The Inaugural Big Land Banked Slalom April 27, 2018 – Posted in: News, Photos

Words and photos by Alex Henniffent

On Saturday, April 21st, we hosted the inaugural Big Land Banked Slalom at Smokey Mountain. For the past three years, VOLTFUSE has been sponsoring various different events up at Smokey – of which, things on our end had never lined up properly to physically attend. This winter, however, I had made it a personal priority to make the pilgrimage up to Labrador in search for the “Smokey Mountain experience.”

It was set, we were going to host the first-ever banked slalom event in Labrador – and make it a damn good one, too. Appropriately so, the event was going to be called the Big Land Banked Slalom.

Getting there

Initially, the plan was to compile a crew of five members, throw them into a semi-reliable vehicle, and then voyage through and along the island of Newfoundland, then catching a ferry up to Labrador, which was often referred to as the “big land” – hence the name of the event.

According to Google maps, the voyage would have been somewhere within the 1,700 kilometer range, equaling to around 23 hours of driving time. Despite the warnings and the surprised looks that we received towards driving the Trans-Labrador Highway during the spring, we were going to go for it.

On the day prior to our departure, with a vehicle fully packed and loaded, I received word that the highways in Labrador were closed. The thing is, the Trans-Labrador “Highway” consists of mostly gravel roadway, meaning that when the spring thaw comes and the temperatures begin to rise, the highway becomes very muddy with lots of flowing water, making it incredibly unpredictable. With the highway being closed and the forecast showing warm temperatures for the next week, it was ruled that it would be too risky to drive up.

Consequently, with the drive being brought to an abrupt halt and the alternative means of making it to Smokey Mountain being either too expensive, too long, or plagued with uncertainty, the search for the “Smokey Mountain experience” ended up being a one-man pursuit, just me. Therefore, I booked a last-minute ticket on one of Air Canada’s under-sized and grossly over-priced planes, and off I went.

A History Lesson

A view of the closed Wabush mine from the peak of Smokey Mountain.

To help paint a picture, I feel that it’s necessary to provide a bit of context around the history of Smokey Mountain and how it came to be.

Remotely located along the border between Western Labrador and Northern Quebec, lies Atlantic Canada’s best kept secret – Smokey Mountain Ski Club. A legendary ski resort that has existed and remained undiscovered by many since the early ’60s, with rumors of old folk skiing the mountain even earlier than that.

The formal establishment of Smokey Mountain came to be when the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) attained the rights to extract minerals from the iron-rich grounds of western Labrador. With this, a huge demand for employment came to be, which then lead to the establishment of Labrador City, Wabush, and Fermont – three towns that were (and continue to be) at the center of the mining sector in the region.

In an effort to offer something recreational for its employees to keep busy with when not working, IOC built Smokey Mountain in 1961. A lift-accessed ski hill that was located just a short five-minute drive up the road from where all of the mining activity was taking place.

Servicing the mountain is a double chairlift and two French-made Poma lifts that originate from the ‘60s. I was told that each of these lifts were “mechanically enhanced” back in the ’70s by German engineers who were living in the area at the time. Though it may seem to only exist at a local level, Smokey Mountain has very much been shaped into what it is today by international influence over the years.

With over 30 hectares of skiable terrain and an impressive 845 meters of vertical elevation, Smokey offers a diverse product that continuously changes as the winter progresses. Its steep walls, open faces, and flowy tree runs make Smokey Mountain ideal for its many powder days, but it is also home to an emerging new park scene.

The locals boast Smokey Mountain as having the longest ski season in all of Atlantic Canada (and perhaps the entire east coast); along with taking pride in the fact that their seemingly private ski hill holds zero dependency on snowmaking equipment. In other words – it dumps. A lot. And the relatively small number of people who choose to make use of this local resource and its prestigious winters know just how fortunate they are to have it in their backyard – all to themselves.

Like the other ski resorts within Newfoundland and Labrador, Smokey’s biggest threat – low skier and snowboarder visits – exists to be its strongest competitive advantage. Meaning each operational day consists of lots of runs with no lift line-ups.

Arriving into Labrador

Originally, the plan was for the crew and myself to arrive in Labrador a few days prior to the event to help out with building the course. Given the change of plans, I didn’t arrive in Labrador City until Friday afternoon, the day before the event.

Once my flight landed, I made my way up to Smokey to get a first look at the mountain and help out with the course. Upon arriving, I was warmly welcomed by a handful of die-hard, Smokey locals who informed me that the course was already completed. Surprisingly, none of them had ever built a banked slalom course before – and damn, they killed it! The course was perfect, and with that being done and out of the way, the guys encouraged me to throw on my boots and they were going to show me around the mountain.

The rusted out Poma lift that propelled us to the peak.

I was told that today wasn’t actually an operational day, so we would be running the lift just for us, truly having the mountain all to ourselves. To further add to the “Smokey Mountain experience,” there were no lift operators, meaning that we would be manually “launching” each other on one of those old Poma lifts that I had mentioned earlier. Crazy talk when comparing the operational procedures to the ski hills that I had been used to. Haha, I love it. These guys are doing it right.

To make things even better, two days prior to my arrival, Smokey had been nailed with over 40 cm of dry, crisp, April powder. Undeniably a spring treat, but definitely not unheard of for Smokey Mountain, I was told.

Once I had wrapped my head around how to ride up this weird disk-shaped ski lift and reached the top of the mountain, I waited for the others. We crewed up – about 6 or 7 of us, both snowboarders and skiers, of all ages – and began cruising around the vacant mountain that had been blanketed with untouched April powder. We repeated this process until the sun went down, and then headed into the old lodge for a few beers.

That’s one thing that I found especially interesting about the people at Smokey Mountain – they truly are a family. Conversely, I thought it was a small, close-knit community back at the two ski resorts in Newfoundland… no way – not compared to up here. Regardless of an individual’s chosen means of getting down the hill, their age, or where they reside from, everyone unites together to simply enjoy the mountain and each other’s presence… unless the topic of the on-going IOC strike comes up – in which case, you may hear a few curse words getting tossed around.

Race day

On the next day, we hosted the Big Land Banked Slalom, which was also Smokey Mountain’s last operational day of the 2017/18 season. We had 45 participants take to the course to set their best time. Based on the relatively small number of skiers and snowboarders in the area, I was told that this was a respectable turnout, especially with this being the first year for the event. With multiple different age categories for both skiers and snowboarders, everyone was welcome to participate.

At the end of the day, the final winners and their respective times were as follows:

Loic MichaudSki19 + and Overall Fastest26.02 s
Robert KuneSki11 - 1827.03 s
Theo FlemmingSkiUnder 1036.05 s
Liam GallopSnowboard19 +29.47 s
Justin TetfordSnowboard11 - 1831.27 s
Elizabeth LavoieSnowboardUnder 1037.47 s

It just so happened that Smokey was also hosting its annual slush cup on the same day as our banked slalom, meaning participants could “keep ‘er pinned” immediately after their slalom run, right down into the slush pit. The slush pit itself was located on an actual pond at the base of the mountain, adding in that extra degree of risk. Again, the “Smokey Mountain experience” didn’t disappoint.

After the day’s festivities, everyone gathered into the lodge to hear the announcement of the winners, enjoy a steak barbequed on the interior open-face grill, and begin kicking off Smokey’s après-ski ritual. The evening carried on into the night with karaoke, the exchanging of lies, and lots of beer.

The last time these lifts will ever turn

A group of Smokey locals lining up for one final ride up on their old chairlift.

Not only was this the last weekend of skiing and riding on Smokey Mountain for the season, but this year was uniquely special. There are some serious changes set to take place between now and next year for Smokey Mountain.

IOC, the economic backbone of Labrador West, has recently attained the rights to expand its mining operations in the area, which coincidentally take place on the opposite side of Smokey Mountain. As a result of the scaled operation, IOC is required to slightly alter the location of Smokey Mountain. This means that the ski lifts that have been an integral part of this mountain for nearly the past 60 years will have to be dismantled and removed.

Although IOC is footing the bill and giving Smokey Mountain three brand new ski lifts to replace the old ones, I was told that the old lifts were some of the last few nostalgic things that existed within Labrador West. In which case, you can certainly see how these changes could drum up some emotion amongst those who have been skiing and riding this mountain their entire lives.

As such, on Sunday, the final day of my trip in Labrador, the “executive team” at Smokey vowed to turn the chairs for one final day before saying goodbye to their beloved, ‘60s-era ski lifts for good. Although the mountain wasn’t open to the public, it attracted many of the same familiar faces that it did throughout the winter, including both its loyal pass holders and its committed employees.

Truthfully, you couldn’t ask for any better of a closing day. Warm temperatures, clear skies, no wind, lots of snow, and a gathering of great people. The day commenced with logging as many runs as we possibly could, while consuming our fair share of beer in between.

As the end of the day approached, Toby Leon and Liam Gallop – the president and vice-president of Smokey Mountain – surfaced from behind the bar with multiple bottles of expensive champagne. They told me that it was another Smokey Mountain ritual to pop bottles of champagne on the peak of the mountain in celebration of another great season. Not only that, but this year it was also going to be in tribute of bidding farewell to their old ski lifts.

At this point, I’m in the midst of complete culture shock. Shit, these Labradorian folk and their bold commitment to their small mountain, while making the absolute most of it, just continue to amaze me.

As we began to reach the peak of the mountain for our final run, it struck me that there was a handful of older gentleman that had been skiing and riding continuously throughout the entire day, and had also came up for the farewell toast. Once I got to the peak, I made a point of introducing myself to a few of them and hearing about their “Smokey Mountain experiences.”

Smokey Veterans, Ray Sharpe and Colin MacDonald.

One person in particular who I had the gracious privilege of meeting, was 77-year old Ray Sharpe. He told me that he was one of the first skiers to ever come down this legendary mountain back in 1961 when it was first established. Over the years, and up until today, Ray has continued to ski this mountain, seeing people come and go, along with seeing the mountain itself change over time. I could only imagine the fond memories this gentleman must have collected on this mountain, along with the emotions that he must have felt when riding up that old, double-chair lift for one final time.

After the bottles were popped and some nostalgic reminiscing was done, we all descended down the mountain to complete our final run. Looking back, it was quite possibly the best run of the weekend, or perhaps it was the significant history that was being brought down with us that was beginning to sink in – either way; it was a great way to end my weekend in Labrador.

Until next time

For many, Labrador is typically known for its subarctic winter temperatures, being a polar bear habitat, and its rich natural resources. However, I’ll now immediately think of the great people who reside there and the Legendary Smokey Mountain. Thankfully undiscovered by many, yet known by those who are meant to be there and choose to look for it, Smokey Mountain’s distinctive offerings remain to be preciously preserved.

I’ve heard many people say it over the years, and now having personally been there to conduct my own interpretation – I’m confident in saying that Smokey Mountain is the best little ski resort in all of Canada. Biased and uninformed, I know, but I’m sticking to it.

It would be foolish for me to try and thank each person individually, as everyone at Smokey Mountain was responsible for making this year’s event such a great turnout. From the Smokey Mountain management team and all of those who had helped build the course, to the participants and those that hung out in the lodge afterwards, thank you.

For those that didn’t make it, don’t fret – the Big Land Banked Slalom will be back again next year, bigger and better!