BY: S. Threndyle

Before they had stock market symbols, ski resorts were locally owned and operated. Often, “one guy” ended up doing most of the work. At Fernie Alpine Resort, that guy was Heiko Socher.

Socher grew up the son of an engineer in eastern Germany during the Second World War. To escape the post-war chaos, Socher’s older sister immigrated to Canada and then sponsored her brother. After a brief stop in Montreal, Socher headed west to study forestry at the University of British Columbia and be close to the mountains. Socher had skied occasionally before coming to Canada, but took the sport up in earnest after finding a job in Fernie, a small resource-based community in eastern British Columbia. Ownership of the local ski hill was split among numerous shareholders, and though the economy was relatively robust, the operation was losing money. Socher saw opportunity. He soon acquired 30 per cent of the company’s shares, then became general manager. Utilizing his forestry knowledge, he made money selling trees cut from the ski hill using bulldozers and backhoes. “We were able to build good quality trails and roads,” he said. “There weren’t any stumps left behind. We could ski on a foot of snow.”

Socher stumped across western Canada to attract skiers to Snow Valley, which averages a reliable 900 centimetres of snow. Many early customers were farmers from Alberta and Saskatchewan.

“They had money,” Socher said, “and they took the winters off, in many cases. They would drive to the hill; it was exclusively rubber tire traffic.”

While Socher designed the log cabin base lodge, his wife, Linda, ran the ski school and ski shop. More trails were cut and lifts added. Socher ploughed the profits back into the mountain as the skiing public began to demand better grooming, faster lifts and a more refined experience. Many of his plans for greater expansion have been realized since Fernie’s sale to Resorts of the Canadian Rockies in 1997.

Since Socher retired in the late 1990s, he spends his summers maintaining the 25-kilometre Mountain Lake Trail, an epic journey of alpine scenery that crosses into grizzly bear habitat and ends at the world famous Island Lake Lodge. He not only built the trail, but lovingly carved handrails into some of its steeper sections and handcrafted the signs and markers. He is also involved in the historic preservation of downtown Fernie.

Fernie’s “one guy” is still going strong.

This post is also available in: French