts have made sissies out ol the skiers of today. This is a debatable point. In the early Thirties it would have been a hardy soul who'd climb Mont Tremblant and ski back down the 2'/2-mile Kandahar run more than once in a day. Today it's commonplace to T fifteen or sixteen runs from the summ That's the kind of pace that appeals a skier's insatiable greed for speed.
His greed for fresh snow is equally insatiable, and that too can be fed by new machinery. Snow-making machines can lay a light covering of frozen spray on any hill where the temperature is
below 28 degrees Fahrenheit, a weather condition that extends much farther south than reliable natural snowfall. Thus snow machines have helped to spread the ski epidemic. Places as far south as Washington, D.C., now have thriving ski clubs whose members, soon frustrated by the small artificial slopes near home, head north on winter vacations and swell the throngs in the Laurentians.
But even in frostbound Canada, snow machines are worth while. John Clifford, whose terrain at Camp Fortune has a normal snow cover of three to four feet in February, thought it wise to invest in machines in order to guarantee his season-ticket-holders a long winter's skiing. A similar machine at the Don Valley Ski Centre in the Toronto metropolitan area often provides the only snow there is in southern Ontario. This is all part of the growth that must go on. if ski-resort operators are to stay in business and recover their massive investment.
There's even plastic snow
To make sure the expansion continues, the addicts of today are promoting children’s skiing, with resounding success. In the Ottawa Ski Club, for example, junior memberships cost only $2 and season tow tickets are half price. The local Kiwanis Club provides free buses, the Ottawa Citizen free instruction, the city’s recreation department free ski slopes for those who can’t or won't join the club. (Anyone who pays his fee can join.) In Vancouver the two daily newspapers, the Sun and the Province. compete with each other in offering free ski lessons. Elsewhere the YMCA and Canadian Youth Hostels Association get youngsters out on the hills for as little as $2 for a day trip, $10 a weekend.
Other and stranger gimmicks are contrived to tickle the fancy of those already infected wfith the ski bug. One company in the U.S. recently demonstrated a chemically made "snow''' for off-season skiing. A similar experiment wfith plastic “snow” w-as tried in Italy last year, and Sun Valley Suisse in the Laurentians has tried summer skiing with w'heeled skis, something like roller skates.
Last year a German skier set a speed record, more than 100 miles an hour, by wearing a streamlined hood over his head and body. Another European ski designer claims fantastic speeds for a ski that has a scoop or funnel just ahead of boot and binding, W'hich funnels air through the ski and lifts the skier off
the surface of the snow'. Conservatives think these devices are mere fads, but even with conventional equipment skiing speeds have become spectacularly high. They have to be, to keep the expert excited.
Most skiers are content with more ordinary velocities, but the difference is one of degree only. They all like to go faster than common sense would allow. Once a raw beginner took off. to the horror of a professional instructor who saw him, down one of the steepest of Mont Trembiant's formidable trails. At something close to 50 miles an hour he tried to make a sharp turn, failed, disappeared into the trees in a cloud of spume and flailing poles and skis. But when they dug him out and found to their astonishment that he had broken no bones, the instructor had a hard time dissuading him from making a second try immediately.
That’s the lunatic spirit that keeps the ski hills crowded all winter, and the resort operators have no real doubt that it will continue to spread. The big problem they see in the future will be to find enough hills to hold all the skiers. "We’re going to be swamped.” says Ernie McCulloch of Mont Tremblant.
Already, hour-long waits at the foot of the lifts are common. John Clifford expects the Ottawa Ski Club to double, to 20,000, within the next ten years, "and then,” he says, “our slopes will really be filled up.” Anticipating that growth, two other Ottawa skiers. Art Tommy and Reg Lefebvre, are starting a new ski terrain on the other side of the Gatineau Valley. Jozo Weider expects an increase of 500 percent in the ski population of Collingwood by 1970. Western ski centres are beginning to perk up—Banff and Lake Louise are putting in some new lifts, and four places in British Columbia are hoping to have fully developed ski areas where now there is empty wilderness. The expansion ought to pay off. because already Canadians are flying all the way to Switzerland and Austria to ski in the Alps — about twenty North American charter flights are planned this winter, four of them Canadian.
But with all these facts we still haven't answered the question we started with: Why? Maybe the best answer was given by Herb Elliott, the lanky, laconic world-champion miler from Australia. Visiting Toronto recently, he was taken to Osier Bluff to see what skiing is like. After his tenth fall on one run, Elliott lifted a snow-crusted face to his somewhat worried host and said, “Cripes, I’ve never had so much fun.” tAr