Mountain rescue team celebrates 40 years of volunteer service

Bart DeFreitas recounts how volunteers have stepped up to build ski clubs and develop and serve as rescue teams in the Terrace area.

Volunteer ski patroller overlooks the valley from Shames Mountain.

By Bart DeFreitas

It was a fairly typical winter day in the mid-1950s on Mr. Lipp’s farmland in Old Remo that a young boy’s life was saved thanks to the quick actions of a volunteer responsible for helping prevent injuries and responding to emergencies. Mr. Lipp’s farm was the location of the second downhill ski area in the Terrace region that had a mechanical rope tow and was built by community members to provide a family friendly winter activity.

Marion Clift recalls picking up a load of kids with her husband Ev in their panel truck every Sunday morning to take them to the Old Remo hill for skiing, toboggan rides, and hot cocoa in an old building that was donated by the town and served as the warming hut. On one of these weekend adventures, 12 year old Paul Richardson’s long scarf got caught in the tow rope and kept tightening around his neck as he was pulled towards the unprotected motor.

Fortunately, young Paul was saved from chocking or being pulled into the motor by someone that accepted the job of looking out for other people’s safety and stopped the motor before serious harm happened.

Community members coming together to build downhill ski areas for the use and benefit of families, and helping users of these areas be safe and healthy during outdoor play is a story that has repeated itself in many locations in northwest BC and across Canada.

In the Terrace and Kitimat region alone, downhill ski areas with mechanical tow ropes were built in locations that included the golf course in Thornhill, on Mr. Lipp’s farm in Old Remo, at Bornite Mountain near Kleanza Creek, on the bench in the City of Terrace, across the highway from the Mount Layton Hotsprings, in downtown Kitimat, and on Kitsumkalum Mountain and Shames Mountain west of Terrace.

Volunteers and paid staff that focus on the wellbeing of others while they ski and play at downhill or nordic ski areas are called ski patrollers. Today, nearly all volunteer ski patrollers in Canada are members of a national not-for-profit charitable organization called the Canadian Ski Patrol.

The Canadian Ski Patrol was formally incorporated in 1962 but its origins go back twenty years earlier, when the Canadian Amateur Ski Association asked Dr. Douglas Firth, a doctor of osteopathic medicine, to organize and train a first aid rescue group to patrol ski hills in the Toronto and Montreal areas. The dramatic increase in the popularity of skiing as a family sport in the decades following World War II saw the national organization grow from 1,000 to nearly 5,000 patrollers and expand into east, west and central Canada.

Today, the Canadian Ski Patrol comprises over 4,200 volunteers from coast to coast that receive annual training in advanced first aid, accident scene management and mountain rescue techniques in order to provide first aid services at 230 alpine and nordic ski areas in all ten provinces and the Yukon territory.

While young Paul’s rescue at Mr. Lipp’s farm in Old Remo is possibly the first recorded account of a volunteer ski patroller in action in the Terrace region, this type of mountain rescue service has continued into modern times. At the Northern Heights Ski Hill, which was located on Terrace’s birch bench near Cedar Crescent and developed by entrepreneur William (Bill) Little, an ambulance attendant named Guy Rushton volunteered his time to assist injured skiers while the hill was in operation from 1968 to 1972.

In the year following the closure of Bill Little’s ski hill, Guy and eight other ski enthusiasts in the community founded the Kitsumkalum Development Society to promote the interest of skiers in the region and undertake the development and operation of a downhill ski area on the north side of Kitsumkalum Mountain near Terrace. Armed with a strong determination and supported by the population living in the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, the Kitsumkalum Development Society helped lead the initial development of the Kitsumkalum Mountain Ski Area by clearing trees from main runs and setting up a tow rope in fall 1974, and then operating the tow rope that winter to generate skier interest.

When Kitsumkalum Mountain Ski Area officially opened on December 6, 1975, under the ownership of the regional district, it was the volunteers from the Kitsumkalum Development Society that helped form the first Canadian Ski Patrol team in the Terrace region by coordinating training and providing patrollers with uniforms and first aid kits. They also helped form the Kitsumkalum Ski Club to develop youth athletes and started the tradition of hosting an annual ski swap each fall so that well-priced new and lightly used ski equipment could be purchased by both avid skiers and those new to the sport. These ski swaps also helped generate much needed operational funds to advance the community service goals of the volunteer ski patrol and the ski club.

Under the initial leadership of Arnold Smith, followed by Bob Peg and Dan Morrison, the volunteer ski patrol team at Kitsumkalum Mountain continued the tradition of promoting injury prevention and assisting hurt skiers until the area closed in 1988 due to financial challenges from several years of poor snow conditions that suppressed skier visits. When they weren’t providing their services at Kitsumkalum Mountain on weekends and holidays, the volunteer patrollers participated in regional first aid competitions and mountain rescue training events at other hills such as Mount Hays in Prince Rupert and Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers.

In 1990, all major infrastructure at Kitsumkalum Mountain Ski Area, including the chairlift, tow rope, T-bar lift, day lodge and maintenance building was moved and set up again at Shames Mountain west of Terrace. This infrastructure was purchased from the regional district by the Shames Mountain Ski Corporation which had formed four years prior to develop a new ski area for the use and benefit of families.

When Shames Mountain opened its doors to the public on December 15, 1990, the volunteer Canadian Ski Patrol team was there to do what they do best: focus on the wellbeing of skiers and snowboarders playing on the hill. Leadership of the volunteer team during this time was delivered by ambulance attendant Barry Franzmann and the membership included ski patrollers from Mount Hays, which was struggling to stay open due to poor snow conditions.

The Canadian Ski Patrol team and the renamed Shames Mountain Ski Club continued to work together both on and off the hill. Ski patrol provided additional volunteers to support the ski club’s youth development and competitive events and both organizations co-hosted the annual ski swap each fall to connect buyers and sellers of high quality new and lightly used winter gear and clothing.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Canadian Ski Patrol in the Terrace region, their partnership with the Shames Mountain Ski and Snowboard Club and the annual ski swap that both organizations host as a service to the community. This year’s ski swap, which has grown to be northwest BC’s largest discount sale of new and lightly used winter gear and clothing, will be at Kitsumkalum Community Hall on November 14 from 10am to 1pm. For more info, visit www.winterextreme.com/skeena.

Each fall volunteer patrollers undergo advanced first aid and mountain rescue training so members are prepared to manage an accident scene, assist injured outdoor enthusiasts, and help prevent serious harm from happening in the first place, just like what happened on Mr. Lipp’s farm in Old Remo on a typical winter day in the mid-1950s.

Bart DeFreitas is the Zone President for the Canadian Ski Patrol Skeena Zone and a Project Manager with engineering and environmental consulting firm Golder Associates Ltd.