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. 

Aerial #2 - ACCESS WMA_P89_0243A_WMSC copy

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.

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One response to “A Clean Slate

  1. Pingback: A Clean Slate, part 2 | Whistorical

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