Pacific Ski Air – Whistler’s First Heli-ski Operation

With our upcoming Speaker Series about the origins of heli-skiing in Whistler, we thought we’d delve a little deeper into the Pacific Ski Air story.

Among the many ski industry-altering innovations that have occurred here in Whistler, it is often under-appreciated that, as far as we can tell, Whistler was the first ski resort to offer heli-skiing. When Hans Gmoser’s Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the first commercial heli-ski operator, began their operations in April 1965 they were based out of an abandoned logging camp south of Golden, BC. They opened their first purpose-built backcountry lodge, Bugaboo Lodge, in 1968 in the same vicinity as the logging camp.

Pacific Ski Air, meanwhile, began shuttling skiers up from Whistler’s original Creekside base directly to exhilarating ski descents on the massive north-facing glaciers of the Spearhead Range during the winter of 1967-68.

The fledgling company had the huge advantage of working in partnership with Okanagan Helicopters. Originally formed in Penticton, BC with the intent of using helicopters to spray pesticides for large-scale agriculture, Okanagan Helicopters quickly grew into the largest helicopter operator in the world by supporting a variety of resource industries and industrial construction projects in the mountains of British Columbia. By the end of the 1950s,  OK Helicopters, as they were known, owned more than 60 aircraft and had relocated to Vancouver.

Glenn McPherson, President of Okanagan Helicopters, was also on the original board of directors of Garibaldi Lifts Limited, the company that built Whistler Mountain ski resort, so it’s no coincidence that OK feature prominently in early photos of the resort:

ARCHIVE WMA_P89_0210_WMSC

ARCHIVE WMA_P89_0097_WMSC

Not surprisingly, OK was also heavily involved in Pacific Ski Air from the start as well, as a partial owner, in partnership with Joe Csizmazia, Al Raine, Jamie Pike, and Peter Vajda. Brian Rowley and Cliff Jennings were the original ski guides.

The bread and butter of the operation was a 2 or 3 run package in the Spearhead Range, primarily on the Blackcomb, Decker, Trorey, and Tremor Glaciers, before finishing up with a drop on Whistler Peak where the guides and clients skied down Whistler Bowl and Shale Slope back down to the Red Chair. Special trips were also made to Overlord Mountain, Rainbow Mountain, the Brandywine area, and north of Blackcomb around Wedge and Weart Mountains.

Pacific Ski Air only lasted a few short seasons, stifled by a number of factors including an inability to secure an operating tenure. Still, the pioneering folks at Pacific Ski Air were among the first to truly appreciate the Coast Mountains’ potential as an unparalleled destination for adventure-skiing.

Join us Wednesday January 20th at 6pm as Pacific Ski Air veterans Cliff Jennings and Jamie Pike share more photos and stories from this groundbreaking era.

When: Wednesday January 20th; Doors at 6pm, show 7pm-9pm
Where: Whistler Museum (4333 Main Street, beside the Library)
Who: Everyone!
Cost: $10 regular price, $5 for museum members

We expect this event to sell out, so make sure to get your tickets early. To purchase tickets stop by the museum or call us at 604.932.2019.

 

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3 responses to “Pacific Ski Air – Whistler’s First Heli-ski Operation

  1. Does anyone have access to the 1988-1990 summer ski camp videos? I was a camper and would love to find copies of the weekly camp videos.

    • Hi Steven,

      We have a lot of summer camp videos from that era and can check to confirm of we have yours. Do you remember the specific weeks that you were there? Also of interest, we are working with Alex Douglas to host an anniversary/reunion for the summer camps here at the Whistler Museum in May. Check back for further details in early spring, or contact us at programs@whistlermuseum.org

      Cheers,
      Jeff

  2. Pingback: Jim McConkey’s Movie Magic | Whistorical

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