Whistler’s Red Chairs

Many people, when asked about their experiences on Whistler Mountain, tell us stories that include the Red Chair. This is not all that surprising; until 1980, the Red Chair was part of the only lift route up from the valley and almost everyone who skied on Whistler Mountain had to ride the lift (apart from a few hardy individuals like Stefan Ples and Seppo Makinen, who preferred to climb up on their own).

The Red Chair on Whistler Mountain. George Benjamin Collection

On his first trip to Whistler during the summer of 1965, Paul Burrows and a group of friends hiked up the mountain with their skis to test out the area and, though they may have gotten stuck on a cliff for a while on their way down, the memories of seeing the Red Chair under construction stuck with him. Renate Bareham recalled a summer when she helped her father paint the top of the Red Chair.

At an event in 2019, Hugh Smythe described one of his experiences skiing on Whistler Mountain. The weekend after Whistler Mountain first opened in January 1966, Smythe drove up from Vancouver through heavy snow to work as part of the first ski patrol team. After a long journey (the drive through the Cheakamus Canyon took and hour and a half), the trailers at the base of the mountain set up as staff accommodation were full. Smythe and his group spent the night on the floor of the lift company cafeteria. Before going to sleep, however, they were told they would need to be back up at 5 am to shovel the top of the Red Chair so skiers could reach the top of the mountain.

Digging out the top of the Red Chair. Coates Collection

It was still dark when the ski patrol made their way up the gondola to the bottom of the Red Chair. There, they were told to take their shovels and ride up on the back of the chair, holding tight to the lift. As Smythe remembered it, “I was holding on so hard with my one arm and hand, and we actually got to Tower 15 and that was about, oh, fifteen, twenty minute ride at that point to get there, then all of a sudden we hit the snow and the chair tilted back like this, and we’re dragging in the dark.” They unloaded at the top and then spent two hours digging out the chair’s path as it continued to snow in order for the skiing to open to the public. In contrast, when describing the challenging winter of 1976/77, John Hetherington remembers how very limited snow meant skiers had to download on the Red Chair, a slow ride down.

A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

The Red Chair was the first double chairlift installed on Whistler Mountain by Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. in 1965, along with a gondola and two t-bars. It was later joined by the Little Red Chair, which ran mostly parallel to the Red Chair, another double chairlift that helped ease line ups. Both chairs were removed in 1992, replaced by the Redline Express Quad, which was then also replaced in 1997 by the current Big Red Express. In September 2021, plans were announced to replace the current chair with a new high-speed six-person chair for the 2022/23 season. For anyone wishing to relive their memories of the first Red Chair, however, a red chair can be found in Florence Petersen Park that, if it snows enough, might even require some digging.

One response to “Whistler’s Red Chairs

  1. Ah yes, many a frozen butt sat on the ol red chair. Good that I was a young buck and not so vulnerable to the cold! At least in those days once you got up to the top you were joined by only a few hundred skiers and you could ski untracked powder all day and all week after a snowfall–without having to climb into bowls even!

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