Left: Jozo Weider and Bill Skelton shake on it while Ernie McCulloch looks on, circa 1969. Blue Mountain at 75. CSHFM Collection.

Excellence on the Escarpment

Small vertical, big results: A 750-foot-high ridge in Ontario has spawned many of Canada’s champions

Name: Jozo Weider, Ian “Buck” Rogers, Judy Crawford, Diana Gibson, Steve Podborski, Todd Brooker, Laurie Graham, Karen Stemmle, Brian Stemmle, Aly Nullmeyer, Larisa Yurkiw, Erin Mielzynski, Candace Crawford, Jack Crawford
Affiliated Discipline(s): Alpine

Canadian marketers call it the Blue Mountains but locals know it as the escarpment—a rim overlooking Georgian Bay, a geological landmark of Southern Ontario with a vertical drop of 750 feet and a 2.5-mile-long strip of steep ski runs that have produced some of the world’s greatest ski racers: 1980 Olympic bronze medalist Steve Podborski; four-time Olympian Brian Stemmle; three-time World Cup downhill winner Todd Brooker; and six-time World Cup ace Laurie Graham. An impressive number of Canada’s top competitors spent their formative winters along this ridge: riding tows, dancing through gates, schussing icy chutes.

This feature story was authored by ski writer Lori Knowles, as part of the Canadian Ski History Writers Project, funded by the Chawkers Foundation of Canada through a grant to the Canadian Ski Museum. To read the original story please see HERE.

Call of the fox

It started in the early 20th century with an intrepid group of men and women wearing laced boots and gabardine suits. Recognizing the potential of a snowy escarpment 160 kilometers north of Toronto near Collingwood, the Toronto and Blue Mountain ski clubs made their mark. Through the 1920s and ’30s they built ski jumps and cut runs. History books say a fox-hunting trumpet called skiers to the slopes; horses hitched to sleighs carried them to the runs. Pioneers transformed farm houses into clubhouses, and used old Buick motors to power tows. In 1935 they hired Fritz Loosli, a Swiss immigrant, to head the show. His inventive sleigh/cable contraption carried 9 people and their skis up the escarpment at a time. Five years later, Jackrabbit Johannsen was paid the princely sum of $100 to survey the escarpment’s terrain and create a development plan.

Jozo Weider ski instructing in Quebec, 1940, just prior to acquiring Blue Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of BMR.Jozo Weider ski instructing in Quebec, 1940, just prior to acquiring Blue Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of BMR. 

The Jozo Effect

Then, in 1940, the Canadian National Railway (CNR) caught the bug. A special train was commissioned to leave Toronto’s Union Station every winter Sunday, reaching Collingwood by 11 a.m.. Maurice Margesson set up a ski shop in a baggage car to show off the latest fashion: lederhosen, snowflake ski sweaters, tapered tweeds. Ski racing flourished, of course. Sticks gathered from the Canadian “bush” served as slalom poles, and downhills snaked perilously through naked hardwoods. Jozo Weider arrived in 1941, a Slovakian skier with determination, ingenuity and charm. His perseverance in building Blue Mountain paid off. Through the next two decades the escarpment was lined with lucrative ski areas, one public: Blue Mountain; three private: Osler Bluff, Craigleith, and Alpine, plus Georgian Peaks, which was established in 1960 by Toronto lawyer Ian “Buck” Rogers, and has operated as both a public and private facility.

It’s little wonder that from this elbow-grease generation, a next generation of impressive ski racers emerged. Weaned on wartime innovation and unafraid of hard work, their parents pushed up their sleeves and got to it: cutting slalom poles, sewing flags, becoming gatekeepers, bootpacking courses so kids could race. To keep things interesting on small hills that lacked powder, extended pitches and glades, through the 1950s club racing grew strong: slalom, GS, even downhill. The Canadian Junior Ski Championships were held at Osler Bluff Ski Club in 1959. Its winner was Elizabeth Greene from Rossland, BC. Her sister Nancy, 15—who would go on to win the first overall women’s World Cup in 1967—placed eighth even though she dislocated her shoulder on the piste.

Judy Crawford – Dancing with the Stars

With 10,000 spectators and coverage in The New York Times, gigs like the Bee Hive races – ski racing events with cash prizes sponsored by Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup – enticed competitive participants and made ski racing glam. A slew of Canadian success stories followed: scrappy escarpment kids in tall toques and puffy jackets and skinny racing pants. Among the first was Graham Hess, a Craigleith kid who was named to Canada’s national ski team at age 14 in 1964. Georgian Peaks’ Diana Gibson finished third (combined) in the U.S. National Alpine Championships in 1969. Perhaps the greatest achievement of that era on the escarpment was by Georgian Peaks’ skier Judy Crawford who placed fourth in women’s slalom at the Olympic Winter Games in Sapporo in 1972 and then garnered 23 top 10 finishes on the World Cup the next season. Indeed, 1973 was a memorable year for escarpment racers. In midwinter Bob Beattie’s 100s Grand Prix steamed into Southern Ontario, a pro tour promoted by Benson & Hedges that boasted $400,000 in prize money and big names such as Jean-Claude Killy and Vladimir “Spider” Sabich, who had movie star Claudine Longet in tow.

Judy Crawford

Judy Crawford competed in World Cup events from 1969-1973, scoring 23 top 10 finishes, including a third in Grindelwald in 1973. CSHFM Collection.

Todd BrookerTodd Brooker. Courtesy Alpine Canada Alpin.

Crazy Canucks hotbed

In those days, local Craigleith racer Steve Podborski was gathering steam as well. As a Crazy Canuck, “Pod” joined Ken Read, Dave Irwin, and Dave Murray as they blazed across Europe in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Podborski was the first North American male to win an Olympic medal in downhill, a bronze in 1980 at Lake Placid; in 1982 he was the first North American crowned World Cup downhill champion. (For more on the Crazy Canucks, see The Untold (and Told) Crazy Canucks Stories). Pod was joined on the Crazy Canuck squad by Todd Brooker, a neighbour from Blue Mountain’s Toronto Ski Club. Brooker’s list of wins is long, perhaps none quite so spectacular as his World Cup victory on Kitzbühel’s Hahnenkamm in 1983. Brooker attributes a large part of his success to the coaching at escarpment ski clubs.

“Skiing as a kid on the escarpment and then making it to the Olympics is the equivalent of playing soccer with a ball made of rags in a barrio and getting to soccer’s World Cup. It’s unlikely, but it’s also an affirmation that the foundation of sport is play, and you can play with the best along the escarpment.” – Steve Podborski

Champions emerge

The TSC hired top European coaches – like Rudi Hiegelsberger from Austria – because they felt they had more experience. Rudi always talked about famous World Cup racers from Europe, the World Cup sites, the various courses; he was filled with fascinating stories. Next, from Osler Bluff came Laurie Graham, one of the most consistent downhillers Canada has ever produced. She won five World Cup downhills during a career that spanned from 1979-1988, and scored the first ever World Cup Super-G win when it was added to the circuit. Karen Stemmle of Georgian Peaks rocketed to several top-five finishes in World Cup downhill in the 1980s. Her brother, Brian Stemmle, raced for Canada on the national team for 14 years through the ‘80s and ‘90s, including 93 World Cups and four Olympics: Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer, and Nagano.

Laurie Graham at Husky World Cup Downhill event at Nakiska (Mt. Allan), Alberta, on March 7, 1987.Laurie Graham at Husky World Cup downhill at Nakiska, Alberta, on March 7, 1987. Photo courtesy of Alpine Canada Alpin / Alec Pytlowany.

Erin Mielzynski in action in a World Cup slalom in Meribel, France in 2022. (CAN). Photo: Alpine Canada/GEPA.

Escarpment Evolution

The list of escarpment achievers through the 2000s doesn’t end there. It includes Larisa Yurkiw, Erin Mielzynski, Candace Crawford, and Ali Nullmeyer of Georgian Peaks, Roni (Veronica) Remme from Alpine, and Declan McCormack from Osler Bluff. Dozens of escarpment racers have gone on to ski for Dartmouth, Middlebury, Utah, Colorado, and beyond. Judy Crawford’s nephew Jack, also from the Peaks, won bronze in the combined at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games and followed it up in 2023 with gold in super-G at the alpine world championships.

How long the list will grow nobody knows, but one thing’s for sure: Success on the escarpment proves racers don’t need sky-high peaks and an Austrian pedigree to win. What athletes need is snow, some icons, and a grassroots community— oh, and a piste, even one as brief as 750 feet.


Peter Duncan. Val d'Isere.