Category Archives: Mountain Culture

Life in the mountains.

Dining on the Mile High Mountain

The smell of fresh doughnuts, french fries made from scratch, and fine dining on the mountain top. Baked goods, including those giant cookies, sandwiches and hot food worth freezing for; Blackcomb Mountain took on-mountain dining in the 1980s and stepped it up a notch.

When they opened in 1980, Blackcomb had a real focus on hospitality, making guests comfortable to encourage return visits. Before Merlin’s or Crystal or Glacier Lodge, you may remember dining at the cafeteria at Base 2, the original base of Blackcomb, or the Rendezvous Lodge.

The original daylodge on Blackcomb was located in the area now known as Base 2. Whistler Question Collection.

The Parsons family were the first concessionaires on Blackcomb, opening these venues with the opening of the new mountain. Chris Leighton (née Parsons), her brother Steve, and their mum Lee were the brains and brawn behind the impressive operation. The Parsons family had the food business in their blood. In 1929, Chris’ grandfather had opened Jimmy’s Lunch at the PNE, which is still run by the family to this day. Christine’s father, Bob Parsons, also had a food stall that travelled the carnival circuit every year from May to October. He would be on the road all summer, then could spend the winter in the mountains, skiing with family and volunteering with Whistler Mountain Ski Club. Sadly Bob passed away in 1979, one year before his family opened the food services on Blackcomb.

The top of Blackcomb looked a little different when Rendezvous Lodge first opened. Whistler Question Collection.

When the cafeteria and Rendezvous opened, the cafeteria had a large preparation space and much of the food was made at the base and then transported up the mountain either by snowcat or by foot based on the amount of snow at the base. Unfortunately for Blackcomb, the first year of operation was a terrible snow year. There were three lifts to get up the mountain and they did not line up exactly, so food and supplies had to be skied from one lift to the next until they reached the snowcat. Inevitably, food would spill along the way.

Blackcomb hospitality staff. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Once there was enough snow, success was still not a given. Visitor numbers would come in at 11am and when there was not a single guest on the mountain they closed for the day.

According to Chris, the direction from Aspen Ski Company and Huge Smythe were, “’We don’t want to be like Whistler. We want to be better.’ Hugh would come through everyday and make sure the music wasn’t too loud and that it was expected that we were going to be bigger and better.”

Customer service training for Blackcomb staff. Whistler Question Collection.

When Blackcomb opened there were caretakers that lived at the top who were responsible for starting the doughnuts and fresh baking so wonderful smells welcomed the guests. The caretakers also put soups and chilli on to heat because regular staff could only upload 30 minutes before the mountain opened to the public.

While it is common to find vegetarian options on most menus today, in the 1980s it was quite unusual to have the choice of vegetarian or beef chilli which Blackcomb offered. Food was served on real crockery with real cutlery. They even flew a ‘fry guy’ over from England to train everyone in how to make french fries from scratch using a chipper.

Blackcomb food service staff, May 1983. Whistler Question Collection.

The food up Blackcomb during the Parsons’ reign is still raved about today. They went on to open Christine’s Restaurant, fine dining on top of the mountain named after Chris herself (much to her chagrin; Chris thought Wildflower or Lupin were better names but Hugh Smythe was adamant). Horstman Hut, Crystal Hut and Merlin’s were also opened during their time as concessionaires. After 10 years, and growing the staff from a daily requirement of around 10 to 100, the Parsons decided it was time for the next adventure and Blackcomb took over.

Some local faces enjoying Christine’s in the 1980s. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Whistler’s Original On-mountain Dining

When Whistler Mountain opened to visitors in 1966 Franz Wilhelmsen was certain people would bring their own lunch and would not want to purchase food up the mountain. Originally the only place on the hill to purchase food was Garibaldi Cafeteria near the gondola base on Whistler Mountain (now Creekside).

The cafeteria first opened during construction of the lifts in 1965 to feed the influx of workers. Run by Leo and Soula Katsuris, the cafeteria was nothing fancy but it fed everyone quickly with limited resources. Once the lifts opened for visitors, the cafeteria transitioned to feeding skiers.

Creekside during construction. The Cafeteria is the large building in the middle. Janet Love Morrison Collection.

Garibaldi Cafeteria, often known as Whistler Cafeteria or simply ‘the cafeteria’, quickly became a community hub and remained in operation for over 15 years. Many of the original members of the volunteer ski patrol remember sleeping in the cafeteria when accommodation was tight. Weekly movie nights also moved to the cafeteria once it opened. This social night was so popular that locals from all around the valley would gather weekly to watch films. Tragically, in the early 1970s the cafeteria was also home to Whistler’s first recorded murder when a 20 year-old employee was shot and killed.

L’Après at the base of Whistler Mountain in Creekside. George Benjamin Collection.

In 1969, Leo Katsuris opened L’Après next to the cafeteria. Open from lunch until late, L’Après catered to a later crowd with pizza, Greek food and regular live music and parties, becoming Le Club in the evenings. The theme nights, including Beach Party and Western Night, were legendary. Eventually the Garibaldi Cafeteria was incorporated into the L’Après brand becoming L’Après Dining Room and Cafeteria, the centre of everything in Whistler at this time. The BC liquor board required food purchase to buy a drink, and nursing a ‘plastic cheese sandwich’ kept the beer flowing.

Greek Nights at L’Après included great entertainment and even better food. Whistler Question Collection.

Further up the mountain, the hungry skier market was capitalised on almost immediately when (William) Jack Biggin-Pound from Squamish set up a Coleman camp stove and picnic table to serve soup, sandwiches and hot drinks, as well as Mary’s famous cinnamon buns, in the Red Shack at the top of Red Chair. This moved to the Roundhouse after it was built in the summer of 1966 without any dining facilities.

The Katsuris’, who along with their staff were known colloquially as ‘The Greeks’, also managed the dining at the Roundhouse where everything had to be brought up the mountain pre-prepared. There was no power, storage or refrigeration until 1970 when renovations to the Roundhouse brought ‘a new modern electric food preparation and serving area’. This allowed a larger variety and amount of food to be prepared and served, including hot chocolate, fries, chilli, stew, hot dogs and chicken. They also started serving breakfast on the mountain for the first time.

The bustling Roundhouse in Spring 1968. Janet Love Morrison Collection.

Trying to predict demand was a real guessing game, based largely on the weather. Despite the new facilities, challenges in food preparation and logistics continued and there were very few updates to the food service on Whistler Mountain over the next ten years. The food service gained a poor reputation. According to one story, when the wait time for food at the Roundhouse was long, hamburger patties were only cooked on one side to speed up the cook time. Bob Penner, who lived in Whistler in the 1970s, said the hamburgers at the Roundhouse “made your regular canned meat or tuna taste so much better”.

Once the development of Blackcomb Mountain was announced, Whistler Mountain knew they needed to step up their hospitality. Whistler Mountain Ski Corp took over the existing food venues, redeveloping L’Après into Dusty’s, and, thanks to the competition with Blackcomb, the next decade brought many new and improved on-mountain dining options.

Visitors enjoying sunshine at the Roundhouse. Greg Griffith Collection.

‘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!