To all skiers and snowboarders, the allure of a slope blanketed in fresh powder cannot be denied, sometimes even when those first tracks and blissful turns lay just beyond the ski area boundaries. At the popular Banff ski area Sunshine Village, a number of veteran patrollers were abruptly dismissed soon after they caught the owner's son ducking into a closed-off area in December.
Labour and employment lawyer Andrew Robertson took up the patroller's case. A wrongful dismissal suit was filed through the Calgary Court of Queen's Bench.
"On or about December 17, 2010, the Defendant Taylor Scurfield attended the Sunshine Village Ski Area," states a document filed by the patrollers. "While skiing in the Ski Area [they] proceeded to duck under a well-marked closure rope to the left of Boundary Bowl and entered into a closed area."
The patrollers who arrived at the scene confiscated Taylor Scurfield's passes. Scurfield is the son of Sunshine Village owner Ralph Scurfield.
The patrollers claim the situation became hostile.
"Suddenly and without warning the Defendant, Taylor Scurfield, began to act aggressively and threaten the ski patrolmen," explains the statement made by the patrollers.
Amongst other things, the patroller's statement claims Scurfield said he "had the right" to ski wherever he liked because of his family connections and that he would leave "when he was good and ready to, so on his time."
Sunshine Village associate director of communications Doug Firby said the patrollers acted with too much haste.
"The typical response would have been what we call an 'educational discussion,' elaborated Firby. "Making the skiers or snowboarders aware of the policies around closures and why they're in effect."
Sunshine Village said the patrollers violated Sunshine policies by confiscating Scurfield's VIP guest passes without justification.
Firby also pointed out what Sunshine saw as an "extremely aggressive" response to the situation on the part of the patrollers.
"While being confined in the Infirmary, [Taylor Scurfield and his friends] were subjected to further abusive and intimidating conduct," states the Sunshine Village defence.
None of the allegations from either party have been proven in court.
Several days later a number of veteran staff involved in the incident were dismissed, including long-time risk manager Chris Chevalier. Sunshine Village insisted the incidents are unrelated.
"The incident involving the son of the owner, the son of Ralph Scurfield, was not the cause of the four dismissals," said Firby.
Firby referred to a long list of alleged breaches of contract by the patrollers outlined in the Sunshine Village statement of defence.
A Facebook page to rally support for the patrollers had over 8,000 fans at press time. Supporters have organized a website to share the patrollers' story and garner support for the legal battle by selling T-shirts.
"I support the fired staff's decision to take legal action. They have to stand up for themselves and their wellbeing," said Drew Wittstock, a Golden, B.C. resident and ski pro.
"A patroller should always have the authority to make judgment calls regarding avalanche safety. That is not the job of the resort administration," said U of C ski club president Dylan Heerema.
Sunshine Village hopes the matter is resolved soon.
"We feel the campaign of misinformation that is being carried out, primarily in the social media, is actually harming our reputation," said Firby.
Sunshine Village took steps to address safety concerns raised after the dismissals.
"Ski patrollers are the most important part of any ski area," said Wittstock. "They are the only reason there is any safety at a resort, without them, there would be no first aid at all."
This importance is also echoed by the Sunshine Village administration.
"The resort could not operate on a daily basis without a full complement of ski patrollers," said Firby. "[There are] minimum numbers of rescue staff who must be on duty when our lifts are in operation. We fully comply with those guidelines."
Despite the resort's compliance with regulations, members of the ski community were still wary over Sunshine's safety.
"In the first couple weeks after the dismissals went down, I would have been hesitant to ski any of the avalanche prone slopes at Sunshine," said Heerema.
To remedy the safety concerns and fill holes in their patrol staff, Sunshine Village turned to a familiar face.
"It's important to note that we still have some very experienced staff on duty," said Firby. "Our new mountain operations manager Al Matheson is also highly experienced. He first joined Sunshine Village in 1987 and has worked at several ski resorts around the world since, as well as at Parks Canada in a safety role."
Correction: The original version of this story stated that patrollers were selling T-shirts, not their supporters.