Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that we would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

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

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Building the Spirit: Whistler’s Volunteers of the 2010 Games

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the Whistler Museum presents our latest temporary exhibit, featuring stories and artefacts of the volunteers and community members who made the Games a unique experience in Whistler.  Join us opening night to share your own tales of 2010 and show off your Olympic memorabilia (we’re betting a lot of you still have those red mitts and blue coats)!

Doors open at 6:30 pm, Friday, February 28.  Free admission.

Catering (cash bar and complimentary snacks) provided by the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre with the support of the RMOW.

Exhibit closes April 19.

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

Fire at Alta Lake

Prior to the formation of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department (ALVFD), the Alta Lake area had no official response to fires – they were put out by the small community.  But after two large fires in the early 1960s, some residents decided to form their own fire department.

The first fire is still a little mysterious.  One a reportedly beautiful morning in April, a single passenger got off the Budd car at the Alta Lake Station.  His outfit, a trench coat and dress shoes, drew the notice of everyone at the station as he asked Don Cruickshank, the station agent, how to get to the other side of the lake.

Waiting for the train at Alta Lake station, 1937. Left to right: Bill Bailiff, Mr and Mrs Racey, Ed Droll, Betty Woollard, Larry, Flo and Bob Williamson.

Later that same day, Dick Fairhurst received a call from Cruickshank to check on smoke coming from the area of an old empty lodge.  Fairhurst and Louis White grabbed a small fire extinguisher and a bucket each and ran to Fairhurst’s boat.  When they arrived at the lodge, they found that the fire had taken hold in some piles of lumber inside the three-storey building and that their buckets and extinguisher would be of no use.  They also found a piece of candle at the back of the lodge, and footprints from dress shoes in the soggy ground.

By the time the evening train arrived, two RCMP officers from Pemberton were aboard and waiting to arrest the stranger in the trench coat, who had been pacing in the station while waiting for the train.  Though we don’t know what happened to this mysterious man after his arrest, we do know that the date of the trial was set for June 6, 1962, the date of the second fire.

Cypress Lodge as seen from the lake. Fairhurst Collection.

This second fire appears to have been far more accidental than the first.  The provincial government was building a new highway to connect old logging roads, small community roads, and the Pemberton Trail.  The surveyors and their families were staying in cabins and lodges throughout Alta Lake.

One couple, Bruce and Anne Robinson, were staying in a cabin at Cypress Lodge, owned by Dick and Kelly Fairhurst.  Anne chose June 6, a warm day with no wind, to make bread in the old Kootenay Range in the cabin.  Dick was at the trial in Vancouver and Kelly had gone to vote at the Community Hall (it’s not entirely clear what the vote was for, but it is likely it was for the federal election).  She and her children had just arrived home when Bruce arrived at Cypress Lodge to discover the roof of his cabin on fire.  Kelly got on the party line, interrupting Alec Greenwood’s call to his mother-in-low to announce the fire.

Bert Harrop built cedar-bark furniture that was used in Harrop’s Tea Room, later the site of Cypress Lodge.  The museum has some of his creations in our collection, but most were destroyed in a fire.  Philip Collection.

Luckily, Bill and Joan Green and a group of loggers were hanging out at Rainbow Lodge after voting.  Bill radioed to the Van West logging operation to bring their fire pump, and Alex loaded his pump onto his tractor.  Soon everyone in the area know about the fire, and many of them came to help.

The fire, which had started from smouldering sparks in needles on the shake roof, had spread to a storage shed, but the lack of wind prevented it from spreading further.  Someone moved Dick’s truck onto the road, but other vehicles, piles of dry wood, and cans of gasoline, paint, diesel and propane were still around the property.

The two pumps were used to get the fire under control, and then to keep wetting everything down.  The Robinsons lost almost everything in the cabin, and many pieces of Bert Harrop’s cedar-bark furniture that were stored in the shed were lost, along with the two-rope for skiing on Mount Sproatt.

Alex Philip spent the night patrolling the area for sparks, but the fire was truly out by the time Dick arrived home the next day.  The community came together again to help with the clean up.

Dick Fairhurst, Stefan Ples and Doug Mansell rafting the fire shelter and its contents across the lake to Alta Vista, 1967. Petersen Collection

When the ALVFD was formed later in 1962, its members were Dick Fairhurst, Doug Mansell, Stefan Ples, and Glen Creelman.  They held regular practises and, until the formation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975, relied on fundraisers such as the Ice Break-Up Raffle and the Fireman’s Ball to buy supplies.  The residents of the valley relied on them in case of emergencies.

BC Family Day Kids Après 2020

Our popular Kids Après is back for the BC Family Day Weekend, February 15 – 17 from 2 – 5pm.  This is a great chance to bring the whole family by the museum to learn something new about Whistler’s history, enjoy free hot chocolate (courtesy of Blenz), add your own colour to archival images, and take home a unique button (magnet or pin) created by you!  Entry is free.

The Province of British Columbia has provided the Whistler Museum a grant in support of our free, community Family Day Weekend event.  To learn more visit: https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/governments/celebrating-british-columbia/bc-family-day”.

Garibaldi Lifts’ Early Employees

Since Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. first began hiring staff in 1965, Whistler Mountain has employed thousands of people in the area, some for a season and some for careers that span decades.  Like today, one of the challenges facing lift company employees then could be find a place to stay while working.  In an oral history interview conducted with Lynn Mathews this past summer, there were some names of employees that came up again and again while discussing early mountain operations.  One thing that three of these names, Doug Mansell, Denis Beauregard, and Frank Arundel, had in common was that they all had a place to stay well before the lifts began operating on Whistler.

Doug Mansell was a superintendent of lift operations for almost two decades.  He first moved to Alta Lake with his family in 1945 at the age of 8, after his father purchased property on the east side of the lake.  There the family built and operated Hillcrest Lodge, which opened its doors to guests in July 1946.  Doug and his brother grew up at Hillcrest Lodge, and Doug even married a Hillcrest guest, Barb.  At 14, Doug began working in Alf Gebhart’s Rainbow Lumber Mill and from 1951-56 he worked as a telephone lineman for the PGE Railway.  Doug and Barb took over the management of Hillcrest when his parents retired in 1958 and later sold the lodge to Glen Mason in 1965.  Hillcrest later became known as the Mount Whistler Lodge.

Doug Mansell, Franz Wilhelmsen, Stefan Ples and Jim McConkey pose together at the dedication ceremony for Franz’s Run. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

After selling, Doug and Barb both went to work for the lift company.  As Lynn put it, “Growing up in Alta Lake, you had to be handy, and know how to do things.  And Doug was really good.”  Doug continued working on Whistler Mountain until he and Barb retired to North Vancouver in 1983.

Like Doug, Denis Beauregard, an electrician for the lift company, was an Alta Lake resident before runs and lifts were built on Whistler Mountain.  He and his wife Pat began visiting Alta Lake with the “Witsend” group and built their own summer cottage on the lake in 1961.  The story we’ve heard is that a party at Rainbow Lodge in 1966, Denis remarked that if he could get a job in the area, he would move up permanently.  Brian Rowley, who worked for the lift company at that time, told Denis he could supply the job, and neighbour Don Gow offered to share his well water with the Beauregards in exchange for use of their washing machine.  The Beauregards moved up and both Denis and Pat began working at the mountain.  Both continued to be active members of the Alta Lake community, and even hosted the community club film screenings in the lift company cafeteria.

Denis and Pat Beauregard receiving silver coins for Whistler Mountain’s 25th Anniversary from Maurice Young (centre).

Both of the Beauregards’ sons worked for the lift company as well, and in 1991 Denis and Pat received silver coins commemorating their 25 years of service.  The pair retired to Squamish in 1994.

Frank Arundel worked for the lift company as a heavy-duty mechanic.  He and his family lived outside of the Alta Lake area, in Garibaldi Townsite, until an Order in Council and subsequent government actions cleared all residents from the area in the 1980s.  Frank had a workshop on the top of the mountain, which, according to Lynn, “was usually buried in snow.”  For Julie Gallagher, who grew up at Brandywine Resort in the 1960s and early 1970s, Frank’s work at Whistler Mountain was very convenient as she and his daughter were able to catch rides up to go skiing whenever he went to work.

We know there are many more stories of early employees (such as Stefan Ples, who perhaps knew the mountain better than anyone) and the early days of mountain operations, and we would love to hear them at the museum, whether you worked for the lift company yourself or heard stories passed down through the decades.

Whistler Museum 2019: Year in Review

This was a highly successful year for the Whistler Museum & Archives Society. The museum continues, with the help of the Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers, to preserve, protect, and interpret Whistler’s history.

Over the course of 2019, the museum welcomed 14,410 exhibit visitors. This is an increase of 1,552 people or 12.6% over 2018. In addition to exhibit visits, WMAS attracted a further 905 people to our building through programs and events. WMAS also held a number of events and programs outside the museum, which attracted approximately 9,486 people. In total, the museum provided services to approximately 2,480 individuals. This marks the busiest year in the museum’s history for the fifth year in a row.

The museum expanded many of its programs in 2019, including the ever-popular Discover Nature program. This program, which ran through July and August in Lost Lake Park, offered a chance for locals and visitors to learn about Whistler’s rich biodiversity through the use of touch tables and face-to-face engagements with our knowledgable and dedicated interpreters. This year we were able to expand the program by an additional day to five days a week, Monday to Friday, and our scheduled nature walks were expanded from June to August, seven days a week.

The touch table at Discover Nature in the summer.

We had another strong year for other events and programs as well, including established favourites like our Valley of Dreams historical walking tours, Speaker Series events, numerous children’s crafts such as Crafts in the Park, our annual LEGO Building Competition, and Mountain Bike Heritage Week.

The museum continued to develop special exhibitions throughout the year. In 2019, these included Finding a Place: A History of Housing in Whistler and Construction of Whistler Village: 1978 – 1984. These temporary exhibits give the museum a chance to explore and present aspects of Whistler’s history that are not part of our permanent exhibit, and to use assets from the museum’s ever-expanding archival and artefact collection.

One of the highlights of 2019 was the Legends of Whistler Speaker Series that was hosted in conjunction with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and the Whistler Public Library. This three-part event was moderated by Mayor Jack Crompton and featured special guests sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village.

Speakers included a cross-section of Whistler’s community, including former mayors, Olympians, former Whistler and Blackcomb managers, artists, librarians, musicians, and developers. Subjects ranged from development of Whistler Mountain during the 1960s, the design of Whistler Village, the life of a professional athlete in Whistler, Whistler’s cultural sector, and the Whistler and Blackcomb merger.

Eldon Beck, the architect of Whistler Village, spoke during one of the events and expressed his thoughts on the events in an email to the museum stating, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I felt an attachment to early Whistler never realized before, very special.”

I would like to take a moment to thank our funders and supporters: the RMOW, the Province of British Columbia, the Community Foundation of Whistler, American Friends of Whistler, Canadian Heritage, and our museum members for their continued support over the years.

I would also like to say a special thank you to everyone who has visited our exhibits, attended our events, read our Pique column, followed us on social media, and otherwise helped spread the word about Whistler’s fascinating people and history. We look forward to seeing you in 2020 (maybe at our first Speaker Series on Wedneday, January 29, where we will screen Pro Patrol, Curtis Petersen’s 1980 short documentary on ski patrol on Whistler Mountain, followed by a talk on changes in ski patrol and mountain safety with Roger McCarthy, Brian Leighton, and Bruce Watt.)