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.

3 responses to “Diamond Jim

  1. I moved to Whistler in 1970 and started working for” McConk” that winter as a ski instructor and rental shop rat. Ended up running the rental and repair shop for four years and Jim became my second “Dad”. Met many fascinating celebs , skiing legends and all around interesting folk. Best time ever !!!

  2. Yep I was a McConkey Donkey for a few seasons, or one or two? Technical for the the rental crowd. Loved those days at Whistler!!!!

  3. My Dad was living in Whistler in 1972 and skied with Jim quite a bit. He would call him anytime there was a free spot in the helicopter.

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