On this blog we have highlighted the pioneer explorations and contributions to the community made by such clubs as the British Columbia Mountaineering Club and the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club. One such club who hasn’t received their due is UBC’s hallowed Varsity Outdoor Club. Formed all the way back in 1917 (and thus, with a fast-approaching centennial) the VOC has helped introduce thousands of youth to Coast Mountain adventure over the years, and was involved in Whistler’s development from the very start.
The VOC were a big part of the growth of ski-mountaineering post-World War Two, and soon began hosting spring skiing camps around Garibaldi Lake. In 1964, one especially adventurous group of students, including one Karl Ricker, embarked on a visionary ski traverse linking Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains, which they dubbed the Fitzsimmons Horseshoe Traverse and now better known as the Spearhead Traverse.
This nine-day epic of the now-popular route has gotten a lot of attention of late, largely due to the Spearhead Huts Project. Perhaps the most eloquent treatment comes from Robin O’Neill’s short film Breaking Trail.
All this to say that the VOC was ahead of the curve in recognizing the ski potential around Whistler. When development of Whistler Mountain began ramping up in 1965, free land was made available for select ski clubs, with some “badgering” Ricker recalls, to build cabins on ( a shrewd move by Garibaldi Lifts, harnessing the social nature of skiing), and the VOC took full advantage.
The Lodge was built entirely using VOC funds and volunteer labour. According to Karl Ricker there was no shortage of energetic youth willing to lend a hand. Whenever there were more workers than could be put to task, which was fairly frequent, he recalls, they would head out on hikes or even on trail-building excursions. It was during these outings that the old Singing Pass trail received major upgrades, and the trail to Cheakamus Lake was built.
The lodge was ready for Christmas 1965, even if Garibaldi Lifts wasn’t (a story in itself). Undeterred, the many students passing the holidays at the lodge slapped their skins on and toured Whistler Mountain. With runs cut but no lifts turning they had the mountain virtually to themselves!
After Whistler Mountain officially opened in February 1966 VOC’s cabin was an instant hit, both among VOC members and other budget-minded skiers. The next winter, when Ski Trails ran a story about how UBC students had started a petition asking for special student pricing on lift tickets, a VOC rep estimated (unverifiably) that half the skier traffic on Whistler Mountain came from the VOC.
Unfortunately, despite this early success, the lodge underwent some trouble in the 1970s as the VOC couldn’t keep up with rapidly increasing operating and upkeep expenses. Things turned from bad to worse when, despite their massive investments in time and money, the UBC Alma Mater Society took control of the lodge against the VOC’s wishes.
Finally, these issues were resolved in 1980, and the VOC used the settlement money to fund construct backcountry cabins near Mount Brew and Mount Overseer, which complemented their existing Burton Hut on Garibaldi Lake. This was more in line with the backcountry-oriented club anyways.