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The little ski hill that could

// Supplied
// Supplied

Sixty years ago, the Rabbit Hill Snow Resort was just a piece of land on the outskirts of a farmer’s field, but it was the determination of Bob Sutherland—who lived and breathed for skiing—that made it into the long-running and innovative Edmonton-area hill that it is today.

His son Jim now runs the hill with a couple of partners, and he is full of stories about his father, who died in 2008.

“In his university days he and my mom canoed the river several times from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan, looking for the best spot for a ski hill,” he recalls. “And this is the one that he determined to be the best spot. So he approached the farmer—this is back in the early ’50s—who owned the land and he told him what he wanted to do, and the farmer was kind of enamoured with dad.”

Ever the ski enthusiast, Sutherland says his father attended high school during the years of the Second World War. However, “there’s not a mention of the war in this journal, it’s just skiing,” Sutherland laughs. “It’s complete passion.”

Passion, determination and the intelligence to try new innovations led to a functioning ski hill in 1955. Bob was either an eye doctor moonlighting as a skier or the opposite way around, but either way, despite there being an abundance of ski hills around Edmonton at the time—Whitemud Park, for example—there was something about Rabbit Hill that drew a crowd.

“His first lift, he bought an old milk truck and jacked up the back end and took the wheel off and wrapped the rope around the hub … and he just put it in gear and the rope goes around and around and around and pulls everybody up the hill,” Sutherland says.

From there, Bob decided to create his own snow-making machine using the milk-truck system and attaching a big shovel to it. The shovel carried piles of snow off the frozen river and the rope attached to the milk truck pulled it up the hill. The hill doesn’t use this system anymore, but Sutherland says it was the first hill in Alberta to have its own snow-making machine and the first to use a snow tiller.

“When my dad retired he was really living the life. He was windsurfing in the summer and he skied all winter. And his great love was backcountry skiing. He skied all winter until he was in a helicopter accident,” Sutherland recalls. “He was being helicoptered in to a backcountry lodge and the helicopter had trouble and he became a paraplegic, so there was no more skiing. So for the last almost 20 years of his life, he was in a wheelchair.”

But Bob didn’t complain. For years he had been working on a binding design for backcountry skis and he put all of his effort into completing that project.

“Nobody would know this, but he was really the inventor of fat skis,” Sutherland adds. “He had a patent, he was ahead of everybody. He’d come up here and swipe a few pairs of my round skis and he’d cut them in half and stick them together and make fat skis.”

What’s on the radar for Rabbit Hill now? The first thing is a new building. “We’ve made a purse out of a sow’s ear for long enough,” Sutherland says. There are also plans to replace the T-bars with another chair lift and improve snow making yet again.

“The technology has come up leaps and bounds over the years where it’s so much more energy-efficient now then it used to be,” Sutherland says of snow making. “To give you an idea, at the peak of our energy use we were running three electric compressors and two diesel compressors, so that’s a huge amount of air, and now we’re down to just two electric compressors, so we’ve cut out three compressors—a lot of horsepower. And we can convert more water than we did before with less air, into snow.”

The little hill has a lot of notoriety in Canada’s ski community. Three of its ski instructors have been on the Canadian demonstration team for Interski, which is a meeting of all the different instructing associations from around the world. It’s won Canada’s award for skier development twice and even a WestJet award for great service.

“We have a core of people here,” Sutherland says. “For instance, there’s three of us that have been here for 34 years. You look at the key people here, they’re all over 15 years with us. I could take this team of people and plunk them into any ski resort and they’d do well.”

The staff have fun, and so do the skiers who come to practice their sport.

“It is definitely a place to learn, that’s our forte: teaching the passion, so to speak,” Sutherland says. “We’re trying to encourage new Canadians to discover the sport. A lot of new Canadians are coming from countries that are a little warmer than us and this can be a bit of a shock, so here’s a way to enjoy the winter.”

Rabbit Hill opens November 14, and has 60 days of giveaways to entice anyone who’s a bit hesitant to head over and hit the slopes. Sutherland sees this as an important opportunity: if there’s one thing he’s enthusiastic about other than skiing, it’s making the most of what you’ve got. For Edmontonians, that means not whining all winter.

“If we’re going to live in Edmonton, we’ve got to get outside because it’s too depressing staying inside all winter and worrying about the weather,” he says. “The other local [ski] areas here, we don’t view them as competitors; they’re partners. Hockey and going to movies, they’re our competitors. West Edmonton Mall is our competitor. Edmonton’s one of the furthest-north cities in the world, at least in Canada, and I think we’re a major part of getting people outside in the winter, keeping recreation going in the winter. Why live in Edmonton if you don’t enjoy the snow? Whenever anybody says they hate the snow, I say ‘Well, I can fix that.'”

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