by Mark Page
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice
There needs to be at least some decorum when downhill skiing into a man-made lagoon, according to Summit Lake Ski and Snowboard Area’s board president Eric Waterfield.
“They have to wear clothes,” he said. “We’ve had people try to come down in their underwear.”
A picture on the wall of Summit’s day lodge shows local skier Forest Humphreys doing just that. This time he arrived fully clothed – in a lizard costume.
“They said nothing inappropriate this year,” Humphreys commented after his Slush Cup run that was part of Summit’s season-ending Winter Carnival on March 18.
The Slush Cup followed a costume contest and a dummy downhill in which hand-made dummies are sent careening downhill on skis and over a jump. The festivities brought a decent crowd out to Summit, with jam-packed parking lots overflowing out onto the highway.
Despite the crowds, the ski area is dealing with financial struggles due to ever-increasing operating costs. They also need more cash to complete planned base area upgrades.
Waterfield said it is difficult for the ski hill to pay the increased costs of insurance, fuel and wages.
“Everything is running really tight,” he said. “Some things are skyrocketing on us and there is nothing we can do about it.”
The biggest surge is in the cost of insurance premiums, which Waterfield said has tripled over the past five years.
Operating since 1961, Summit Lake is run by a non-profit and board members like Waterfield are volunteers. But there are seven regular employees working on most days, and they need to be paid.
“Right down to dollars and cents we don’t have enough to pay the staff anymore,” Waterfield said.
Heavy December snow meant the hill was able to open a bit early this year, just before Christmas, but also meant an early closing date. Waterfield said they will have had 65 open days this year – the same as last – and can’t afford to stay open for more.
COVID-19 also took a toll on the ski area financially. For the previous two seasons, they had to keep the kitchen in the day lodge closed and at times even limit the number of skiers. The kitchen was fully open this season for the first time since 2020.
Despite having difficulties keeping up with operating costs, Summit Lake is still able to begin base area upgrades thanks to a $699,150 Rural Development Grant from the B.C. government they received in 2022. This funding is paying for construction of a new handle tow lift hut and a new groomer shed, and will partly fund a new day lodge.
The handle tow hut is almost finished and the groomer shed will be going up this summer.
But the ski area still needs about $400,000 more for the day lodge project, says board member Mason Hough, even after the grant and a commitment from the Columbia Basin Trust. The price tag for the new day lodge will be around $1.2 million. Hough said he hoped to have that project underway in 2024.
Plans for the project date back to 2015 and originally included a 10,000-square-foot facility. After building costs skyrocketed during the pandemic, the board decided on more modest designs for a 3,500-square-foot building – a bit larger than the current structure.
Hough said the original design would have been too big for the hillside it sits on, as well as being too expensive.
The project will preserve the rental shop section of the current day lodge, which was built as an addition just 15 years ago. The new section will replace the bathrooms, kitchen and seating areas.
Other base area buildings will get new roofs and siding during the renovations.
There are long-term plans for lift upgrades as well, though not in the immediate future. Summit has the tenure rights to add another 500 vertical feet of terrain, which would double the current vertical drop.
Also in discussion is what Summit can do to add activities for summer months. Many other ski resorts have built mountain biking trails and have become year-round destinations.
“We’re trying to figure out what we can do for summer events,” Waterfield said. “But I think that’s down the road.”
Base area upgrades need to be finished first, and more donations and more volunteers are needed to finish them. Hough said they are seeking additional grant money but won’t qualify unless they can show they are also getting local donations or volunteer contractors and tradespeople to do some of the work.
The importance of Summit Lake Ski Area to the local community was certainly on display at the Winter Carnival, with many participants saying they have been skiing and riding at the hill for decades.
After splashing into the Slush Cup lagoon, 15-year-old Sophia Ballard was asked how long she had been skiing at Summit.
“Like, since I was born,” she said.
Besides the Winter Carnival, Waterfield said they had big turnouts for their club ski events and Friday night-skiing, along with the usual crowds packing the hill on powder days. The ski club now needs these same crowds to show up to help fund and build the day lodge and keep their local ski hill going for years to come.