Some folks will go to any length to ski. Take the Valley Ski Club in Castor, Alberta. Initially, its founders skied the coulees around Castor Creek. When they grew tired of walking back up the 20-foot coulee-banks, they’d go skijoring or being pulled behind their cars. Astonishingly, the snowfall here can be as modest as the vertical. Yet The Valley draws over 10,000 skiers a year to slopes that barely top 160 vertical feet. How do they do it? Good question.
Valley Ski Club
Outdoor Winter Fun Everyone Can Bank On
Community Ski Areas: Stories from The Heartland of Canadian Skiing is an on-going series that looks at the often small and remote ski areas where most Canadians learned to ski and now share their passion for the sport with their children and grandchildren.
Lift-served Skiing Arrives In Castor
Brothers Herb, Lawrence and Dudley Zinger were avid skiers who’d tackle almost anything. This usually meant making two turns from Herb’s back door down to Castor Creek. In 1945, while exploring Mount Norquay, they discovered a rope tow. After carefully studying its construction, they returned home with two thoughts in mind: find a bigger slope and build a ski lift. Says club volunteer Penny Lindballe, “They found this other coulee (a stream that feeds into a creek) that belonged to Mr. Hatherly.” With Hatherly’s permission, they cleared the land, built a chalet and erected a rope tow, powered by a 1927 Chevy truck motor. They named their 90-vertical-foot ski slope Hatherly Valley. Lift-served skiing had arrived in Castor.
Alfred Engel (left) and Lawrence Zinger.
Skiing In The Valley Takes Off At The Valley
Two years later, Herb and his sister-in-law, Alpha Unger founded The Valley Ski Club. Their dream was to bring skiers together, promote skiing in the area, and charter the occasional trip to Sunshine. The first year, they sold seven membership cards at three dollars apiece. The idea was to present the ID cards to local merchants in the hope of getting discounts on construction materials. The following year, memberships more than tripled and The Valley attracted even more skiers. Then in 1953, Herb opened a ski school after he’d obtained his Level 2 CSIA Certification in Banff. The chalet was also expanded and the original rope tow was moved and replaced by a T-bar. Skiing was taking off in Central Alberta.
The Move To Snowier Pastures
Skiers from far and wide were flocking to The Valley often bringing their families. Says Ross, “we have many small towns in our area, and it’s almost easier to say that we serve counties as opposed to individual towns or villages.” Those counties include Paintearth, Flagstaff, Special Area 4, Wainwright and Stettler. By the early 1960s, it was becoming apparent that the ski club had outgrown Hatherly Valley. The time had come to find for an even bigger hill, preferably close to a main highway and near a large town. In 1962, the club settled on The Valley’s present location in the Battle River Valley, three miles from Alliance. Population: 291. What they didn’t fully realize at the time was just how invaluable their new location’s close proximity to the Battle River would prove to be.
Triumph and then Disaster
The following decade saw the club build a new lodge and install a state-of-the-art T-bar. And in 1972, they brought in the ski patrol. By then, it was becoming evident that they needed more consistent and longer lasting snow. In 1976, The Valley installed its first water lines and invested in some snowmaking equipment. Making all that snow soon made it clear that they could also use more professional grooming. In 1985, the club raised enough money to buy a proper grooming machine. Everything was running smoothly until 1989, when a major fire destroyed the chalet and, with it, the club’s dream of buying a chairlift. Once again, everyone rolled up their sleeves, chipped in and built a new, bigger and even better lodge.
“Our hill, our club has been in existence long enough that we have grandparents coming back with their children, their grandchildren and their great grandchildren. And everybody just gets out there and gets some fresh air and enjoys the day having fun doing a sport together in the middle of winter.”
– Ross Vincett, Member of The Valley Ski Club Board of Directors
Disaster and then Triumph
Disaster struck again in 1997, when part of the ski slope was washed away by the spring thaw. “Luckily,” says Ross, “the oil business was good back then and there were lots of construction companies around.” A crew brought in their heavy equipment and helped the club reclaim their ski slope only to have it wash away again the following spring. This pattern continued until recently when, Ross says, “we had fairly sympathetic county councils that came on board. They said, ‘Let’s get professional here.’ We got some government grants, drew up a plan together and brought in a construction company do a proper fix.” The stabilized slope has seen skiers return. En masse. Last spring, they all chipped in and raised over $150,000 to buy a new (new for The Valley) groomer.
Photo caption to come.
Onward And Upward
The Valley has been equally adept at helping develop skiers. Hannah Chilson was in a car accident when she was four. Says Ross, “one of our instructors got other people to come and help Hannah sit ski.” The club got her a sit ski and enrolled her in the Nancy Greene program. Says Ross, “We always included her because that was the best way for her to get mileage in her chair. And she just got better and better.” Hannah got so good that, after training with Rocky Mountain Adaptive at Sunshine, she won silver and gold in the 2019 Canada Winter Games. She now sits poised to become a Canadian Paralympian. Meanwhile The Valley still uses her old gear to introduce sit skiing to other disabled children. “And boy,” Ross exclaims, “do they ever have fun!”
No, you can’t top that!