Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

Unforgettable Whistler Mountain Staff Parties

When I think of Whistler Blackcomb staff parties, I think of Mickey Mouse’s Christmas Album and walking around the Conference Centre collecting little trolls from the Christmas crackers. It was shocking to my 6-year-old brain that some of the adults did not want the trolls, and they travelled across the world with me when my family moved to Australia. Mickey’s Christmas album also came with us and it still comes on in December every year, much to my father’s dismay.

While it is hard to believe, some of Whistler Mountain’s other staff parties sound even better. The 1986 year-end staff party will go down in the history books.

At the end of the 1985/86 winter, Canada was coming out of the recession that had gripped the country throughout the early 1980s. Peak Chair had not yet been constructed but was going in over the summer and the competition between Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain was still in full swing.

After Whistler Mountain closed to the public for the end of the 1985/86 season, the lifts turned on again for a staff celebration. Ullr was happy and it had dumped with snow overnight so the celebrating staff got fresh snow all to themselves.

To get all the staff onto the mountain for the celebration, the gondola from Creekside ran for a few hours in the morning then closed once everyone was up. For the rest of the day, the Whistler T-bar and Red Chair were running unmanned allowing everyone to join the party. With absolutely no liftys, staff could ski down and hop straight onto the lift however they pleased.

Like the majority of Whistler Mountain parties back then it was a fully catered event. Booze and food were plentiful, with management flipping burgers and Pika’s overflowing with unlimited free drinks for all. Looking at photos from the event, the outfits scream 1980s spring skiing – Vaurnets all around, bright colours and spectacular goggle tans. With many people dressed up in costume it is unclear whether there was a theme or the costumes were just out to celebrate the end of the season.

L to R – Andrea Thompson, Scott Paxton and Erin Early in front of the Roundhouse during the 1986 Whistler Mountain staff party. Photo courtesy of Dave Steers.

Remembering the festivities, Janet Love Morrison recalled, “there was all this booze and so you’d have a couple of drinks and then you just ski down to Little Red, load yourself up with no liftys. It was pretty crazy.” Despite this, there were no serious incidents during the raucous party.

Whistler Mountain had a reputation for excellent staff parties, so much so that locals who did not work for Whistler Mountain paid for a helicopter to Whistler Peak so they could join the revelry!

Now living on the Sunshine Coast, photographer and longtime employee of Whistler Mountain, Dave Steers, remembered another side of the event. “The skiing was amazing and it was the last time ever that you could lap the Peak and lay down tracks beside your last set.” Before the chairlift went in only a small number of people hiked the Peak so you could always get fresh tracks. Once the ‘weak chair’ to the Peak was built far more people began accessing the terrain.

For more about ski culture in the 1980s, visit Peak Bros: A Whistler Comic Strip 1979 – 1992 at the Whistler Museum until April 23rd, 2023.

Whistler Peak before the Peak Chair went in over the summer of 1986. Photo courtesy of Dave Steers.

Camping Inside Municipal Boundaries

The first official campground inside municipal boundaries was the KOA (Kampgrounds of America) Campground, on the land that is now Spruce Grove.

Before the campground opened, people who wanted to camp in Whistler stayed in their campers and cars in the municipal day skier lots and lift company parking lots at Creekside and Blackcomb Base 2, managed by Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain respectively.

In 1981, the official position of the municipality stated that campers should park overnight at the Alpha Lake Aggregates pit by Function Junction. However, this was a long way from the ski slopes and campers were found far more often in the lots close to the lifts. Extended overnight stays were accepted and, in some cases, welcomed in the parking lots. Blackcomb even installed hookups so campers had electricity while staying in the Base 2 parking lot.

Rows of campers staying in the Creekside day skier parking lot in 1981. Camping in the day skier lots was accepted until Whistler got an official campground in 1985. Whistler Question Collection.

Ruth Buzzard had purchased a 15.2 hectare property running along both sides of Fitzsimmons Creek, north of White Gold, in 1980. After a difficult approval process, the KOA Kampground, or Whistler Campground as it became known, finally opened in November 1985.

Whistler Campground billed itself as a year-round camping resort boasting a hot tub, sauna, pond skating rink, hook-ups and a free shuttle bus to the Village. To better cater to winter weekenders, the campground allowed visitors to leave their RVs in the overflow parking during the week for a discount, allowing visitors to drive to their campers each week without pulling them up and down the Sea to Sky Highway.

With the campground finally available, parking overnight became illegal in the municipal day skier lots. This was both to encourage campers to move to the campground and to allow plowing of the parking overnight.

Additionally, in 1984, an amendment was made to the zoning bylaw for Rural Resource 1 (RR1) lands which banned overnight stays. Initially the amended bylaw was not enforced because campers had nowhere else to go. However, once the campground drew the council’s attention to the zoning discrepancy, the no camping regulation began to be enforced on all RR1 lands, which included the municipal day skier lots and parking at Blackcomb and Whistler Mountain. Campers were ticketed and threatened with towing in the day skier lots, and gates were put up to prevent overnight campers from accessing the lift company parking lots. Unsurprisingly, it was not a popular decision to stop free ski-in/ski-out camping and letters of complaint were regularly published in the Whistler Question.

Whistler Campground in 1995 before the supreme court ruled that it had to be sold to Greensides. Whistler Question Collection.

With visitors still choosing to camp elsewhere throughout the winter, keeping the campground open year-round was not economically viable. In 1992, the Whistler Campground started to close for the winter. They were still busy the rest of the year, with the 151 sites regularly hosting more than 600 campers on summer weekends. When the sites filled up, Ruth and the campground team, including her sons David and Mark, would help campers find spots across their large property. There were even stories of enterprising campers setting up on the gravel bar in the middle of the creek when all the sites were filled.

Unfortunately, the campground wouldn’t last. In 1989, Vancouver-based developer Greensides Properties Inc. bought an option-to-buy on the property, giving them exclusive rights to purchase the land in the future. In the early 1990s, they followed through on their option deciding to go ahead with the purchase. Despite three appeals to the Supreme Court, Ruth was required to sell the land. According to the Whistler Question, the property was sold for 3 million dollars, plus 35% of the money derived from the redevelopment.

The picnic tables stacked after the closing of the Whistler Campground. Whistler Question Collection.

Greensides took over the property in 1996, agreeing with the council to run the campground throughout the summer. With a few approval setbacks along the way, the development of the Spruce Grove subdivision began in 1998.

Whistler went without a campground again until Riverside Campground finally opened in December 1999.

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.