Reflecting on Sun Peaks’ first years

Tod Mountain’s First Patroller Remembers

Learning the ropes: A young Ralph Nelson (second from the right) poses with his family during an early age ski day. - Photo Submitted
Learning the ropes: A young Ralph Nelson (second from the right) poses with his family during an early age ski day. – Photo Submitted

At the end of another day of patrolling, Ralph Nelson takes the last Burfield chair to the top of the mountain. When the lift shuts down for the night, he makes his way into the small living area attached to the bullwheel. After lighting the single propane heater, he crawls into bed. The lift operator dozes in a bed across the room, both exhausted after a long day on the mountain.

In the morning, Nelson will wake up before the skiers arrive, skiing the lift line with a backpack-sized radio strapped to his back, radioing at each tower to confirm the lift is safe to run.

Nelson was 30 years old at the time and Tod Mountain’s first ski patroller when the ski area opened in 1961. Today he lives in an apartment in Kamloops with his wife, Sheila. The walls are filled with ski photos and paintings. Ski books dot the shelves and ski trophies grace the walls, exactly what you would expect from a family who loves the mountains.

This is where they shared what it was like patrolling in the first years of Sun Peaks, then known as Tod Mountain.

While Sheila cared for their three children at home in Rayleigh, Ralph took the couple’s Volkswagen Beetle on the long journey up the mountain, where he would stay for six days at a time.

He was apprehensive when first offered the job but said eventually the idea of getting paid to do something he loved brought him around.

It was not really a safe operation. I am sure the safety board wouldn’t have approved of it.

His name was the first on payroll at Tod Mountain, before the chair had even been finished. One of his first projects was to build the ramp at mid-station so skiers could load or unload part way through their trip to the top.

“We loaded lumber across two chairs placed close together on the line to get it up the mountain,” he recounted. “Sometimes the lumber or barrels of fuel would bump you in the head as they went by and that certainly annoyed me somewhat.”

When the time came to clear trees for more runs, Nelson was there moving flagging tape to ensure the run was cut for the best route possible, despite the objections of engineers and tree fellers.

“Those guys aren’t skiers like I am, and we have to make adjustments here and there,”
he explained.

When the chair was opened and skiers flocked to the slopes, Ralph ensured the snow was well packed. Free lift tickets were offered to anyone who volunteered to take small steps up the mountain compacting the snow. Once he had to call in 12 army men to pack runs before a big race on the mountain, walking across the slope in a long line. He said he feels something similar would get strange looks from mountain-goers today.

When that wasn’t enough, he made his own packing machine. Made with a drum that previously held electric wire, with wooden slats and a crossbar attached, he would pull it down behind him while skiing to compact the snow.

When he reached the bottom, he would hook it to the T-bar to be dragged to the top for another pass.

“It was not really a safe operation,” Nelson said. “I am sure the safety board wouldn’t have approved of it.”

As far as safety was concerned, Nelson said there were very few serious injuries during his three years on the mountain. He said in that time very few skiers needed a ride off the mountain in the rescue toboggan.

While much has changed since it first opened, much has stayed the same. While patrollers won’t be found living in bullwheels or pulling homemade groomers down the mountain, that same pioneering spirit remains.

Nelson said freeskiing and his love of being in the mountains were the reasons he was attracted to the job and why he stayed as long as he did. It’s a sentiment found in staff across the mountain today who share a passion for the outdoors.

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