Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

‘Skiing is a Sunset Industry’

Have you ever been told something wouldn’t work, and then tried it anyway? Luckily for everyone who enjoys Whistler, that is exactly what the early council and planners did when they were told that Whistler would never be a destination resort.

Before the development of Whistler Village, when the lifts only went from Creekside, a moratorium on development was put in place to prevent haphazard development across the region until a community plan could be completed. By 1973 speculators and developers had started to buy land throughout the valley with plans for hotels and commercial developments, individuals hoping to strike it rich by personally creating a destination resort on private land. With a background in community planning, Bob Williams, then Minister of Lands, placed the moratorium on commercial development until further studies could be completed.

Initial investigations in 1974 recommended the development of a community with a single town centre on crown land near the then-garbage dump. This site was recommended due to the close proximity to both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains and because it was crown land, thus providing more control over the development than if the town centre was developed on private land. Absolutely critical for the success of Whistler, the report prepared by James Gilmour also recommended that a special form of local administration govern Whistler, with more planning control than a typical municipality to ensure that the resort met the expectations and needs of the province. Following this, the Resort Municipality of Whistler Act was introduced in 1975, and the first local council elected and sworn in that same year.

The site of Whistler Village in 1979. The incredible growth of Whistler has certainly gone against the opinions of many experts who believed the conditions were wrong for a destination resort. Whistler Question Collection.

Continuing as per provincial government recommendations, the community plan was developed and shared for community consultation in L’Après in January 1976. After much friction and to-and-fro, the community plan was approved and the council could get on with planning the Whistler Town Centre. In 1977/78 consultants were brought in from around North America, including Stacy Stanley, SnoEngineering and others, to examine trends within the snow industry. The team of expert consultants examined trends, tracking baby boomers and came to the conclusion that “one of the sad things about skiing, is that it is a sunset industry”.

According to Jim Moodie, one of the project managers from Sutcliffe, Griggs and Moodie, there were some other big strikes against Whistler that they were warned about. “Some of the reports looked at Whistler and said ‘as a destination resort you’re in trouble because Vancouver isn’t an International Airport. You’re at the end of a really crappy road. And you’re in a coastal climate zone where it rains most of the time’. We said ‘yeah, that’s cool, but we’re going to have a ski resort’.”

Skiing on Whistler Mountain when there were two t-bars at the top. Expert consultants in the 1970s predicted that the popularity of skiing would only decrease in the future as the population aged. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Despite these reports, the council was unfazed. On the 21st of August, 1978 over a hundred locals and visiting members of the press celebrated the beginning of construction for the new Whistler Village Town Centre. As well as driving the bulldozer to turn the first soil, Mayor Pat Carleton chaired a conference for media personnel where he noted that “one of the best ski area resorts in North America isn’t good enough for me…To be number one just takes a little longer.” And so it did. Whistler was voted number one ski resort in North America in 1992 by Snow Country Magazine, starting a flow of accolades and number one rankings.

Even the experts could not predict the future, with snowboarding, freestyle skiing and mountain biking all adding to the numbers and allure of our destination resort. Today the tourism challenges facing Whistler are very different to the days when we worried that no one would visit.

Pat Carleton and Whistler’s movers and shakers showing the BC Provincial Government around the village under construction in September 1980. Whistler Question Collection.

Dusty’s Infamous Opening and Closing Parties

The events at Dusty’s are legendary; staff parties with the band playing from the roof, the celebration after Rob Boyd’s World Cup win in 1989, end of season parties, dressing up for theme nights, and scavenger hunts. Even amongst these events the opening and closing parties at Dusty’s stand out.

Dusty’s opened in 1983, after Whistler Mountain took over food and beverage on the mountain and redeveloped and rebranded L’Après. The massive opening celebration aimed to show off the new facility to the community, with a guest list stacked with ‘local dignitaries’ including Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain management, the RMOW, and local clergy.

Sue Clark serving cold drinks at Dusty’s. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Throughout the night the celebration ended up showing off a lot more than just the facility. As one version of this now-infamous event goes, right as the Reverend was blessing the new venue, Lady Godiva jumped ‘bareback’ onto the stuffed Dusty’s horse, shirt waving in the air like a lasso. With that, a legend was born and the new Whistler was open for business.

Dusty’s went on to become a popular spot for live music and a testing ground for up and coming entertainment, including the Poppy Family, and Doug and the Slugs. In 2000 it was announced that Creekside was to be redeveloped, including the demolition of Dusty’s. In honour of the incredible music scene, live music played each night in the week leading up to ‘Dusty’s Last Stand’ in April 2000.

Local rock band Foot in the Door at Dusty’s in 1984. Whistler Question Collection.

The final weekend brought with it a disco party, retro fashion show, a prize for the person with the most Whistler Mountain passes, and of course, more live music. Local favourites who took the Dusty’s stage ‘one last time’ included Guitar Doug, Steve Wright, Dark Star, Pete and Chad and the Whole Damn County, and the Hounds of Buskerville.

Starting early in the afternoon, the crowds built until servers were required to walk a hundred metres up the base of Whistler Mountain to deliver orders. Once the sun set, the eager crowd dispersed or relocated inside. With the saloon packed with over 2000 people it was a sight to be seen, the mosh pit and stage diving like no other. The crowd was so wild that management nearly stopped the last band from taking the stage. Even with the twenty additional security personnel brought in specifically for the event, it was still difficult to manage the crowd intent on sending Dusty’s out in style.

Crowds also spilled out of Dusty’s during Whistler Mountain’s 20th Anniversary Celebration. Local legend Seppo can be seen on the far left. Whistler Question Collection.

With so much of Whistler’s history made in L’Après and Dusty’s, everyone was encouraged to record their memories before and during the event. Those with particularly fond memories were stealing tables and chairs as souvenirs, and there were some arrests in the afternoon and evening, including a snowboarder carrying on the local tradition of celebrating sans clothing. Rumours had been swirling that people were planning on burning the building down before it could be demolished but thankfully the gas canisters were found outside before anything happened.

Despite these few hiccups, according to David Perry, Vice-President of Sales and Marketing for Whistler Blackcomb, “It was probably the best party this valley has ever seen”. For a party town like Whistler, that is a big call. Within hours of the party ending the area was fenced off for demolition.

The story of Dusty’s does not end there. Only eight months later the modern Dusty’s had it’s ‘grand re-opening’ and playing on the new stage was none other than Guitar Doug’s band, the Hairfarmers.

Now that Dusty’s has reopened for the winter season the Hairfarmers will again be gracing the stage on Tuesday and Saturday each week, continuing the live music tradition.

Do you have any photos of L’Après or Dusty’s? We would love to add to our 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!