Category Archives: From the Archives

Behind-the-scenes insights into the inner workings of a community museum and archives.

Best in Snow – The Volkswagen Beetle

Snow tire season is upon us! Even through snowy and icy conditions you will see all types of vehicle tackling the Sea to Sky Highway today. Fifty years ago, however, one car dominated the snow, and that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

In the 1960s, Volkswagen touted the VW Beetle as the best car for driving in the snow, and North America listened. In one famous commercial a Beetle is seen driving through snowy conditions. The narrator asks “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplow, drives to the snowplow? This one drives a Volkswagen, so you can stop wondering.”

George Benjamin’s Volkswagen Beetle on Alta Lake. George Benjamin Collection.

At this time, most American-made cars were rear-wheel drive and had their heavy engines at the front, resulting in little weight over the drive wheels and thus less traction. Despite also being rear-wheel drive, the Beetle did better in the snow because the engine was also in the rear, giving the drive wheels more traction for slippery conditions. Somewhat surprisingly, the narrow wheels also seemed to help because the Beetle cut through the snow rather than riding on top.

In 1965, Cliff Jennings bought his 1957 Beetle before heading out west to Alta Lake. It was not a straight forward journey. “When I arrived in Vancouver, nobody had heard about this new area, so I just headed blindly north. Two hours later, in Squamish I got directions and headed up a steep gravel road, arriving eventually at a dead end with a trailhead signposted to Diamond Head. Back in Brackendale, I hung a right and headed blindly north again on what would now be called a 4×4 road. The first sign of civilisation was Garibaldi and Daisy Lake Dam, which the road proceeded over onto a detour around Shadow Lake through huge puddles that nearly drowned my Beetle. Finally, five hours after leaving Vancouver, I arrived at a big slash clearing and a swampy parking lot in pouring rain.” Cliff had made it to the ski resort!

The Volkswagen Beetle is a little harder to recognise in this photo. George Benjamin Collection.

Jim Moodie arrived in Whistler a few months later once the lifts had opened, also driving up in his Volkswagen Beetle. “People remark about the road being bad nowadays but the road then, a lot of it was gravel, and so it was a frightening experience if we were smart enough to think about it but we mostly didn’t. I can remember one day driving up and the car simply stopped moving forward. At least that’s what we thought had happened. When we got out to see what was happening the Volkswagen Beetle was just plowing up a great big snowdrift in front of it so we couldn’t go anymore.” Good in the snow, but not quite a snowplow.

The imagery of the Volkswagen Beetle was so connected to mountain towns that Whistler Mountain’s 20th Anniversary poster featured a red Volkswagen Beetle driving off into the sunset. In the iconic Whistler poster the car is covered in stickers with skis jammed into the bumper.

The iconic 20th Anniversary poster. Whistler Mountain Collection.

With many people sharing similar memories, it is no wonder the photographs of Volkswagen Beetles in the snow are popular prints at the Whistler Museum. You can see some of the Whistler Museum image collection on Smug Mug.

Having a Blast

When talking to people from Alta Lake and Whistler there are many stories that are almost universal- people come to Whistler for a visit and stay for life, and along that journey most people have experienced housing woes. One experience that I did not expect to be shared among so many locals was the stories of working in drilling and blasting. While the rocky, mountainous landscape draws people to Whistler from around the world, it also creates additional engineering challenges. Lots of rock needed to be moved for the rapid growth of Whistler, and blasting was a relatively well paying summer job.

The Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE), also known as the ‘Province’s Great Expense’ arrived in Alta Lake in 1914, bringing tourism as well as an increase in mining and forestry. The earliest known commercial mining in the area was on Whistler Mountain around 1910, with Green Lake Mining and Milling Company running ten small claims between 1000 and 1300 metres elevation.

Some of the first blasting in the valley was for mining. Here a horse is laden with dynamite bound for Jimmy Fitzsimmons’ copper mine on the north flank of Whistler Mountain, circa 1919. Rainbow Lodge can be seen in the background. Philip Collection.

Many other small operations opened and closed over the years but none struck it rich. As a word of caution, after finding an abandoned mine shaft in the mountains, some early mountaineers were pushing rocks down the shaft and set off unexploded dynamite. Nobody was hurt, but it is worth giving abandoned mines a wide berth for the many hazards they pose.

It was a logging company that gave Andy Petersen dynamite in the 1960s to help put a water line to Alta Lake Road for running water. Andy and Dick Fairhurst, owner of Cypress Lodge, had never used dynamite before. “We drilled about 27 holes and put three sticks of dynamite in each hole. Well, this thing went off. Three of them went off and boulders came up over our heads and hit the power lines. We thought we were going to take the power down. That was our experience with dynamite, but we learned.”

There were more hazards than just flying rock. During blasting and clearing of a trail along Nita Lake in 1985, Jack Demidoff and his 25-tonne hoe fell off the trail and through the ice into the lake. Whistler Question Collection.

When skiing arrived Whistler became a tourist destination in the winter but remained very quiet in summer. Many locals who worked on the mountain would have summer jobs in construction and blasting, including Murray Coates who was in ski patrol and had a blasting company. Fellow patrollers, Brian Leighton and Bruce Watt also worked some summers blasting. “There were no safety precautions”, Bruce recalled on his podcast ‘Whistler Stories that Need to be Told’, “It was just get out there and don’t be a wimp”.

Brian Leighton had a similar experience. “I was way over my head in what I was doing. But no one died, no one was hurt.” One memorable moment occurred after loading some explosives into the drill holes while creating Whistler’s sewage system. “I said to Murray, ‘I think the trucks parked a little close here.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, it’s fine.’ So we get underneath the truck and he hits the blasting machine. Sure enough, a rock the size of a soccer ball goes through the rear window of the truck. I mean we were safe, but the truck not so much”.

An dog finds refuge from the rain beneath a Wedgemont Blasting truck parked in village, not unlike Murray Coates and Brian Leighton hiding from the falling rocks. Whistler Question Collection.

Before she became a lawyer and later the Mayor of Whistler, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden also worked as a driller and blaster for the Department of Highways. She wasn’t so worried about rocks landing on her, but as her boss watched closely to make sure she was setting the dynamite correctly, “I was always worried that he was going to spit this horrible chewing tobacco on the back of my head.”

The Whistler Museum has more stories about drilling and blasting than will fit in one article, but nowadays we are much more familiar with the sound of avalanche bombs. Hopefully they are ringing throughout the valley again soon!

Before the Fitzsimmons Express

With a new eight-person chair announced to replace the four-person Fitzsimmons (Fitz) Express chairlift (pending approvals) we take a look back at how mountain access from Whistler Village has changed.

The first lift from Whistler Village opened for the 1980/81 season, around the same time the Town Centre opened and lifts on Blackcomb started turning. Prior to this, everyone accessed Whistler Mountain from the area known today as Creekside. When Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain officially opened in January 1966, it had a four-person gondola, the original double Red Chair and two T-Bars.

Whistler Mountain trail map from 1966 or 1967. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Trees were eventually cleared on Whistler Mountain for the aspirationally-named Olympic Run, however skiers who skied down the north side of Whistler Mountain were only met with a garbage dump where the Village now sits and had to catch the bus back to Creekside. Olympic Run generally only opened on weekends when the bus was running, otherwise skiers had to hitchhike back to Creekside.

Janet Love Morrison described being a rebel and skiing the closed run on a school trip. “I remember we went under the rope to ski the Little Olympic Run and we were really cool until we got to the bottom and had absolutely no way to get back to Creekside. Suddenly we were super scared because we knew we had to get back to get to the bus, because we went to school in Port Coquitlam.” Finding no cars or people at the base of the mountain, the grade eight students followed a gravel road to Highway 99 where they were picked up by a tow truck driver. They proceeded to get a dressing down by the driver and then their teachers, a first-hand experience that helped when Janet was writing Radar the Rescue Dog.

The garbage dump at the base of Whistler Mountain, where the Village is today. Whistler Question Collection.

When the lifts from the Village finally went in for the 1980/81 season multiple chairlifts were required to make it to the top. To get to the Roundhouse from Skiers Plaza, skiers first took the Village Chair, which finished slightly higher in elevation than today’s Fitz, and then skied down to Olympic Chair. Olympic Chair is still the original chair from 1980, however it was shortened in 1989 to service strictly the beginner terrain. Originally Olympic Chair met Black Chair at the bottom of Ptarmigan. If you wanted to continue on to the Roundhouse or Peak, Black Chair dropped skiers where the top of Garbanzo is today, then skiers would ski down and take Red or Green Chairs to the top. Four lifts to get to the Roundhouse and they were all slow fixed grip lifts, not the high-speed lifts that service the mountains today. (Olympic Chair, Magic Chair and Franz’s Chair are the only remaining fixed grip chairs in Whistler.)

Before Fitzsimmons Express and the Whistler Express Gondola, skiers could upload on the Village Chair. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Uploading from Whistler Village was simplified in 1988 when the Whistler Express Gondola replaced the four chairlifts, taking skiers and sightseers straight from the Village to the Roundhouse, in a gondola (apparently) designed to hold ten people.

The four-person Fitz that we know and love was built in 1999 and, together with Garbanzo, eliminated the need for the Black Chair. Prior to 1999, the biking on Whistler Mountain was predominately run by private enterprise, notably Eric Wight of Whistler Backroads, who mostly used the Whistler Express Gondola to access terrain. When the Bike Park was taken over by Whistler Blackcomb in 1999 and further developed, Fitz began to be used to access the Bike Park throughout summer, as the sport rapidly grew. These days the Bike Park sees way over 100,000 riders a year, most of whom who access the terrain from Fitz Express.

If Fitz is upgraded next summer it will be the start of a new era, greatly increasing the number of riders and skiers arriving at midstation.

For the Love of Pants

Trousers, slacks, britches, pantaloons or jodhpurs. There was a time, relatively recently, when local women were challenging societal expectations when choosing to wear pants.

Many will be familiar with the picture of Whistler’s ‘first lady’, Myrtle Philip, in her chequered pants with a big smile and hands on her hips. The image has been immortalised on the side of the Whistler Museum along with many posters and pamphlets. What may surprise some is how shocking it was at this time for visitors from Vancouver to see a women wearing pants.

When Myrtle first came to Alta Lake, now known as Whistler, in 1911 there was no highway or train line and the journey from Vancouver was a difficult three days. The first day involved catching a steamship from Vancouver to Squamish. In Squamish Myrtle and Alex Philip picked up packhorses and then spent the next two days on foot travelling over rough terrain, climbing around boulders and fallen logs, and weaving in and out of deep gullies. The trail was barely 2 feet wide and seldom used, but women were still expected to traverse it in long, heavy skirts as per the fashion and societal expectations at the time.

Myrtle (right) with guests at Rainbow Lodge. Skirts and dresses were the accepted clothing for women at this time. Myrtle had to make her own pants because you could not buy pants for women in stores. Philip Collection.

As most would understand, hiking, horseback riding and working outside in long skirts is not very practical; however, you could not buy pants for women. Myrtle tried various men’s pants, including overalls, but did not like them. In an oral history from 1971, Myrtle explained the solution – she would make all of her own pants. “I had a pattern and then that’s what I wore all of the time.” For many of the visitors from the city, a woman wearing pants was not a regular sight and was seen as rather scandalous by some.

Famed mountaineer, Phyllis Munday, who lived in North Vancouver during this time, also had to explore her limited clothing options. Summiting over 100 mountains during her career, including many around Whistler, she came up with a solution that ensured she did not face prejudice for wearing pants in the city. In an interview with Olga Ruskin she said, “You were never seen on the street with britches in those days, so we would wear a skirt over our britches. Then when you got to the foot of the mountain or the foot of the trail or wherever you happen to be, you took your skirt off and cast it underneath a log and there it would stay until you came down.”

Phyllis Munday on Franklin Glacier. MONOVA: Archives of North Vancouver, INV 9782.

Thankfully societal expectations have changed in Whistler today, and women are not expected to ski, ride and hike in skirts and bloomers. However, this change was more recent than many people would expect. When the lifts were turning on Whistler Mountain in 1966, 55 years after Myrtle had first visited the valley, Renate Bareham lived near Myrtle on West Side Road. Between 1931 and 1976 the local school opened and closed regularly based on the fluctuating number of residents. For Renate, and many other kids in the valley, it was a long and snowy trek to get to the bus, followed by the bus ride to Squamish or Pemberton for school.

After the one hour hike to the bus, Renate remembers, “At that time, you weren’t allowed to wear pants to school when you were a girl. So we would have to wear our pants over to the bus, then as soon as we got to school we had to change into our dresses or skirts.”

My appreciation goes out to those who challenged and continue to challenge the status quo. Thankfully things have changed, and women are not expected to ride the bike park in long dresses.

Vancouver Girl Guides at the top of Grouse Mountain. Phyllis James (later Munday) is on the far right, still hiking in a long skirt in 1912. MONOVA: Archives of North Vancouver, INV 5655.