Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

When Snowboarding Came to Whistler

Looking at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains today, it is hard to imagine there was ever a time when snowboarders weren’t allowed to ride on the mountains.  For over a decade, skiers were all you would find in the Whistler valley, until Blackcomb Mountain became the first of our local mountains to welcome snowboarders in the winter of 1988/89 (Whistler Mountain followed suit the next season).

Blackcomb soon became the freestyle snowboard mountain.  Before the first terrain park was built in 1993, Stu Osbourne, who started working for the mountain in 1990, recalls snowboarders and skiers taking air off of the wind lip on a glacier.  “That’s where I first saw the first photos of Ross Rebagliati and Doug Lungren.  I think he was one of the guys back then that did one of the biggest air ever off the wind lip,” said Osbourne.

Oliver Roy, late 1990s.  Greg Griffith Collection.

Rebagliati began with skiing and was a ski racer with the Grouse Mountain Tyees.  While in high school, a couple of his friends convinced him to try snowboarding.  “I started to snowboard before we were ‘allowed’ to snowboard,” said Rebagliati.  He defined the culture at the time as “underground.”  When snowboarders were finally officially welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain in 1988, he came up from Vancouver with some friends on opening day and was one of the first snowboarders to ride the chairlift on Blackcomb.

American boarder Kevin Delaney takes part in a half-pipe competition held on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

In 1987, when Rebagliati was 16, he had attended the first ever snowboarding camp in Canada.  The camp was led by Craig Kelly, who Rebagliati depicted as the Gretsky of snowboarding.  At the camp, Kelly’s recognition of his talent gave Rebagliati the confidence he needed to pursue the sport seriously, including joining the Burton team.

Snowboarding took off through the 1990s and the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan were the first to include snowboarding.  By then a Whistler local, Ross Rebagliati became the winner of the first Olympic gold medal for snowboarding, beating out the silver medal winner by .02 seconds in the men’s Giant Slalom event.  His win, however, became uncertain when a urine sample returned to him.  He insisted that he only inhaled second hand smoke and didn’t actually smoke at all himself before the competition.

Rebagliati pulled out of World Cup racing not too longer after his Olympic win and didn’t compete in the 2002 Olympics.  He spent time working on media projects, launching his own snowboard, and building a home in Whistler that he described as “the house that snowboarding bought.”

A snowboarder heads down the Saudan Couloir during the Couloir Extreme. Originally strictly a ski race, boarders were admitted when the sport was welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

Over the past three decades, snowboarding has become firmly established as part of the Whistler community and many celebrated snowboarders have trained on both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains.  The museum, however, is lacking information about the sport and athletes in our collection, perhaps because snowboarding is still thought of as quite a young sport.

If you have any snowboardings stories you’d like to share, please come see us at the museum!  We’re looking for personal accounts, photographs, artefacts, and more to fill the gap in our collection and ensure that the snowboarding history of Whistler is as well documented as the valley’s history of skiing.

Whistler Mountain’s Early Operations

As we approach another opening day for Whistler Blackcomb, we’ve been looking back at the early days of operations on Whistler Mountain.  Much of the information we have on these early years comes from oral history interviews, some lift company records, and Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN).

Earlier this year, a volunteer for the museum conducted a series of interviews with none other than Lynn Mathews.  Lynn was the editor, and so much more, of GWN, and she shared a wealth of knowledge about both the paper and her experiences at Whistler.

The Skiers Chapel was still under construction when the Mathews first came to town. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Mathews was born on Staten Island, New York.  She is a journalist and writer by profession, and before moving to Whistler worked for magazines and at Harshe-Rotman & Druck, one of the leading PR firms in New York City.  In the early 1960s, Lynn spent a winter in Quebec, teaching skiing at Gray Rocks Inn.  It was there she met Dave Mathews, who was involved in resort business in the area, and the two were married the following year.  The couple soon moved west to Vancouver, and Dave planned to leave the ski business to work full-time for an irrigation company where he had previously worked summers.  The ski industry, however, would prove hard for the pair to leave behind.

During their first winter in BC, Lynn taught skiing at Grouse Mountain, while also working for various magazines and publications.  The irrigation business was slow in the winter, and so for the season of 1966/67, Dave and Lynn planned to spend their weekends teaching at a new ski area north of Vancouver that was just opening for its first season of full-time operation.

Even by 1970, the Creekside area was a little empty. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Lynn’s first trip to the Whistler Valley in August 1966 didn’t necessarily impress her.  As she put it, “There was nothing here.  There was the gondola, that was there, the daylodge had been built, there were two A-frames on the hillside,” and not too much else.  Due to extensive logging and burning, Lynn said that without snow, the Creekside area “looked like a war zone.  It wasn’t a pretty alpine village at all.”

For about $125, Lynn and Dave rented one of the log cabins at Jordan’s Lodge for the season.  Lynn chose the cabin “that tilted the least,” and the self-described “city girl” prepared for a winter with no electricity, no plumbing, and a wood cookstove.

In the 1970s, this was more likely to be the scene at Jordan’s Lodge. Benjamin Collection.

Lynn recalled that in December, Franz Wilhelmsen, who was acting as a combination of general manager, CEO, and chairman of the board, got very sick with pneumonia, right when Whistler Mountain was heading into its first full season.  Two managers were brought on board, Dave Mathews as operations manager and Jack Bright as mountain manager.  According to Lynn, Dave was responsible for “anything that moved,” and Jack was in charge of ticket sales, administration, image, publicity, and much more.

Lynn worked in the mountain’s office as well.  Though some ski passes were sold at the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices in Vancouver, others were sold at Whistler Mountain and Lynn was in charge of making those passes.  Without any computer systems, she used a polaroid camera and a hand-cranked laminating machine.  Each person got two photos, one for their pass and one for the files, and a lift ticket to go skiing.  At the end of the day they could pick up their pass at the office.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more tales from Lynn and others who have told their stories to the museum.  Have a story about Whistler to contribute to the Museum’s collection?  Please come see us!

Whistler’s Skateboarding Story

Nestled along the Valley Trail near Fitzsimmons Creek, the Whistler Skate Park is a popular summer hangout for skateboarders and board sport enthusiasts.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, surfing’s popularity began to skyrocket in California, and would eventually go on to influence North America’s youth culture with the music, films, philosophies, and attitudes that are now associated with the sport.  Skateboarding, or sidewalk surfing as it was then known, grew out of the surfing culture during this time, and became something to do when surfing conditions were less-than-optimal.

In the early days of the Whistler Skate Park, roller blades could be found as well. Whistler Question Collection, 1993.

Skateboarding’s popularity increased during this period, expanding out of California surf shops to any place around the world that had cement or asphalt.  In 1976, the world’s first purpose-built skatepark opened: Carlsbad Skatepark in Southern California.  This was soon followed by the Albany Snake Run in Albany, Western Australia.  Both areas had strong links to surfing culture.

Surfing and skateboarding had an immense influence on the development of snowboarding; one of the first snowboard products, the Snurfer, invented in the late 1960s in Michigan, allowed riders to essentially surf on snow.  Over the next 20 years, snowboarding evolved and expanded and by the late 1980s started to become a fixture in Whistler, specifically on Blackcomb Mountain.

The Whistler Skate Park, 1995. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

Olympic gold medal winner Ross Rebagliati was the first snowboarder allowed to ride the Blackcomb lifts.  The new sport found its home early in our valley, he said.  “When we were first allowed to snowboard here, they did not just sell us the tickets and say, ‘that’s it.’  They embraced the whole idea, the culture.  They took the initiative to build snowboard parks and created things specifically designed for snowboarders.”

In 1991, the original Whistler Skate Park was constructed and includes the snake run and bowl that are still present today.  Designed by Monty Little and Terry Snider, it integrated elements that they had developed in other skate parks in West Vancouver and North Vancouver.  These elements included large waves and shapes that would encourage speed and fluid, rounded movements, a nod to the surf-inspired approach to both snowboarding and skateboarding.  Monty Little viewed the Whistler Skate Park as a functional sculpture, taking inspiration from the mountains and streams of the area.

In the late 1990s, the Whistler Skate Park saw its second round of development.  This refurbishment was born out of safety concerns due to the original surface delaminating, as well as the changing style and approach boarders were taking to skateboarding.  With support from then-Mayor Hugh O’Reilly, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the skating community, new elements were added to the skate park that reflected the next generation of skateboarders.  These included more street elements, such as rails and grindable steel edges, used for more technical tricks and manoeuvres.

The Skate Park signs, like the park itself, are well decorated. Whistler Question Collection, 1994.

With the latest expansion in 2016, the Whistler Skate Park has become the second largest in Canada with a total skateable area of more than 4,600 square metres (50,000 square feet).  The Whistler Skate Park’s popularity has made it one of Whistler’s prominent summertime features.

The Whistler Skate Park is centrally located between the Village and Fitzsimmons Creek, and open daily from April to November.

What do canoeing and powder skiing have in common?

With the beginning of the new year, we have been spending some time looking back at what 2018 brought to the museum (new records, new exhibits and many new donations of artifacts and archival materials!) as well as looking forward to what lies ahead.

Each year January marks the beginning of our annual Speaker Series.  We’re very excited to start off our 2019 series Thursday, January 17 with Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard River.

In 1972 Mike Stein and five fellow adventurers filmed their journey on the Liard River, which flows 1115 km through parts of the Yukon, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  Their trip focused on the Grand Canyon, a 30 km stretch of the Liard River containing numerous class IV and higher rapids.  For decades the resulting 16mm film was thought lost, but recently Mike Stein not only found a copy but had it digitized.

Heading through the Liard Canyon, 1972. Photo courtesy of Mike Stein.

Thursday, January 17 Mike Stein will be at the Whistler Museum for the first screening of Highways of the Past and to discuss his own experiences before, during and after the trip.

While looking through a copy of Garibaldi’s Whistler News published three years prior to the trip down the Liard River, I found an article written by another participant in the canoe trip, Jim McConkey.  McConkey came to Whistler Mountain to take up the position of Ski Director in the spring of 1968 and began writing instructional articles about ski techniques for the publication during his first season.  In early 1969, Whistler Mountain received weeks of what he described as “beautiful, deep powder snow.”  This led to “Learning Powder Snow Technique,” an article in which McConkey instructs skiers on the proper way to ski powder.

‘Diamond’ Jim McConkey’s official Whistler Mountain portrait.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The article begins by defining true powder snow as “very light snow that flies out from underneath the skis, sometimes bellowing up over the skier’s head.”  Once the skier found the right snow, they also had to ensure they had the right equipment, meaning flexible deep snow skis, with little camber and soft heels.

When the skier was ready to head for the hill, McConkey recommended starting with a long, gently slope to practice the “continuous, flowing motion of linked turns straight down the hill” that is powder skiing.  According to the article, there is no room for traversing a run on a powder day as “traversing like a cautious old woman is Taboo.”

Jack Bright and Jim McConkey skiing Whistler Mountain, 1972 (the same year as the trip).  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The article ends with hints that still hold up well today, such as “establish a rhythm”, “keep your head and shoulders facing down the fall line,” and “keep your feet locked together.”  Especially useful is McConkey’s last reminder:

Be sure to laugh when you take a giant clobber in the deep snow.  You will get your chance to laugh with your friends when they fall.  Powder snow and clobbers too are for everyone.

We may not be able to promise weeks of powder skiing this January, but you can join us at the museum Thursday, January 17 for a unique look back at an incredible journey from 1972.

Tickets are on sale at the Whistler Museum; $10 or $5 for museum or Club Shred members.  Doors open at 6:30 pm, the talk and film will start at 7 pm.  See you there!

The Watersprite Lake Hut

In the past we’ve covered the building of various backcountry huts situated around Whistler, beginning in the 1960s.  Gothic arch huts have a place in much more recent history as well, as the Watersprite Lake Hut proves.

After the completion of the North Creek Hut in the fall of 1986, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) took a hiatus from building backcountry huts.  Over the next two decades, the BCMC focused their efforts on outdoor education, environmental protection, trail building and trail maintenance and mountaineering training.

In the mid-2000s, attention was brought back to backcountry huts when David Scanlon took on the task of acquiring legal tenure from the Provincial Government and First Nations for the BCMC huts built at both Mountain Lake and North Creek.  The BCMC gained full legal tenure of these hut sites in 2009.

Following this achievement, the BCMC surveyed their membership about backcountry access and building more backcountry huts.  Scanlon formed a committee that investigated sites for a new hut and after careful study they chose to build a backcountry hut near Watersprite Lake.  Watersprite Lake is located just outside the southwestern edge of Garibaldi Provincial Park and is close to Mamquam Mountain and Icefield.

The Watersprite Lake Hut covered in snow this past winter. Photo by David Scanlon.

Prior to the construction of the hut at Watersprite Lake, the BCMC built trail access to the site that opened in the spring of 2016.  BCMC members noticed heavy foot traffic to the lake on the newly built trail.  The BCMC used space at Fraserwood Industries, thanks in part to a club member, to pre-fabricate the glu-lam arches required for the hut.  Scanlon calculated that committee members spent over 1000 man-hours in pursuit of constructing the new hut.

In the fall of 2016, construction of the Watersprite Lake Hut began.  The hut design includes a wood stove for use to heat the hut in the winter, a dedicated cooking area and enough room to accommodate ten people.  In the end, four additional arches were made by Fraswerwood Industries, which enabled the BCMC to built a seven-foot overhang to provide an emergency shelter and prevent snow build up around the front entrance.  Unlike other huts built by the BCMC in the late 1960s, early 70s and mid-80s, the Watersprite Lake Hut is locked to the general public and only accessible to registered users of the hut.  After seven years of planning and construction, the Watersprite Lake Hut opened in the winter of 2017.

The cozy interior of the hut. Photo by David Scanlon.

You may have noticed that, over the past couple of years or so, the museum has had backcountry huts (specifically those of the gothic arch variety) in mind.  You may even have seen a dancing hut as part of this year’s Canada Day Parade float.  This summer the Whistler Museum and Archives Society launched Coast Mountain Gothic: A History of the Coast Mountain Gothic Arch Huts, a virtual exhibit with the support of the Virtual Museum of Canada, which can be seen here.

The museum will be opening a physical exhibit to complement our new online exhibit in November 2018.  Keep an eye on our social media or subscribe to our newsletter for upcoming news about opening night!

Coast Mountain Gothic Goes Live!

Over the past year the Whistler Museum and Archives Society, with the support of Virtual Museum of Canada, has been working on the release of a new online exhibit entitled: Coast Mountain Gothic.

Gothic arch huts are modest yet iconic structures that played a major role in the exploration of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia over the past 50 years.  Discover the stories behind the design and construction of these shelters and meet the people and organizations that brought them to life.  Along the way, you’ll learn how networks of hiking trails help protect the sensitive alpine environments and support outdoor educational activities.

The Himmelsbach Hut under construction, 1967. Photo: Chambers Collection

The online exhibit is now live and available in both official languages on the Virtual Museum of Canada’s website.

English version: here           French version: here

This online exhibit was developed with the support of the Community Stories Investment Program of the Virtual Museum of Canada.

The Virtual Museum of Canada, managed by the Canadian Museum of History with the financial support of the Government of Canada, is the largest digital source of stories and experiences shared by Canada’s museums and heritage organizations.

The Community Stories Investment Program helps smaller Canadian museums and heritage organizations work with their communities to develop virtual exhibits that engage online audiences in the stories, past and present, of Canada’s communities.

Stay tuned to our social media or subscribe to our newsletter for updates on a physical exhibit to complement Coast Mountain Gothic coming late fall at the Whistler Museum.

Settling on Wedge

With the successful completion of the Himmelsbach Hut in 1968, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club (BCMC) began looking for another location to build a Gothic arch hut near Whistler.  They already had a couple of ideas for their next location; one was near Mt. Trorrey along the Spearhead Traverse, the other was an alpine meadow on Mount Brew.  The BCMC decided to ask the mountaineering community for suggestions and advertised through a mountaineering paper and a few leaflets.

Werner Himmelsbach recalled, “So this logger, he contacted me and said, ‘I hiked up the peak beside Wedge Mountain and I saw a nice lake don below,’ so I thought that would be a place.”

The Himmelsbach Hut, named for Werner Himmelsbach, as it appears nowadays. Photo: Jeff Slack

Werner, along with three other BCMC members, decided to hike up Wedge in hopes of finding the lake the logger mentioned.  “It took us five and a half hours to get up there because we got lost in there because it was bush.”

This exploration of Wedge also involved finding a way across the river as there was no bridge access.  “Wedgemount Lake… was beautiful and when you come over the rise… there is this lake, turquoise colour and the glacier right into the lake,” Werner reminisced.

The idyllic Wedgemount Hut, with Wedge Mountain looming above left.  The glacier has noticeably receded as Werner remembers the glacier coming right into the lake.   Photo: Jeff Slack

The BCMC held a meeting to decide the new location and the vote was decidedly in favour of building the hut near Wedgemount Lake.  At Mount Brew, as mentioned in a previous article in The Whistler Question, the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club would later struggle with their own Gothic arch huts in the 1980s and the Spearhead Traverse would be revisited in the future by the BCMC.

The BCMC was granted building permission by BC Parks on October 9, 1970 and quickly organized a work party to construct the hut over the Thanksgiving weekend.  Werner was away on a trip to the Kootenays, so “master-builder” Manfred was in charge of putting the hut together.  The majority of the hut was built on the Saturday and the finishing touches and aluminum siding were added on Sunday.  The outhouse was built on the Monday but no trench was dug because the snow had already started to fall.

The Wedgemount Lake Hut. Photo: Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia.

Brian Wood, a BCMC member and former President of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia, recalled the BCMC assembled a work crew to go back to Wedgemount Lake to complete the construction of the hut in 1971.  When the crew arrived wind and snow creep had pushed the hut off of its foundations.  The crew used fallen logs to help maneuver the hut back into place and attached a couple of guy wires to help keep the hut on its foundations.  The crew dug the pit for the outhouse and the hut was ready to officially open that summer.

The Wedgemount Lake Hut remains a popular destination for hikers, rock-climbers and ski mountaineers to this day.  Because the hut only accommodates eight people. BC Parks has build camping spots and a bear cache nearby.  Reservations are required to camp or use the hut year-round.  If you’re interested in heading out, visit the BC Parks website for more details.