Category Archives: From the Archives

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

Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the ‘First Annual Mascot Race’

During the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games it was common to see mascots Quatchi, Miga and Sumi around, as well as their sidekick Mukmuk the marmot. However, before these mascots descended on Whistler a different marmot mascot ruled Whistler. That marmot was known as Willie Whistler.

The Whistler Resort Association (WRA) began operations in 1980 with the aim ‘to promote, facilitate and encourage the development, maintenance and operation of the resort land.’ The new mascot of the WRA, Willie Whistler, was introduced in 1981 to promote Whistler. The name ‘Willie Whistler’ was chosen through a competition for local children to ‘Name the Whistler Marmot’. Eight-year-old Tammi Wick won a Blackcomb season pass for choosing the winning name.

Willie Whistler with Ski Scamps on Whistler Mountain, February 1982. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Willie’s first big event was the Fall Festival, an event to celebrate the upcoming winter and bring life to the time of year still known as the ‘shoulder season’. Each day of the festival had a scheduled meet and greet with Willie Whistler so everyone could get a picture with the new mascot.

Mascots were so popular in the 1980s that the ‘First Annual Mascot Race’ was held on Blackcomb Mountain on March 26, 1983. The race was held as part of the Yukon Jack Challenge, which also saw the Pacific Western Pro Tour Finals race on upper Springboard and a ‘Hospitality Cup’ – where local hospitality staff were tasked with minimising spillage while carrying loaded trays through a challenging obstacle course.

Mascots making their way up Blackcomb Mountain for the First Annual Mascot Race in 1983. Whistler Question Collection..

There was no shortage of local mascots to compete in the Mascot Race. The Whistler Question did not mince words when discussing the popularity of suited figures. ‘Though Pro Tour racers are supposed to hold centre stage for the weekend, they just might lose it for a while to a herd of furred, feathered, and finned mammals who will ramble, scramble and swim their ways up Blackcomb Mountain to participate in the First Annual Mascot Race.’

‘Confirmed entries in this unpredictable contest include: Whistler’s own famous marmot, Willie Whistler; the race’s sponsor Yukon Jack; E. Bunny, the mystery rabbit, from Blackcomb Mountain; The Mountain Inn’s Delta Duck; the A&W Root Bear, Hemlock the friendly sasquatch; and Bee Bob the Beluga Whale from the Vancouver Aquarium. It will be strictly a case of survival of the fittest in that event.’

From left to right: Delta Duck, Moose, Bee Bob the Beluga, Willie Whistler, Yukon Jack, E. Bunny, Hemlock the sasquatch and A&W Root Bear. Whistler Question Collection.

Though the mascots featured on the front cover of the Whistler Question the following week, it is unclear who won the First Annual Mascot Race. We also could not find any evidence of the mascot race continuing annually.

Willie Whistler was always in the middle of the action greeting visitors, shaking hands with dignitaries, playing golf, skiing and presenting awards. After a busy life eventually it was only mice that wanted to be inside the mascot suit. Ultimately, Willie went the way of Dusty the Horse and finished up in the landfill.

Willie Whistler was popular with celebrities and dignitaries. Here Willie Whistler tees off with Arnold Palmer during the construction of the Whistler Golf Course in 1981. Whistler Question Collection.

The first decade of grooming on Whistler Mountain

Today Whistler Blackcomb has a fleet of 30 snow cats grooming the resort each night. This is a far cry from the limited grooming that occurred when Whistler Mountain opened in 1966.

Those lucky enough to have skied on Whistler Mountain in the 1960s may remember moguls the size of Volkswagens and ski runs covered in felled trees. Whistler Mountain had a single Thiokol and a bulldozer to maintain the ski runs in the early years. The Thiokol was essentially a van on tracks, which was useful for knocking the air out of powder and breaking up ice crusts, but it could not do anything about icy moguls. These machines could turn ice crust into sugary snow at the rate of half a run per night, so it took two days to groom one run.

Watching cornice blasting from the Thiokol groomer in 1968. At this time the Thiokol was one half of the grooming fleet on Whistler Mountain. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jennings.

Cliff Jennings spent two winters working as a groomer on Whistler Mountain when there were only the two machines. He remembers track packing the steep section of the downhill course known as the Weasel. (Track packing involves grooming the run by packing the snow down using only the bulldozer tracks.) “You would go over the edge and the snow was coming over the cab. You put your feet almost on the dash and put it into fourth gear so that the tracks were traveling as fast as you were otherwise you could lose the track. When the snow stopped coming over the top you knew you were on the road below midstation and you’d go back up around again.” Skiers’ side-slipping would then smooth the finish for race days.

Fixing a broken track on the John Deere bulldozer in 1967. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jennings.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the method of flying blindly down the hill in a bulldozer did not continue as the permanent method for grooming the Weasel, and volunteer Weasel Workers began grooming the slope entirely by ski.

The fleet of groomers grew over time and in 1975 the Fall edition of Garibaldi’s Whistler News included an article on the grooming on Whistler Mountain. ‘At Whistler we use over-snow vehicles called Thiokols, towing various pieces of machinery to literally farm the snow, just as a farmer cultivates his field. At Whistler we have four Thiokol 2100’s. The equipment they tow consists of four rollers, two mogul cutters, a powder maker (with another also on order for this winter) and a harrow.’

The article goes on to say, ‘The eight Thiokol operators work in two shifts to provide maximum coverage of the runs. The day shift starts up the Gondola run at 5:00 a.m. in the morning and begins grooming at midstation. Here they evaluate the snow conditions and decide what equipment to tow. Mogul cutters and powder makers and the harrow, if the snow is hard and heavily moguled, or if it is a typical deep powder day, rollers to make that fine packed powder skiing we all enjoy so much.’

A Thiokol grooming Whistler Mountain in 1974. Benjamin Collection.

Even with the improved technology most of the runs remained ungroomed and the machine tracks themselves would leave chunks of snow and ice along the runs. The corduroy that we know and love today would not come along until later.

Above: A groomer on Whistler Blackcomb in 2022. The machines grooming the mountain have changed slightly since 1966. Photo by Christie Fitzpatrick, courtesy of Vail Resorts.

Selling Snowboards

The natural terrain features, beginning of boardercross, and the early adoption of a terrain park all helped cement Whistler’s important place in snowboard history. The early snowboard shops in Whistler were also important for supporting local snowboarders and the growing sport.

The first snowboard shop to open in Whistler, known simply as the Snoboard Shop, was opened by Ken Achenbach. Ken got into snowboarding in 1980 after he quit ski racing and was looking for something else to do during the long winters. He bought a snowboard from snowboard pioneer, Tom Sims, and was immediately hooked. Ken was so confident that snowboarding would be the next big thing that he borrowed his Mom’s credit card and bought six more snowboards intending to sell them to local stores. Ahead of his time, none of the stores wanted them and he started selling the snowboards out of his Calgary garage to pay his Mom back. This grew into the Snoboard Shop in Calgary, one of the first snowboard shops in Canada.

Soon Ken was in the centre of the snowboarding world, competing in the first Snowboard World Championship and appearing throughout snowboard media. He came to Whistler to film, fell in love with the mountains, and in 1988 he opened the Snoboard Shop in Whistler.

Down an alley and out of the way, the Snoboard Shop was an institution and opened before snowboards were even allowed up Whistler Mountain. Making up a surprisingly large portion of the snowboard market, according to Ken, when TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine came out, the only snowboarding magazine at the time, the Snoboard Shop made one fifth of the total magazine sales.

Tom Sims, original snowboard legend, signs posters during a Showcase event in 1994. Showcase Snowboards was well-known for big parties and bringing in celebrity riders. Whistler Question Collection.

Likewise, before boots specific to snowboarding were widely available, Sorel’s regular snow boots were popular for snowboarders. Modified with a ski boot liner inside they were the best snowboard boots on the market at the time. In a Whistler Museum Speaker Series last year, Ken said the Snoboard shop had some of the highest sales of Sorels in the country. When the Canadian representative for Sorels visited the Snoboard Shop to learn more about their success, the rep was shocked to see that they were not an outdoor store. Playing an integral part during the early years, the Snoboard Shop in Whistler closed in 1996 for the team to pick up new ventures.

Showcase was the second snowboard shop to open in Whistler and also holds an important place in Whistler hearts and history. Although Showcase today is known for snowboarding, when it opened in 1989, it was known as Showcase Tennis. The Chateau Whistler Resort had just opened with six tennis courts, including two covered courts. Not long after opening, management made the financial decision to pivot to snowboarding which was blowing up, with Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains both recently welcoming snowboarders. Blackcomb opened to snowboarders during the 1987/88 season and Whistler opened the year after.

To properly cater to snowboarders they brought in Graham Turner as manager, who was a snowboard racer and Blackcomb Mountain employee. Graham was also early on the snowboarding scene, making a snowboard in woodwork at school in the early 1980s before it was easy to buy a snowboard in Vancouver. Like so many others, he moved to Whistler to be closer to his favourite hobbies, snowboarding and mountain biking.

Graham Turner ripping down the hill on his directional racing board. Blackcomb Collection.

Showcase had events and marketing perfectly dialled, starting the Showcase Showdown which is touted as Canada’s longest running snowboard competition. Fondly remembered by many, it sometimes seemed like half of Whistler was living on Kraft Dinner from Showcase thanks to the marketing genius where you could get three boxes for 99 cents. Used as a loss leader to bring people into the store, the Kraft Dinner was excellent value even then. You can only imagine the lines out the door if that special came back today! During Graham’s reign Showcase became the biggest Burton dealer in North America while growing the local snowboarding community.

Whistler’s Robin Dow goes for big air to win the male 18 plus category in the Showcase Snowboard’s half-pipe competition on Blackcomb in 1992. Whistler Question Collection.

Peak Bros: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979 – 1992

The Peak Bros. comics captured the hearts and minds of Whistler when they were published between 1979 and 1992 in The Whistler Answer and The Whistler Review. The comics were based on the real-life adventures of Gord ‘Rox’ Harder and his friends, who became known as the Peak Bros. after their love of skiing Whistler Peak.

Gord ‘Rox’ Harder in the maintenance building on Whistler Mountain, where he worked as a journeyman carpenter. Harder Collection.

First created on the back of a Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. logbook, the Peak Bros. comics paid homage to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Gordy was an avid reader and admirer of the Freak Brothers, created by Gilbert Shelton and first published in Austin, Texas in 1968. The Freak Brothers followed the antics of a trio of cop-dodging cannabis-loving outlaw hippies. The Peak Bros. were the Whistler-ised version, where their outlaw skiing lifestyle gets the Peak Bros. into trouble. The ski police start to chase them, and the trouble begins! Celebrating 80s ski culture and the tongue-in-cheek humour of Gord Harder, Peak Bros: A Whistler Comic Strip, opens at the Whistler Museum on February 22nd 2023.

From left to right – ‘SO’, ‘Rox’ and ‘Crazy Harry’ all featured in the Peak Bros comics. Harder Collection.

With local people from the Whistler community featured in the comics, it could be a thrill to identify who characters were based on whe¬n each new Peak Bros. comic was released. Many of the true stories from the real Peak Bros. are as unbelievable as fiction. Building an illegal cabin below the Roundhouse, riding down the mountain on a windsurfer, and catching a helicopter up to the peak to join the Whistler Mountain staff party.

Rob ‘Bino’ Denham, one of the Peak Bros. windsurfing down Whistler Bowl. Photo courtesy of Dave and Laura Kinney.

Shawn Hughes, better known as SO, remembered one of their many adventures up Whistler Peak. “We would camp on the peak every full moon. That was the Peak Bros. tradition. Then we woke up one morning as a bomb went over. That’s when that tradition ended.” Until the close call brought around an abrupt end of the camping tradition, SO had not missed one winter camp in over 6 years.

Gord Harder, and the other real Peak Bros. were excellent skiers and could be found on the mountain every day. Janet Love Morrison recalled watching Gordy ski down the peak during a Whistler Mountain staff party. “There was no Peak Chair. Gordy and his friend, they had hiked up to the peak and they skied Don’t Miss, which is all [permanently] closed now. I didn’t know Gordy was the calibre of skier that he was when I met him, and I remember everybody started hooting and hollering and whistling and Gordy had jumped into Don’t Miss. Just like over the rocks and the whole face under the Peak Chair, he’s just bouncing like it’s effortless…” With everyone on the mountain watching they got a rock star cheer.

Tracks down Don’t Miss left from Gord ‘Rox’ Harder and Shawn ‘SO’ Hughes. Photo courtesy of Dave Steers.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a massive crackdown on fast skiing on Whistler Mountain following a slew of visitor complaints. Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol were encouraged to catch speeders in the slow zones, and the patroller who issued the most warnings or confiscated the most passes received a dinner voucher for L’Après. With the Peak Bros. priority on skiing, and skiing fast, they were regularly the ire of ski patrol who would ticket them if they could ever catch them. Patrol even delivered warnings to Peak Manor, the clubhouse the Peak Bros. built in the trees below the Roundhouse. The comics mimicked real life with ski patrol forever chasing and regularly outmanoeuvred by the devious and athletic Peak Bros.

The ‘ski police’ were always after the Peak Bros. The chase became more and more elaborate throughout the comics. Harder Collection.

Come to the Whistler Museum to celebrate Gord ‘Rox’ Harder and the Peak Bros. The opening of Peak Bros: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979 – 1992 is on Wednesday the 22nd of February, beginning at 6:30 pm. The exhibition will be open until April 23rd 2023.