Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

The Canada Jay: Good company for men in lonely places

While it is easy to point out the changes to Whistler throughout time, one thing that has remained constant on the mountains is the friendly birds up the top. It is common to hear exclamations of delight in the lift lines of Harmony, Symphony or 7th Heaven as Canada Jays fly from ski pole to helmet, looking for an easy lunch.

The Canada Jay, seen here on Whistler Mountain around 1969, has captured hearts throughout time. Many would agree with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Without the Gray Jay with its soft wingbeats, its sudden appearances out of the dark green backdrop, the austere northern forests would lose much enchantment and character.” Cliff Fenner Collection.

The Hinterland Who’s Who published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1973 phrases it beautifully, “Among birds, the Gray Jay has intelligence and graces that set it apart. We, who are not accustomed to being approached by any wild creature without fear and anger, are charmed by its easy audacity and prompt to forgive its sins.”

Before lift lines and backcountry campgrounds were the places to be, the Canada Jay would join lumber camps, hunters and farmers waiting to “gorge upon warm entrails” of whatever meat was being prepared for dinner. When humans are not butchering the food, Canada Jays can do it themselves, catching small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, and chasing birds from their nests to get the eggs. They are omnivorous and will also feed on berries, needles and buds from trees.

To survive alpine winters the Canada Jay caches food when it is abundant. The food is covered in saliva in the mouth and then the sticky saliva balls are stored in trees for later. One study found that a single Canada Jay can store and retrieve thousands of pieces of food annually. However, it is suggested that a warming climate especially during fall may cause these perishable food stores to spoil, threatening the reproduction of the Canada Jay. One study specifically found that a higher number of freeze-thaw events in fall correlated to fewer and weaker offspring as there was not enough food to both survive and reproduce.

The Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) was officially recognised as the Gray Jay between 1957 and 2018, and is also commonly called the Whisky Jack. Depending on ones affection for the sneaky birds they may be known as ‘camp robber’, ‘venison hawk’ or ‘grease bird’, alluding to the jay’s fondness for meat and petty thievery. To prevent confusion stemming from multiple common names, scientific binomial names assign each species a unique two word identifier so they can be recognised globally. The first word being the genus name (Perisoreus) and the second is the species name (canadensis).

The Canada Jay, still capturing hearts in 2022.

Until recently it was thought that birds could only change their feather colour when they moult. Adding to confusion while classifying and identifying this species, the Canada Jay appears to be an exception to this rule, becoming browner throughout the year until they moult back to a fresh grey coat in May/June. It also appears that preserved specimens may continue to lose their grey colour, becoming browner throughout time in museum collections. This colour change tricked taxonomists into originally identifying Canada Jays as multiple species.

The 1941 Field Guide to Western Birds in the museum library contains separate descriptions of the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and Oregon Jay (Perisoreus obscurus). With advances in identification and classification, including DNA technology, we now know they are a single species. Luckily Margaret Mackenzie, the owner of the field guide, had ticked them both off as identified anyway.

Regardless of what you call them, the love for these birds is widespread. “Trusting and easily tamed, the Gray Jay is good company for men in lonely places.” They just do not write governmental scientific publications like they used to.

Whistler Mountain’s First Ski Patrol

We all know that ski patrol is vital to a safe and functioning ski resort. The first people on the mountain and the last to leave, ski patrollers ensure the terrain is safe before anyone else can access the runs and regularly take risks to save lives. Originally run entirely by volunteers, First Aid Ski Patrol on Whistler started with 12 people in 1965, before construction of the lifts had even been completed. There were over 80 active volunteers at its peak. With Whistler Mountain growing rapidly professional ski patrollers were brought in, and First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers continued to support professional patrol until Blackcomb opened in 1980.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during chairlift evacuation practice in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Tony Lyttle was the head of the First Aid Ski Patrol from 1965 to 1971. According to Lyttle, “In 1965, when the Mountain opened, we were all staying in trailers along with the rest of the staff of Whistler. As Whistler got more and more paid staff, there was less and less room for the patrol to stay. So that’s when we eventually got moved to the floor of the cafeteria, and that wasn’t very good because they started cooking at about 3 am or earlier. So people would never get any sleep.”

On top of sleeping in the cafeteria, everything that a patroller needed was self-funded, relying on donations, fundraising and the generosity of the patrollers themselves, including the construction of the patrol clubhouse. In 1972, there was a raffle to raise money for portable two-way radios which revolutionised ski patrol practices. Before this they used the ‘bump system’ where patrollers would rotate between skiing a lap and waiting at the top of a lift so someone could always be found in an emergency. It also meant waiting long periods out in the elements, and could be bitterly cold in the days before Gore-Tex.

Along with the volunteer patrollers, there was a rotation of ten doctors who could administer pain relief and assist with diagnosis, sutures and dislocated shoulders. Flags were raised to get a doctors attention when additional medical support was required. There was no medical centre, only a small First Aid Room. Without ambulances people mostly went home injured or travelled to Squamish or Vancouver via private vehicle. There was a helicopter landing pad by the gravel parking lot, but only the most serious head or back injuries were flown out via helicopter for further treatment.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during training in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Washouts and rockslides regularly closed the road to Whistler. Lyttle remembers once loading dozens of injured skiers onto the train to Vancouver on Sunday night after the road was closed all weekend. “There were people loaded in that train on every seat, on the floor, down the aisles, all their luggage was piled high in the racks and then we had two freight-type cabins where we piled all the patients. All the stretchers were one on top of each other on racks. It was unbelievable and people were being sick and we were trying to give hypodermic needles, painkillers in the semi-dark with flashlights. It was like a movie. Then when we arrived in Vancouver, every ambulance in the city was at the North Vancouver station with all these red lights flashing and police cars.”

Recognised as some of the most capable patrollers in North America while paid not a dime, volunteer First Aid Ski Patrol was responsible for risk management, marking runs, trail maintenance, lift evacuations, finding lost skiers and First Aid, and they regularly had to help dig out the lifts after a big snow. However, as many fondly remember, the parties were legendary and the powder never got skied out!

Hot Dogging and the Evolution of Freestyle Skiing

People were flying through the air on skis long before the Wright Brothers took to the sky. However, freestyle skiing, or ‘hot dogging’ as it was once known, really took off in the 1970s. With few rules, the aim of hot dogging was to go down the slope in the most spectacular way possible.

A competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. When Whistler hosted a similar championship in 1973 it was called the Labatt’s National Aerial and Hot Dog Championships. Whistler Question Collection.

Looking back at the evolution of freestyle skiing can feel like reading a different language. Even avid freestyle skiers today may not be familiar with the popular tricks from the 1970s such as the Mule Kick, Back Scratcher or the Leg Breaker, however you may be able to visualise the movement from the name. Other tricks were named after the first person to complete or popularise a manoeuvre, such as the Daigle Banger, named after Canadian ski legend Michel Daigle who lived in Whistler and worked as a ski patroller and freestyle ski instructor. The Daigle Banger was a popular ski ballet move that involved a front flip and rotation with one hand planted on the snow.

In the 1960s, skiing followed a rigid structure with specific ideas about how a person ‘should’ ski, and ski racing was the sole competitive focus. Freestyle skiing was born out of rebellion against the ‘rules’ of skiing. While freestyle skiing was not always accepted by the competitive sporting bodies, it quickly became popular with spectators watching as the competitors put on a great show, combining speed, strength and imagination. In early competitions, it could be difficult to tell if a person was somersaulting down the hill on purpose, but initially it did not really matter. The scoring of very early hot dog competitions was largely based off of crowd reaction, and the cheering could be loudest after an entertaining crash.

Freestyle skiing was recognised by the International Ski Federation (FIS) in 1979 and the judges at the Freestyle World Cup were looking for a lot more than audience reaction. Made up of three disciplines, a competitor participated in moguls, aerials and ski ballet (also known as acroski) to become the overall Freestyle World Champion. While you have likely watched aerial and mogul competitions more recently, ski ballet fell out of favour in the early 1990s and never became an official Olympic sport.

A ski ballet competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. As well as dance like steps, ski ballet included jumps, handstands, and balancing on poles (sometimes upside down) requiring strength and balance. Whistler Question Collection.

Ski Canada Magazine from Spring 1980 explained what spectators should expect when watching ski ballet. “The ballet competition is run on a smooth intermediate slope, each competitor performing a run made up of dance-like steps, spins and turns mixed with leaps and stunts. The degree of difficultly of the skier’s run is a major factor in his eventual score. His style, control, innovation as well as the fluidity of the routine count for most of the skier’s total score. Judges look for good choreography and interpretation of the music and well-constructed combinations of the basic manoeuvres. Often, the simplest manoeuvres are also the most difficult to execute well.”

Freestyle skiing has seen dramatic changes since the days of hot dogging thanks to athletes constantly pushing the boundaries of the sport, as well as advances in equipment. Recently the Whistler Museum was lucky to host a Speaker Series with local freestyle ski legends – three time Freestyle World Champion Stephanie Sloan, and ‘Godfather of freeskiing’ Mike Douglas.

Snowboard Park – No Skiers Allowed!

Blackcomb Mountain opened for snowboarders in the 87/88 season. While it would take Whistler another year to start embracing snowboard culture, Blackcomb was generally supportive of the ‘knuckle-draggers’ thanks to the persistence and passion of a few snowboarders on staff and in the community. Additionally, Hugh Smythe could see the strategic benefits of welcoming a new group of riders.

Before terrain parks were a common feature of ski resorts, snowboarders would travel from all around Canada and the world to take advantage of the many natural features of Blackcomb, perfect for sending big air and pushing the boundaries of the new sport. The natural quarterpipe and wind lip on Blackcomb featured in many publications and films, including the cover of Transworld SNOWboarding with Doug Lundgren. Before the official park, groups would also build their own kickers and crude halfpipes on the mountain. This sometimes involved trying to avoid the watchful eye of ski patrol.

The natural features of Blackcomb attracted snowboarders from around Canada and the world. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Sean Sullivan 1991.

Stu Osborne was instrumental to the snowboarding scene on Blackcomb. Stu started as an instructor and went on to become Snowboard Coordinator and then Terrain Park Supervisor, founding the first Blackcomb management-sanctioned halfpipe and snowboard park. While the Kokanee Snowboard Park officially appeared on the Blackcomb trail map in the 94/95 winter season, the first halfpipe and park launched earlier.

There was still a mentality of skiers versus snowboarders at this time and despite receiving approval to create the initial halfpipe, accessing the resources from the Blackcomb Operations team to build the park was a different story. To get around the lack of resources, Snow Ejectors, a private snow removal company, became a sponsor, providing custom-painted shovels for the build. The early halfpipe was created using these shovels and a little cat time.

During a competition featuring many of the world’s best riders, the Snow Ejectors’ hand-painted banner was larger than those of any of the other sponsors, much to the chagrin of Blackcomb management. The next year, more equipment and support was provided by Blackcomb Mountain. Before the opening of the Kokanee Snowboard Park, Blackcomb became one of the first resorts in Canada to get a pipe dragon, specialised grooming equipment that could carve out a uniform halfpipe far more easily than hand-digging.

A snowboarder takes flight near the Kokanee Snowboard Park. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

In the early days, ‘Blackcomb Snowboard Park’ was exactly that, a park for snowboarders. Rules had changed (in this one niche area on the mountain) and there was a big sign that specified ‘no skiers allowed’. Skiers would wait outside the snowboard park in groups, and bomb the park together in a train so they were harder to catch. It wasn’t long, however, until the park evolved to welcome both snowboarders and skiers as the more inclusive ‘terrain park’ that we know today. 

Originally, the park features on Blackcomb and other resorts in the Canada West Ski Area Association were rated like ski runs, with greens, blues, blacks and double blacks. As most people probably understand, riding a beginner feature would require different skills to a typical green run; however the system broke down when a visitor went off a jump that was far beyond their ability and sustained a debilitating injury. The resulting lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and, learning from this experience, the ratings in the terrain park were changed to those that we see today. Burton had just introduced Smart Style, the orange oval to indicate freestyle terrain. Whistler Blackcomb and the Canada West Ski Area Association went one step further adding S, M, L and XL sizing to keep it easy to interpret. Both features and parks are marked so people can easily choose where to ride within their ability.