Deep in the West Kootenays of British Columbia, surrounded by some of the best backcountry zones in the world, lies Salmo Ski Hill. A volunteer-run operation that has been introducing families to winter sports for over 60 years. The story of this ‘little ski hill that could’ is an admirable example of what is possible when people rally around a great idea.
By Zach Aller | Photos Aaron Blatt
Wally Huser is a born-and-raised Salmo local, for as long as he can remember his life has revolved around the ski hill. Wally lives and breathes this little hamlet just like his father Joe, now 99, who emigrated here from Switzerland in the early '50s to raise his family of three boys and two girls. A rock-solid skier inspired by the surrounding peaks, Joe was a visionary and played an important role in the ski hill’s early development. The three active mines close to town brought with them an influx of young men, most of whom shared a passion for skiing. With its 640 metre elevation and proximity to some of the bigger passes in the area, the town of Salmo was prone to abundant snowfall, as cold air swept up the valley it left behind the dry fluffy snow Interior BC is still known for. Joe gathered miners, doctors, farmers, and entrepreneurs and convinced them this was the perfect place for a ski hill.
A lease was negotiated for a parcel of crown land and the work began. Farmers mapped out the best terrain for trails and miners excavated and built the wooden T-bar towers. Wally recalls working with his dad, repurposing an old Chevrolet engine into a rope tow and forging heavy-duty steel into T-bar handles. “The lift was 100 per cent homemade and ran for over 10 years,” he says proudly. Salmo Ski Hill opened in 1962 and has been run by the Husers ever since.
As a true Jack of all trades, Wally runs an excavation business in the summer, dedicating the rest of his time to the ski hill. From learning the ropes as a lifty and mechanic in his early days to becoming vice president of the Ski Society Association in 1976 and then president in 1998. Wally’s love for his community and passion for winter activities is undeniable. If he’s not at the hill, he’s hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, curling or having a pint at the local pub. “If you’re bored in Salmo, it’s your own damn fault,” he says. “You couldn’t drag me out of here, man!”
With its humble 340 metres of vertical, Salmo Ski Hill boasts just four runs. It operates on Kootenay time, meaning you shouldn’t expect to get first tracks by 8:30 a.m. (keeners take note). When reaching the top, you’ll likely get a courteous nod from a long-haired lifty kicking back in the toasty wood-fired cabin. With views of the valley, friendly staff, night-skiing and a surprisingly wide variety of terrain to shred including a ditch pipe stacked with sneaky side hits, Salmo Ski Hill is an off-the-beaten-path gem deeply engrained in the fabric of its community.
Now in his mid-sixties, Wally has taken a step back in recent years to let his son Levi head up the operation—the third generation of Husers to dutifully volunteer their hard work and time all in the name of getting people on snow.
SALMO TRUE AND TRUE
There is a vibe to Salmo that just hits different. It has resisted the pressures of time, managing to stay true to its roots. Many things have changed since the early days, but Salmo’s mission remains intact, enabling young families to have fun on snow for as cheap as possible. “If a family comes here and wants to ski, I’ll make sure they ski,” Wally says. At Salmo Ski Hill, $35 will get you a three-hour lesson, rental gear and a lift ticket. Income and social status don’t matter here, seeing customers smile after slashing some fresh or learning their first turns is the only currency exchanged for the hard-working patrollers, instructors, cat drivers and administrators. That’s just the way it’s always been.
However, operating a ski hill with 100 per cent natural snow and lift tickets at pre-inflationary prices comes with its challenges. In recent years, they’ve seen their operating and insurance costs skyrocket and have had difficulty recruiting new staff. More regulations mean they constantly need to stay up to date on certifications and recertifications to keep the lift running. “It’s not as simple as it used to be. Everything is more complicated now.” Nonetheless, they’ve navigated their way through it and recently had their best two seasons to date. When asked how they pulled it off, Wally says, “This isn’t a business, it never has been. We are here for the community, and when we need help, the community is here for us.”
Wally has noticed an uptick in snowboarding which has brought them to grow their rental fleet and even consider putting in a small snowpark. When the crew from Tribute Boardshop in nearby Nelson approached them last fall with an idea for a grassroots banked slalom event called Turning Man, Wally admits he was a little worried about being able to pull it off with their small staff. He’s got nothing against ‘boarders, as an early adopter of Burton’s Backhill board with twin fins admitting, “I couldn’t get the damn thing to steer straight!” Wally ended up back on skis. But with some convincing, they agreed to hold Salmo’s first-ever snowboard “race” this past February. The course was hand-dug by Tribute’s crew and took a week to build. It ran through the ditch pipe with steep, flowy berms, and bumps. Designed to be inclusive of all skill levels. Snowboarding royalty secretly descended from Baldface Lodge to stretch their legs before Natural Selection. Travis Rice, The Ferguson brothers, Blake Paul, Jared Elston, Marion Harty and Hannah Beaman blasted through the gates, putting on a show for Salmo. “The best banked slalom course I’ve ridden in years,” Travis Rice was overheard saying.
Shane Johnsen, co-owner of Tribute Boardshop and loyal Salmo shredder for over 20 years, remembers Wally asking them to be at the hill at 6 a.m. the morning after the event to gather the gates and fencing before opening. “Obviously we agreed to go no questions asked because Salmo’s always accepted snowboarders and we wanted to leave a good impression.” But not long after Shane said he’d be there, Wally texted him back not to bother. “Turns out they’d already done everything!” Shane recalls. When I brought this up to him, Wally chuckled and said, “I just wanted to see if they’d show up.”
Because that’s what it’s all about. Show up for your community, and your community will show up for you.
Visit www.turningman.ca for info on this year's event