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Coming Home: Charlie Locke returns to his Rocky Mountain roots

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“Skiing is a dying sport. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves. If we want this business to survive, we have to make it fun for families again!”

– Charlie Locke

By Michel Beaudry

Lake Louise received an early Christmas present this year. In a startling series of events that still has ski industry cognoscenti shaking their collective heads in wonder, the inimitable Charlie Locke rose up from what seemed like a financial knockout punch five years back to regain control of his old home hill just in time for the 2008-09 season.

“I didn’t like retirement,” explains the wily old entrepreneur with tongue-in-cheek good cheer. And then his expression changes. “But seriously,” he adds, “I just couldn’t stand by and watch Lake Louise suffer anymore.”

He wants to make sure I understand, however, that there’s no animosity between himself and RCR (Resorts of the Canadian Rockies), the multi-resort company he founded and then lost control of. “Both parties felt that my focusing on Lake Louise, with all the challenges and opportunities associated with being in the park, would ultimately have the best outcome for all parties and all resorts,” he says. And then he recites a poem for me.

For fame and fortune I travelled the earth,

But now I’ve come back to the land of my birth,

I’ve brought back my treasures only to find,

That they’re less than the pleasures that I left behind,

For these are my mountains and this is my glen,

And the trails of my childhood will see me again .

“That’s really why I came back,” he says. “I just couldn’t stay away.”

It’s easy to dismiss a guy like Charlie Locke. I mean, what’s a poem-declaiming sentimental old fart doing running a big-time ski resort anyway? But it’s not that simple. For no matter how it’s spun by his rivals — no matter how it’s dismissed by the proponents of the bigger-is-better model of resort exploitation — Charlie’s return to the helm of this unique mountain gem is a clear victory for anyone who truly loves to slide on snow in winter time.

And we should be celebrating all those victories. So listen up. It’s a good story.

“We’re supposed to be selling fun,” says the feisty 62 year old. “But things are getting so expensive right now that we’re taking the fun right out of it.” The former mountain guide stops speaking for a moment. His eyes crinkle in concentration. He continues. “Skiing — sliding on snow — is a passion that people develop when they’re really young. It’s a multi-generational thing too. A lifetime activity. But we’ve forgotten to nurture that. We’ve gotten too greedy; forgotten what value is all about. I mean, every time I charge a dollar more, that’s another dollar out of my client’s pockets. When does he say enough?”

He smiles. And in true Lockean logic, reveals his new mission. “My goal at Lake Louise is to make sure that a family of four can ski on this mountain all season long for less than dad’s membership at the local golf club.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me set the scene:

It’s World Cup week in Lake Louise. Hordes of healthy young bodies flow between the massive-beamed — and multi-tiered — day lodge and the lifts. Big kids in national team gear; little kids in local club colours. And more, of course. Excited moms and dads and aunties and cousins and weltschmerz -faced coaches and rough-bearded techs and harried volunteers and gauloises-smoking journalists and bell-ringing fans: it’s a happy, mad, enticing swirl of tribal rituals.

I sit and gaze through Charlie’s office window at the slopes of this Rocky Mountain giant. It’s been snowing intermittently all week and the aptly named range is slowly losing its rocky lustre. Still, it’s such a different mountainscape than our own coastal variety. So much harsher. So much more austere. It’s what turns me on about travelling though — it’s fun to feel a little unbalanced by your surroundings. Fun to be a visitor on somebody else’s slopes…

“So does it feel good to be back?” I ask the prodigal retiree. “Do you figure you made the right move in exercising your buy-back option after all this time?” Charlie pulls off his glasses. Absent-mindedly wipes them off and puts them on again. He smiles.

“What do you think?” he answers.

Another big smile. And in that half-hurried, word-chewing way he has: “You know, when I walk through the lodge and people come up to me and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re back Charlie. When you left, it felt like we’d been abandoned…’ that’s when I know I made the right move.”

Charlie’s office is a cramped little monk’s cell just around the corner from the resort’s main guest-relations desk. Nothing fancy here. It’s utilitarian to a fault; but practical too. For Locke can eavesdrop on just about everything that goes on out front.

Still, he makes for an unlikely boss. In his droopy jeans and old checked workshirt — with his tired, rheumy eyes and scraggly hair — Locke looks more like the lodge caretaker than the general manager. Beware of appearances though. For behind those mildly startled eyes is a finely tuned mind.

The name of his company, Locke, Stock & Barrel, says it all. Over the years he’s done a bit of everything: gas, real estate, ranching, investments. And he’s been highly successful with his ventures. That’s why it seems so unlikely that he would willingly re-immerse himself in such a shaky enterprise as the uphill transportation business.

He laughs at my implied question. “Yes, it cost me a lot of money to get back in the game,” he says. “And I would certainly get a better return if I invested that money elsewhere. But this is way bigger than dollars and cents.”

That sentiment is echoed by many of his longtime patrons. “Lake Louise is his passion,” says World Cup executive director Bruce Hamstead. “That’s why it’s so great to see Charlie back here. This is where he belongs.”

How significant is Locke’s return to Louise? Well, the closest local analogy I could come up with is a scenario in which Hugh Smythe somehow found the necessary shekels to buy Blackcomb Mountain back from its struggling hedge fund owners. Come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea…

But I’m getting sidetracked.

Love him or hate him — and there are many in both camps — Charlie Locke is one of Canada’s seminal ski hill visionaries. What makes him particularly endearing is that he embodies that classic Victor Kiam ad about the guy who liked the razor so much he bought the company. I mean, this is a mountain-lover’s mountain-lover, a vert-obsessed adventurer who tackled some of the toughest climbing and skiing routes in the Northern Rockies during the 1960s and ’70s. This is a ski-addict who can still recall in detail the birthday in 1955 when he set his first ski tracks on Temple Mountain as an eight year old. “My parents weren’t skiers,” he recounts. “But my dad bought me a pair of skis at the Pay & Save. I think they cost $7.” And while his first experience was less than inspiring — “I didn’t know anything about wax, so the snow stuck to my skis immediately. I got so frustrated on the long ski out that I started to cry.” — there was something about the new sport that immediately seduced him.

“You just have to let your eyes wander around these parts to realize just how fortunate we are to live in such a beautiful country,” he says with all the zeal of the true believer. “To be able to offer my guests outdoor fun in such a unique mountain environment — to be able to encourage them to leave their 9-5 existences behind for a little high-quality snow play — well, to me that’s almost like a sacred trust.”

What I like most about Charlie is his absolute lack of pretension. For him, a spade will always be a shovel. At a prestigious ski gathering in New York City a few years ago we were standing together at the bar of the legendary Astoria Hotel when he turned to me and smiled. “Isn’t it funny,” he said completely out-of-the-blue. “These big-time resort consultants all speak like they know exactly what they’re talking about. Well, they don’t know crap.” And then he burst out laughing. “But I do. After all, I’m probably the only guy in this hotel with actual cow dung on his shoes.” And sure enough, there on his finely-tooled riding boots was a streak of yellow muck with undeniable manurish provenances. It was the kind of non sequitur that makes Locke such a great character.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s all about the experience. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, or how good the numbers look on paper; if your customers leave thinking they had a lousy experience, you’re doing a lousy job.” One last smile. “I retired once. I’m not retiring again. I’m in this for good now…”