Category Archives: Whistler Blackcomb

“The Evolution of Skiing in Whistler” Exhibit Launch!

We’re really excited to announce that we are on schedule to re-open the museum next weekend with our brand new exhibit “The Evolution of Skiing”! Almost 50% of our exhibit space has been revamped, renovated and replaced, making this our most significant exhibit upgrade in over 3 years. The project was made possible thanks to generous support from the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation.

Our new display case! Curious as they look, these humans won't be on display once we re-open to the public.

Our new display case! Curious as they look, these humans won’t be on display once we re-open to the public.

Our re-arranging made room for some new non-ski content as well. This panel shares some of the joys of exploring our mountains in summer.

Our re-arranging made room for some new non-ski content as well. This panel shares some of the joys of exploring our mountains in summer.

There are a whole slew of new informative panels, display cases full of artifacts, interactive displays, and some pretty big surprises that we just can’t wait to share. We don’t want to give away all our secrets, so you’ll just have to come and see them for yourselves!

While we think our new exhibit is plenty of an attraction in itself, we’ve decided to sweeten the pot and have a full program of launch events that will compliment our displays and give you even more reason to pay us a visit. Here’s a quick overview. Expect more details in the coming days.

November 23 – Feeding The Spirit. Our annual Welcome Week extravaganza, featuring free food provided by the fine folks at Creekside Market and tons of door prizes from awesome local businesses. Everyone welcome, from new arrivals to long-time residents. 5:30-8pm. Free!!!

November 28 – Official Exhibit Launch.  We’re dying to show off our new exhibit, come check it out! There will be some short speeches by museum staff & board, but the focus for the evening will simply be on exploring the additions and updates to our permanent exhibits, particularly our new section exploring “The Evolution of Skiing in Whistler.” 6pm- 9pm. Admission will be free to all.

November 30 – Backcountry Skiers Alpine Responsibility Code. We all know the Alpine Skiers Responsibility Code, that yellow card that lists the rules to abide by when at a ski resort. Well, what about the backcountry? Increasing crowds and obvious safety concerns mean a backcountry code of conduct is in order. This evening we will craft a draft of this code, featuring a very esteemed panel and a healthy dose of audience participation. 7-9pm. Tickets: $10/$7 museum members.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our "Filming Mountains" presenters, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our “Filming Mountains” presenters, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

December 8 – Filming Mountains. This new event, in partnership with the Whistler Film Festival, celebrates our town’s proud history at the forefront of the ski and snowboard film industry. Heralded filmmakers will share clips and stories from the past that will entertain while giving unique insights into the filmmaking experience. 3-6pm, Tickets: $10/$7 members.

December 11 – The Whistler vs Blackcomb Debate. Without a doubt the most important topic yet to be tackled by our Whistler Debates series. With your help, this evening will decide, once and for all, which is the superior mountain in this valley (and, therefore, on Earth). Heavy stuff, indeed. 6:30-9pm. Tickets: $7/$5 members.

Two huge mountains, but only one can reign supreme. On December 11th help us decide!

Two huge mountains, but only one can reign supreme. On December 11th help us decide!

We’re shutting down!

Yes, you read the headline right.  On Monday October 21st the Whistler Museum will be shutting our doors. Don’t fret, we aren’t going anywhere, and we’ll re-open better than ever!

We’re temporarily shutting our doors in order to  renovate and install our most significant exhibit overhaul since  the launch of our 2010 Winter Olympics exhibit, nearly three years ago! This exhibit update was made possible thanks to generous funding from the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation.

One of the most iconic images in Whistler's history: Franz Wilhelmson points to his new ski resort, winter 1966.

One of the most iconic images in Whistler’s history: Franz Wilhelmson points to his new ski resort, winter 1966.

There will be minor tweaks throughout the museum, but the main project is installing a new exhibit showcasing the evolution of skiing in Whistler, covering almost 50% of our whole exhibit space.  The entire back part of the museum will be retrofitted to resemble that most nostalgic example of alpine architecture, the ski cabin.

Whistlerites have been pushing the envelope for years. Here, a hanglider gets rad on Whistler Mountain, 1970s.

Whistlerites have been pushing the envelope for years. Here, a hang-glider gets rad on Whistler Mountain, 1970s.

Over the last half-century, Whistler has played host to countless memorable moments, influential innovations, and some of the best skiing on the planet. This exhibit, first and foremost, celebrates this decades-long love affair between Whistler and skiing. We’ll have display panels and dozens of new artifacts showcasing various aspects of this history, from massive wooden skis from Rainbow Lodge, to the heroic efforts of ski patrollers to keep our mountains safe, and a look forward to the future of skiing, which continues to be shaped in large part by Whistler, and Whistlerites.

We don’t want to give away all our secrets, but we’re pretty excited to show it all off once its done. We will be re-opening when we’re good and ready. By that we mean early to mid-November, just in time for the start of ski season.

This is a hint about what you can expect in our new exhibit.

This is a hint about what you can expect in our new exhibit.

Basically, we’re mimicking Whistler-Blackcomb’s opening strategy: our official launch party will be happening on November 28th, but if everything goes smoothly, and if we’re a little lucky, there’s a good chance we’ll actually be open before that date. The exhibit launch will be accompanied by a whole slew of exciting events, to be announced here and in other places in the coming weeks.

This also means that if you want to see our exhibits in their current form, your last chance is to come to our Whistler Debates event “Self-Publish or Perish?” as part of the Whistler Readers & Writers Festival, this Sunday afternoon at 2pm.

A Clean Slate

Every autumn the mountains are born-again, baptised by a blanket of frozen water whose crystalline forms are revered for their meteorological, rather than priestly blessings. But imagine, for a moment, what it must have been like to encounter these mountains for the first time, before our impressions had been shaped by chairlifts, lift-lines, and Instagram…

That’s precisely the circumstances in which representatives from the Garibaldi Olympic Development Agency found themselves in the early 1960s as they pursued their plans to develop an Olympic-ready ski resort in BC’s Coast Mountains.

After evaluating a few options, by 1962 they had more or less decided upon Whistler Mountain (still officially named London Mountain at the time). The mountain was essentially a clean slate (aside from some rather intensive logging around the mountain’s base) from which they had to design a world-class ski area. 

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Today, most skiers’ understanding of the terrain develops through multiple seasons of exploring the mountains guided by trail markers, instructors,  more experienced friends, and pure instinct, leading them to have a virtual trail map etched into their minds. When a big powder day hits, they already know exactly where they want to be.

But without these aids, identifying the best terrain and chairlift configuration was a completely different challenge.  The group of Vancouver and Montreal-based businessmen knew enough to admit that they didn’t know much about ski area-design, so they hired German-American ski champion, coach, and resort-design consultant Willy Schaeffler to offer his insights.

Schaefller was born in the Bavarian Alps and was skiing by the age of 2. Injuries, then World War 2 prevented him from representing Germany at the Winter Olympics, but he eventually moved to North America where he became a renowned skier, coach, and resort planner. It was his design work at Squaw Valley, host of the highly successful 1960 Winter Olympics, that secured him the consultancy gig at Whistler Mountain.

Schaeffler made several trips up to Whistler in the early 1960s, each leaving him more impressed by the mountain’s terrain and resort potential.

Future Whistler Mountain President Franz Wilhelmsen, and ski resort consultant Willy Schaefler, get ready to explore the London (Whistler) Mountain Alpine.

Future Whistler Mountain President Franz Wilhelmsen, and ski resort consultant Willy Schaefler, get ready to explore the London (Whistler) Mountain Alpine.

His 1962 report is prescient, if fairly straightforward from today’s perspective. He foresaw the mountain’s potential to revolutionize North America ski resorts with its deep, consistent snowpack, massive vertical and acreage, high-alpine skiing, and plenty of suitable terrain for all ability levels. Add in the accessibility to a large market, and Schaeffler considered it a no-brainer.

We’ll go into more details about Schaeffler’s report next week. For now, we want to focus on some of the photos in our archives from early on in this planning and design phase. Franz Wilhelmsen and Willy toured Whistler Mountain by helicopter and on foot in July 1962, and you can see the first traces of a plan to develop the mountain coming together through these images.

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While it was clear that they had found a special ski mountain, their initial vision wasn’t exactly how things turned out.  A central aspect of their plan was a lower shoulder of Whistler Peak which they found to be an excellent viewpoint and a suitable location for the top-station of an alpine chairlift.

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View from the Air Jordan lookout to “Bowl #1″ better known today as Glacier Bowl.

Coincidentally, the viewpoint is pretty much right on top of the infamous “Air Jordan” double cliff, which drew headlines last winter with Julian Carr’s massive front flip down the entire face. That wasn’t part of Schaeffler’s plan, but we think he would approve whole-heartedly of such boundary-pushing endeavours.

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View from the Air Jordan lookout to “Bowl #2″ better known today as Whister Bowl.

These images provide some pretty remarkable insights into this initial encounter, when Whistler Mountain made its first impressions on these passionate skiers and developers. In a few weeks we will look at the written report in more detail, as these first impressions developed into a comprehensive plan.

Diamond Jim

While writing last week’s post about Okanagan Helicopters, we realized that we hadn’t posted anything about “Diamond Jim” McConkey yet. We couldn’t let that injustice continue, so, here you go.

Jim McConkey was the ski school star of early Whistler Mountain. With a magnetic personality and his shock of white hair — “Diamond Jim” is a Whistler legend. McConkey had already had a long and distinguished career in the ski business when, in 1968, Franz Wilhelmsen sent Hugh Smythe and Jack Bright to ask him to be Whistler’s new Ski Director.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.

McConkey had always had an interest in Whistler Mountain and had heard good reports through the ski industry grapevine. The expanding Vancouver population, the long ski season and new road access all pointed towards success.

In the spring of 1968 he took a chance, moved to Whistler, and invested all his money in building a ski shop there. The new building was 20 feet by 50 feet, with two floors — rentals downstairs with a little office, and retail upstairs and the office for the ski school.

The classic image of Jack Bright (right) skiing Whistler with "Diamond Jim" McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

The classic image of Whistler Mountain General Manager Jack Bright (left) skiing Whistler with “Diamond Jim” McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

In an interview the Museum conducted with McConkey in 2010 he recalled:

In those days we used to have snow early. If we didn’t have snow by Nov. 11, we were kind of worried. The first year I had invested all my money in the ski shop and set it all up, Christmas came, and it was freezing cold, and there was a guy who was in charge of the hydro thing. He was a wonderful guy, but I don’t know if he got drunk or whatever it was, but the hydro was run by a couple railway cars down in Mons … and it went out. There was no power to run anything. And the lifts of course were shut down. No gondola, no nothing.

That was at Christmas time, my first winter, after I had gambled everything, and everybody left. People were getting on the trains going, ‘for the love of God, get me on that train!’ They were going and the place became deserted and the floors at Cheakamus Lodge had ice about six inches thick on them and it was closed for six weeks. No business in ski school, but people came up and we survived, and we had unbelievable skiing.

Although that first year was a bit hair-raising, McConkey’s decision to come to Whistler turned out to be a good one. New technology in skiing equipment meant more people were taking up skiing, and consequently there was a great market for instructing. Jim managed the ski school until 1980 and the rental and retail operations until 1985.

Before (and during ) his time in Whistler, McConkey made a name for himself as an early ski film star. Here he is enjoying some of Alta, Utah's famous champagne pow.

Before his time in Whistler, McConkey made a name for himself as an early ski film star. Here he is (at right) enjoying some of Alta, Utah’s famous champagne pow.

Whistler Mountain honoured Jim by naming a run after him (McConkey’s) on Dec. 15, 1994 — the same day that the Harmony Express chairlift was opened. This was clearly not enough for some, as there is also an unofficial McConkey’s on Whistler Mountain — a large unpatrolled area near the Peak to Creek.

A true fun-lover with an infectious joy for mountain life — McConkey’s catchphrase “Every day’s a bonus” is one we can all learn from.

Helicopters, Hats & Hummingbirds

By Jaimie Fedorak, Summer Collections Assistant

While looking through our artifact collection this summer we stumbled upon a familiar item: an Okanagan Helicopters baseball cap in the trademark orange and blue. We recognized the cap’s distinctive hummingbird logo because a helicopter enthusiast we know [Editor's note: Jaimie's father] has the exact same hat, but we were unsure why this hat would be part of our artifact collection.

The hat in all its orange glory.

The hat in all its orange glory.

Heli-skiing in the Whistler area has long been a popular activity, since the choppers provide access to the glaciers and backcountry areas for skiers looking for prime powder skiing. Pamphlets from the museum’s research files reveal that a bevy of helicopter companies were involved in providing heli-skiing tours, including Canadian Helicopters Ltd (one of the companies which Okanagan Helicopters became when it was restructured in later years, who also had a hummingbird logo).

Franz Wilhelmsen and unidentified man with an OK Heli, 1960s.

Franz Wilhelmsen and Willy Shaeffler with an OK Heli, 1960s.

Issues of the Garibaldi Whistler News going back as far as 1970 also prove that Okanagan Helicopters was the one of, if not the, first company offering heli-skiing services in the Whistler area. The company was allied with skiing superstar Jim McConkey, who was the Director of the Garibaldi Ski School at the time and acted as the guide on heli-skiing trips.

Early heli-skiers, near Whistler. Yes, winter is coming.

Early heli-skiers, near Whistler. Yes, winter is coming.

But the connection between Okanagan Helicopters and the resort goes back even further. Photos in the Museum’s collection show many Okanagan Helicopters machines, and the earliest photos from the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation collection reveal that Okanagan Helicopters was the company that took Franz Wilhelmsen and company on tours of the area during the early 1960s to scope out the viability of developing a ski resort.

Touring around the Whistler Mountain alpine, early 1960s.

Touring around the Whistler Mountain alpine, early 1960s.

Once the decision was made to make the resort a reality, Okanagan Helicopters was called upon again. Construction of the lift towers was done before ground transportation up the mountain was feasible, and helicopters were thus  chosen the construction vehicle of choice. When the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA for short) was formed to promote Whistler Mountain as a potential host for the 1966 Olympics Glen McPherson, the president of Okanagan Helicopters, was on the committee due to the company’s important role in the construction of the resort.

The hat itself is most likely from the late 1970s or early 1980s – before Okanagan Helicopters became Canadian Helicopters Ltd and CHC in 1987- but the legacy of how it came to be in the collection goes back almost 20 years to the very beginning of the Whistler-Blackcomb resort.

Celebrating Jack Bright

This past Wednesday, homage was paid to one of the most influential figures in our valley’s history, Jack Bright. As would be expected of such an occasion, the gathering drew a long list of prominent and long-time Whistlerites.

Besides it’s main purpose to commemorate the life of a cherished family member, friend, and colleague, the celebration served a sort of window into another era. Whistler’s history is so short and mercurial, it is easy to forget how much change has occurred in just a few  decades. We are fortunate to still have with us many people who have witnessed  (and contributed to) Whistler’s rise from its modest beginnings as a remote venture with an uncertain future. Jack’s celebration drew many such folk, and the informal conversations spreading throughout the crowd were a veritable oral history of the ski resort.

The scene at Roland's Pub.

The scene at Roland’s Pub.

There couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue. If you find that Roland’s Pub has an  unpretentious atmosphere reminiscent of Whistler’s modest early years, that’s no mistake. In its first incarnation the building housed the Whistler Inn, built by Jack Bright himself in 1975. They expanded it a year later to make room for JB’s Restaurant, and the building has been a hub of the Creekside neighbourhood ever since.

Several people volunteered, or were summoned, to speak in front of the crowd. Among these was Hugh Smythe, first hired by Jack as a 19 year old ski patroller in 1966. Hugh described the Brights as a sort of surrogate family for him in those early days, fondly recalling family dinners at their home.

There is an interesting symmetry to Hugh and Jack’s story. Building upon his early experience working for Jack, Hugh went on to work, in a roundabout manner,  at every  level of ski resort management himself, including as Blackcomb Mountain’s first general manager. Focusing on Jack’s mentorship and entrepreneurial intuition, Hugh also recalled a road trip the two of them took to Todd Mountain (now Sun Peaks) to try and lure ski star Jim McConkey to Whistler to head the nascent ski school.

Appropriately enough, a few minutes later, “Diamond Jim” himself was up front, remarking on how well Whistler has treated so many people, and the crucial role Jack played in this success. Several other friends and family members came before the crowd to celebrate Jack’s many qualities and accomplishments. 

Peter Alder, Bruce Watt, Roger McCarthy, and Jim McConkey have a drink and reminisce about Whistler's early days.

Peter Alder, Bruce Watt, Roger McCarthy, and Jim McConkey have a drink and reminisce.

Just for fun we figured we'd throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger's moustache had more staying power than Bruce's.

Just for fun we figured we’d throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger’s moustache had more staying power than Bruce’s.

The event was gracefully hosted by Jack’s son Lance, who, along with his mother Ann (Jack’s wife) and brother Jordan, shared some heartfelt impressions of Jack. 

Despite the unfortunate circumstances there was a warm, relaxed feel, like a sort of high school reunion for the ski resort’s early years. Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy the day and the opportunity to reminisce that it provided, a testament to how overwhelmingly positive those memories are of an era of Whistler’s history in which your Jack featured so prominently.

(Click here to see more photos from the event.)

Three generations of Bright's address the crowd.

Three generations of Bright’s address the crowd.

Before becoming a successful resort management bigwig, Jack was a ski star in his own right. Here are two magazine covers he bagged in 1960, while he was working as a ski instructor in Mammoth, California.

Before becoming a successful resort management bigwig, Jack was a ski star in his own right. Here are two magazine covers he bagged in 1960, while he was working as a ski instructor in Mammoth, California.

Whistler MTB 20 years ago

So the Whistler Mountain Bike Park opened for the season yesterday! Mountain biking has quickly grown to become Whistler’s most high-profile summer attraction, but even before our ski lifts began shuttling fat-tire types up Whistler Mountain Whistler already had a well-developed biking scene. It’s just that hardly anyone knew about it.

Mountain Biking Whistler, early 1990s.

Mountain Biking Whistler, early 1990s.

For a little perspective we dug into our archives and consulted a copy of the 1993 publication “The Whistler Handbook.” In an article titled  “The Trails Are World Class But Few Know About It – Yet” local artist, sign-maker, and former editor of the Whistler Answer Charlie Doyle had this to say about the local mountain biking scene in 1993:

“Mountain biking in Whistler today is like skiing was twenty years ago. In those days the skiing was every bit as astounding as it is currently, but it hadn’t been dubbed “World Class” yet… All we had was the best skiing in the world and hardly anyone outside the Lower Mainland knew or cared anything about it.” Just to be clear, Charlie wasn’t complaining about this lack of recognition.

The article describes how Whistler decommissioned logging roads formed the backbone of the local trail network, frequently re-cleared by rogue bike enthusiasts to provide smooth climbs and trunk roads servicing an ever-expanding network of single track routes.

Newcomers to the sport will be surprised to learn how many of these trails had already been built in 1993. Some of Whistler’s bike trails might even  be older than most of the people riding today!

An early x-country race on Whistler Mountain, early 1990s.

An early x-country race on Whistler Mountain, early 1990s.

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About as technical as downhill descents got at the time, many of the images from in this collection show the racers walking their bikes down this section. Way up in the Whistler Alpine, early 1990s.

Among Charlie’s suggestions were now-classic trails such as Cut Yer Bars (“offers a truckload of technical drops, obstacles, climbs and slalom descents”), Northwest Passage (“runs like a roller coaster across creeks and big sweeping corners”), the Black Tusk climb (“not to be missed for those who love gut-wrenching climbs”) and a few Westside favourites like A River Runs Through It (“you may never want to leave”).

A poster for

A poster from an early Loonie Race (late 1980s). These weekly summer rides still run to this day (although inflation forced them to be re-branded “Toonie Rides” a few years back) are now massive social events, often with hundreds of participants.

As an aside, Charlie noted that “the municipal government has yet to be convinced that the bike scene can provide sufficient retail kickback to jump on the bandwagon.” Since that assessment the RMOW has clearly seen the light, as it is widely considered a case study in the positive impacts that follow from local government support for mountain bike trail networks. Interestingly, the first place Charlie suggested for prospective riders was Lost Lake Park, which is now a municipally-operated bike park.

Fast forward 20 years and Whistler’s biking scene is firmly in the situated in the mainstream.  As the trail network expanded, all the accompanying markers of “world class” status Charlie referred to are here as well: overseas visitors, global media recognition, dozens of dedicated bike shops, and media blitzes that are as calculated and labour intensive as the trails themselves.

For more info on the history of local trail-building, check out WORCA’s trail history article, and “Quest for the Holy Trail” run in the Pique last summer. 

And for fun, we’ll re-post this classic clip from our archives, showing some sweet mtb action from 1988: