Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

Learning to Ski with Ski-ed

Each week we really enjoy sharing stories, events and photos from Whistler’s past through the Museum Musings column in Pique Newsmagazine.  This column offers a way to share far more stories than would be possible in our physical building.  In 1980, another Whistler institution had its own column in another Whistler newspaper, the Whistler Question, that they used to share knowledge and information each week.  This was “Get Ski-ed on Blackcomb,” written by various employees of Blackcomb Mountain.

In preparation for the official opening of Blackcomb Mountain in December, the first “Get Ski-ed” column was published in the early fall of 1980.  Though the main purpose of the column was stated as “to keep you informed on the most up-to-date skiing ideas and hints to further your skiing education,” the column also offered a way to introduce members of the Blackcomb team and new programs to the public.

Dennis Hansen, the first director of Ski-ed, poses outside the temporary Blackcomb offices. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

“Get Ski-ed” was kicked off by Dennis Hansen, a 29 year old Level 4 instructor who had previously worked at the Grouse Mountain Ski School.  He joined Blackcomb as the director of Ski-ed, “a new focus on ski education offering programs for everyone.”  Hansen shared his tips for getting in shape before the winter season, stating that getting in shape by skiing was not recommended.  Conveniently, this article coincided with the introduction of a “Get fit for skiing” program for adults offered by Ski-ed.

Running or jogging was the preferred way of getting in shape for Bob Fulton, the assistant director of Ski-ed.  He recommended varying your running rout to prevent boredom, using a run as a chance to take in the scenery around Whistler’s many trails.

Jose (Pepo) Hanff shows off some the Blackcomb uniform pieces featuring the original Blackcomb logo. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Over October and November, Fulton and Hansen shared tips for buying equipment (“The most important part of your equipment for any level of skier is your boots.”) and maintaining current equipment.   From minor ski tuning to how to wax skis, they encouraged skiers to prepare for the upcoming season and continue taking care of their equipment throughout the season.

In total, seven of Blackcomb Mountain’s “Ski Pros” were introduced through the Whistler Question column by the end of 1980.  Linda Turcot and Jose (Pepo) Hanff discussed the Molstar Race program for recreational racers and how to start racing as an adult skier.  Rob McSkimming offered tips for skiing smoothly with less effort, taking inspiration from Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark.  Jani Sutherland, Ski-ed’s Kids Specialist, gave parents helpful tips for getting their kids ready for ski lessons.  Her advice included such practical matters as ensuring they were send to a lesson with Chapstick, Kleenex, and contact information for a parent in the pockets.  Sutherland also provided information about buying equipment for children and advised parents to pay attention to their own form when skiing, as children learn through imitation.

Cathy MacLean thought that one of the most important parts of learning to ski was mastering the chairlift. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Perhaps the most practical advice provided by “Get Ski-ed” column that year was from full-time Ski Pro Cathy MacLean, who wrote her article about how to ride a chairlift.  According to MacLean, “first thing to do is try to find a person who has ridden a chairlift before, and is willing to go up with you.”

At the time, the “Get Ski-ed” column, like the earlier articles by Jim McConkey in Garibaldi’s Whistler News, blended advice, information, and promotion of Blackcomb Mountain’s events and programs.  Today, however, they offer insight into changes in equipment technology, the teaching of skiing, and even the individuals who worked at Blackcomb Mountain in its first year of operations.

Blackcomb’s 40

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations.  Last Thursday (December 4) marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift Two using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.

The opening ceremonies at Lift Two on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith Collection.

This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain.  The day before, on December 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems.  The previous winter Blackcomb had offered Snowcat tours for twelve skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain.  December 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.

Jerry Blan and Hugh Smythe from Fortress Mountain Resorts present the Blackcomb development to the public.  Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

In 1978 the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination.  Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR).  As Smythe recalls, it was on October 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.

Opening day, when it arrived, was accompanied by 18 feet of cake from Gourmet Bakery.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager.  In 1974 he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) (today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada) after going into bankruptcy in 1971.  When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co.  Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain.  According to him, his watch was “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.”  Luckily, they did.

The Blackcomb snowcat tours promised skiers fresh snow and a hot lunch. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978/79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails.  Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front year.  The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979/80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours.  The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains.  In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

The original target date set in 1978 was December 1, 1980.  Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days later, a feat described by the management as “not bad.”  Lift One from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.

Mayor Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe load the first chair to head up Blackcomb. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Happy 40th Blackcomb!

Canoeing through Whistler’s Past

This evening (Tuesday, July 7) the museum will be hosting our first virtual Speaker Series, an adapted version of the talk and film screening with Mike Stein that we were originally planning to present in March.  Though Whistler is known internationally as a ski resort, the film features a different form of recreation and transportation that is commonly found in the valley: canoeing.

In the 1980s there was even a Whistler Canoe Club, which held races on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Canoeing has a much longer history in the area than snowsports, as canoes are important to both the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations.  The Great Hall of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre features a 40 foot long Salish hunting canoe carved from a single cedar tree which at times is removed from the exhibition and taken on an ocean journey.  Learn more about this canoe and others by visiting the Squmaish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which reopened last month.

The Whistler Museum also has records of canoes being used to transport people and products around the valley for over a century.

In the early 1900s the Barnfield family established a dairy farm on their property at the northeast end of Alta Lake.  As summer tourism became more popular in the area following the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1914, the Barnfield’s dairy began supplying the lodges and visitors with fresh supplies.  They used a dugout canoe to deliver milk, cream, eggs, news and gossip to the different lodges on Alta Lake.  By 1920 their largest customer was Rainbow Lodge, which had a daily order of 80 quarts of milk, 4 quarts of cream, and 2 quarts of table cream.

This dugout canoe is similar to the one Alfred and Fred would have used. It may in fact be the one they used, but we have no records to confirm or deny that.

Rainbow Lodge itself had a number of boats, including canoes, for guests and staff to use for fishing or paddling down the River of Golden Dreams, one of which now resides in the museum’s collection.  In 2011 the museum, with the generous support of the Province of British Columbia, was able to purchase a cedar canoe bought by Alex and Myrtle Philip in 1916 for Rainbow Lodge.  After the Philips sold the lodge in 1948, Myrtle kept the canoe for her own personal use for the next 25 years.  The canoe and aged and, before coming back to Alta Lake, was restored by Dave Lanthier, an expert vintage canoe restorer and member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.  The canoe is currently displayed in the Whistler Public Library, as the museum does not have the space to exhibit such a large item.

Myrtle’s canoe, pre-restoration.  The canoe now hangs on the wall of the Whistler Public Library, until such a time as we have space to display it at the museum.

The popularity of canoeing continued even after skiing came to Whistler.  In 1975 canoes represented the water part of the first Great Snow Earth Water Race, with cyclists passing the baton to canoeists who worked their way up Alta Lake to the first weir on the River of Golden Dreams, where they handed off to the runners.  From all reports, the canoeing was the most fun for the spectators.  According to Dave Steers, “Most of the teams had members who could tell the front of a canoe from the back.  A few teams didn’t even have that.”  As you can imagine, quite a few canoes tipped and those watching got to see a lot of splashing.

The canoe portion of the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race heads out on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Three years before that inaugural race, Mike Stein, Adolf Teufele, Wink Bradford, Ferdi Wenger, and Jim McConkey set out on their own journey by canoe on the Liard River.  Teufele captured their adventures in the Grand Canyon, a 20 km stretch of the Liard, on 16mm film and the film has now been digitized, edited, and narrated by Stein.  This evening we’ll be hearing from Stein about the film and the journey, as well as screening Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard, via Zoom.  Visit here to learn more about the event and register.

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!