In the tight-knit ski-resort scene at the southern tip of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada, the Georgian Peaks Club is known for its steep runs and incredible view of the Bay below it. It is not known for Midwestern-style tornados ripping down its runs and wreaking havoc on its grounds. Yet, on Aug. 20, 2009, that’s exactly what happened, to the incredulity of the community and the terror of the staff who were working at the time.
The private, members-only Georgian Peaks Club is situated alongside Blue Mountain and a handful of other private ski clubs on a long ledge of rock called the Niagara Escarpment, which extends for many miles from Niagara Falls into the heart of Ontario.
Most days, the Escarpment colludes with the Bay to create a localized weather system conducive to fruit-growing and, in the winter, snowmaking. But on that particular August day, the Escarpment had different plans for the communities that sit below it—although those at the scene say the sunny skies made Environment Canada’s weather warnings seem laughable at best.
It was such a nice day, in fact, that Georgian Peaks’ head groomer Nic Elias didn’t pay any heed to the storm warnings, nor to the call from his girlfriend saying she’d been sent home early from work by her employer to weather the storm. He and the other four guys working on site were relaxing after work by the maintenance shed when Elias heard three loud cracks of lightning.
As he went out to investigate, he saw a huge, pitch-black cloud rolling toward the resort. He called his buddies out and they saw debris rising up into the air. The debris was from barns that had been ripped apart a few miles down the road.
“We realized it was a tornado and we ran for our lives,” he recalls. “I had my dog in my pickup truck, so I went and grabbed her...we decided to go to the snowmaking shop because it has the blow-off pit that we thought we could get under. We ran in and before we even got into the back of the shop, the tin got ripped off the back and the doors blew open and we were facing the tornado. I threw the dog down into the hole and we went to climb down there ourselves but we never made it.
“By the time we got to the pit, the proverbial freight-train roar was upon us and the sound was so loud—unbelievably loud. And then when all the tin came off the shop, it went from the deep freight-train rumble to a high pitched squeal that was just as loud. And then all of a sudden it was like you were having a party and your parents came home and turned off the music. We were all yelling at each other and then there was dead silence. It took us a minute to gather the courage to go outside.
“And it was just total destruction. It was definitely the most terrifying experience of my life.”
The funnel cloud, rated afterward as an F2 for “considerable damage” on the Fujita tornado scale, had ripped along the Escarpment, come up over the back of it and touched down directly onto the resort. One path of destruction ran directly down the middle of one of the Peaks' main runs. The cloud roared down the side of the hill and took out the shared building that was the Club’s Alpine Centre and maintenance shed, and destroyed three other small structures.
The Alpine Centre/maintenance shed complex was a complete loss, says Peaks’ GM Mark Woodburn, who was slated to start his new job just two weeks after the tornado touched down. The building’s steel structural elements remained—and were found to be sound afterward—but everything else was gone: the walls, the roof, the insulation, everything. The Centre was the hub of the club’s racing program and ski patrol, and housed the race offices, patrol offices, cafeteria and meeting spaces. Everything was either destroyed by the wind or the torrential rain afterward, says Woodburn. Incredibly, they didn’t find very much of the debris from the buildings in the days that followed, he says.
But that was only part of the toll. “We had four on-hill buildings that are gone—they were just picked up,” he says. “We found the odd piece of one or two, but for all intents and purposes they’re just gone. They’re out in Georgian Bay somewhere.”
The lift’s haul ropes were derailed, but a thorough inspection by Leitner-Poma after the storm revealed no significant damage to the lifts themselves. However, the winds and rains drove debris into the inner workings of the lift and pumphouse motors, and most had to be sent out for cleaning and rebuilding. Ditto for the four Bombardier groomers, which were sent to Blue Mountain for maintenance and storage following the storm.
As often happens, the neighbors all offered help. “We got phone calls from all the other clubs here, and Blue Mountain, wondering if there was anything they could do to help us. It was quite nice to receive those calls,” Woodburn says.
Overall, he believes the resort was extremely lucky with the amount of damage incurred. The area’s insurance covered “99 percent” of the costs associated with the storm, and the area was nearly 100 percent recovered by the time the season began.
As of press time, the finishing touches were being applied to the Alpine Centre and maintenance shed, and both were slated to be ready for the resort’s early-December opening. Woodburn’s biggest concern was burnout: his core staff had to start the season early to help clean up the damage wrought by the storm.
“We’re pleased with where it’s coming out on the cost side, with the insurance coverage,” he says. “We’re obviously thrilled we’ll be able to operate without impact. But people are going to be far more tired than they would normally be at the start of the season. My concern is people are going into the season after putting forth a huge effort to get ready, and so we have to keep an eye on that.”
The after-effects have not dampened business. As of November, the club had signed up 38 new annual members and eight new Full Life Members. Those are numbers that would be particularly pleasing to a club that has weathered a major economic storm this year, let alone a literal one as well.