Category Archives: Museum Musings

The Snow (or not) of 1976-77

by John Hetherington, WMAS President

November 1976 was dry, with a cold north wind blowing into December. From the time that Whistler Mountain opened for skiing in 1966 through the 1975-76 season, there had always been plenty of snow, with extraordinary snowfall amounts in the 1966-67, 1968-69, 1971-72, and 1973-74 seasons (1973-74 is still stated as the record year).

Despite the stories of Dick Fairhurst, who moved to the Alta Lake area in 1944, most of us living here in the 1970s thought that the big snow years would never end, and so snowmaking had never been considered. Fairhurst claimed that there had been a couple of no-snow winters in the 1950s and that he had built the foundation for Cypress Lodge during a snowless February. 1976-77 came as a severe shock to the rest of us.

Dick Fairhurst also opened the first ski lift in the Whistler valley, a tow rope on Sproatt Mountain, and knew a bit about the area’s winters. Fairhurst Collection.

Very early in the 1976-77 season, there was some snow in the alpine and just enough that skiers had been able to ski to the bottom of the Green Chair. Then it rained and skiers had to hike down the last 100 metres or so in the gravel and mud.

In mid-December, Lift Operations managed to borrow a snow gun from Grouse Mountain and transport it to the bottom of the Green Chair. There used to be a small creek that ran down on skiers’ right of the old Green Chair. The ski patrol put a full case of Submagel, a very potent explosive designed for underwater uses, into the creek near the base of the Green Chair. Everyone was evacuated from the area due to the obvious hazard of raining debris and the explosion created a reservoir in the creek. After a dam was built at the low end, the reservoir could impound enough water to permit snowmaking for 2 to 3 hours each day.

The two Green Chairs can be seen heading up towards the Roundhouse. In early winter 1976-77, this slope would have been almost entirely bare. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

With this limited capability, the packer drivers were able to spread a narrow ribbon of snow that allowed skiers to ski to the base of the Green Chair. Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays. Those who came could ski on the Green Chair and in the T-bar bowl, but had to download on the Red Chair and the gondola. After the holidays, however, there was a warm rain that wiped out the snow on the lower slopes of the Green and Whistler was forced to close for three weeks in January 1977.

While most of the staff on Whistler Mountain had been laid off, a few of us were kept on so the ski area would at least have some core staff when the mountain was able to re-open. Those of us still employed referred to it as Garibaldi Lifts welfare. The lift company opened a soup kitchen so that its laid-off employees wouldn’t starve.

Myrtle Philip and Agnes Harrop ice-boating on a frozen Alta Lake. Philip Collection.

During this time, the weather was mostly clear with a strong temperature inversion. The local lakes were frozen, allowing a perpetual hockey game on Alta Lake, and, after running out of useful things to do, Jamie Tattersfield, the head packer driver, and I built a rather crude iceboat in the maintenance shop. We put it on Alta Lake in front of Tokum Corners and spread the word that anyone could use it as long as they brought it back.

Cheakamus Lake was frozen and clear of snow, so many locals hiked in with their skates on the snowless trail to skate the entire length of Cheakamus Lake. There were a couple of pressure ridges to jump over and the ice was incredibly noisy, constantly pinging and boinging and echoing in the narrow valley.

A small amount of snow came in late January, allowing the mountain to re-open on a limited basis. More snow came later in February, and then the real snow finally came in March. Given the shallow snow pack and early cold temperatures, there was a thick layer of well-developed basal facets, which helped produce some stupendous avalanches later in March.

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.

Jenny Jardine at Alta Lake

In the museum collections is one photograph of a New Year’s celebration held at the Alta Lake School in 1937.  We don’t know who all of the people in the photo are, but a few names are written on its back, including the name of Jenny Jardine.  Although Jenny and her family attended social events at the school (Jenny was even in charge of the refreshments for a time), she never attended the school as a pupil.  We know a lot about Jenny’s life in the valley through her memoir, letters with Florence Petersen, and oral history interviews with the museum.

New Years celebrations held at the Alta Lake School House – Jenny Jardine is pictured far right.  Philip Collection.

Jenny was born in Kelowna in December 1912.  Her parents, Lizzie Laidlaw and John Jardine, had met aboard the ship that brought their families from Scotland to Canada and married a few years later.  Jenny was their first child, followed by Jack eighteen months later.  Lizzie and the children remained in Kelowna when John went to fight in the First World War, moving to Vancouver after he was wounded at Mons and sent to Vancouver General Hospital.  When he was released, John found work on the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) and the family settled in Squamish.

John was killed when a speeder he was riding on collided with a train and Lizzie moved her family back to Kelowna, where their third child, Bob, was born.  They soon relocated again, moving to North Vancouver where Lizzie was offered work keeping house for Thomas Neiland, a friend of John’s.  In 1921, the entire household moved to Alta Lake, where Neiland planned to start his own logging business.

Formal portrait of Thomas and Lizzie Neiland taken in the 1940s.  Betts/Smith/Jardine Collection.

Jenny was only 8 1/2 when here family moved to Alta Lake.  She had attended school in Squamish, Kelowna, and North Vancouver, but at the time there was no school in Alta Lake.  She and her brother Jack were enrolled in correspondence courses, but learning by correspondence in the 1920s was frustrating to say the least.  After Lizzie married Thomas Neiland and had another son Tom Neiland, keeping Jenny and Jack at their studies became more of a struggle.  According to Jenny, however, her mother did ensure they all learned how to read and that became “the road to other things.”

Left to right: Jenny Jardine, Flossie the dog, Jack Jardine, Tom Neiland Jr. and Bob Jardine in Lizzie Neiland’s garden at 34 1/2 mile, about 1930.  Betts/Smith/Jardine Collection.

In her memoirs, Jenny said that, during her early life at Alta Lake, most employment in the valley was “cutting railway ties, making and shipping telephone poles, prospecting, trapping, and renting a few cabins to summer visitors.”  There was also some work at an iron ore operation and on the railway.  By the time she was 12, Jenny was working for her step-father out in the woods, driving horses, cutting poles and ties, and hauling and piling the lumber.

(L-R) Sue Hill, Kay Hill, Charlie Chandler, Wallace Betts holding daughter Louise, Charlie Lundstrom, and ‘Sporty’ the dog on Alta Lake docks, 1939. J Jardine Collection.

Jenny met Wallace Betts through her brother Tom, who had met Betts at one of the logging camps in the area.  After their marriage in 1937, Jenny and Wallace moved quite a few times, often in the Alta Lake area.  They lived for a time at Parkhurst, and at the Iron Ore Spur where Jenny remembered she learned to knit socks.  Their first two children, Louise and Sam, were born in Vancouver but spent time with their grandmother Lizzie at her house in what is now Function Junction.

The Jardine/Neiland children hauling logs to the portable sawmill at 34 1/2 mile with the aid of horses, 1926. From left to right: Jenny, Jack, Bob and Tom Jr.  Betts/Smith/Jardine Collection.

Jenny’s life at Alta Lake, like that of the rest of her family, was not easy.  She later wrote that as children, “We loved living at Alta Lake, but those [logging] outfits and NSF (non-sufficient funds) cheques and no schools were not what we needed.”  Jenny felt education was very important and, according to her daughter Louise, learning became “one of the most important activities of her lift.”  She passed on this belief to her children, and was very proud that all four of her children graduated from universities.

Cameras and Museums: How Photographs Help Preserve History

No one can deny that Whistler is an extremely photogenic place.  With the valley’s majestic mountains, clear blue lakes, and abundant wildlife, it has been a beautiful getaway for lovers of the outdoors for over a century.  Many changes have taken place over those years, and the Whistler Museum and Archives Society (WMAS) is fortunate to have an extensive photo collection that documents most of it.  It is amazing how much the valley has changed over the decades, and the ability to actually see the differences through photographs is a great asset for the preservation of Whistler’s history.

A display of 1980s ski fashion, captured by photographer Greg Griffith.

If any of you follow the Whistler Museum on social media, you know that we have some very interesting photos in our archives.  One of our largest photo collections is the Greg Griffith Collection.  Greg Griffith is an Australian-born photographer who moved to Whistler in 1973 to ski.  He went on to have a successful careers in photography, showcasing Whistler’s natural beauty and documenting over 30 years of Whistler’s history.  Donated to the Whistler Museum in 2009, the collection is made up of thousands of Whistler-related photographs, ranging in subject from skiing and snowboarding competitions, to mountain tours and dramatic scenery.

Another of the Museum’s larger photo collections is the George Benjamin Collection, which was donated in 2010.  George Benjamin is a semi-professional photographer, who moved to Whistler in 1970 after staying in Toad Hall for a ski vacation.  He co-owned a well-known cabin called Tokum Corners until the 1980s and opened a photography store called the Photo Cell in Creekside, following after his family members, who owned a photo-finishing business in Ontario.  He lived in Whistler until the 1980s, and took many impressive photographs of the area during his time here.

George Benjamin captures the scene at Jordan’s Lodge on Nita Lake in the 1970s.

The Museum is also proud to house the Philip Collection, which includes photographs taken during the Rainbow Lodge era.  These photos illustrate the beauty of Whistler while it was still an undeveloped fishing retreat, and offer an interesting comparison between the Whistler Valley of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, and the Whistler of today.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

There are so many other aspects of the WMAS photo collection that we won’t be able to cover in this article, but they all play an enormous part in illustrating the valley’s colourful history.  From early horseback riding trips, to present-day Crankworx festivals, the trusty camera is always there to help preserve our history.  The WMAS collection currently includes over 170,000 photographs, which may seem like a lot, but we are always looking for more.  We are especially eager for photographs related to snowboarding and mountain biking in Whistler, photographs documenting life as mountain staff members, as well as photographs from the 1990s to the present.  With the tenth anniversary of the Olympics coming up, we’re hoping to expand our Olympic photographs collection, too.  Any photographs related to Whistler are extremely useful, though, and if you’re interested in donating to the Museum, please get in contact with us!  You can send an email to our archivist, Alyssa Bruijns, at archives @ whistlermuseum.org.  We would love to be able to add your photos and stories to the larger Whistler narrative.

If you’re interested in viewing part of our photo collection, you can go to www.whistlermuseum.smugmug.com, where you can order prints of any archival photo we have digitized.  You can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram, where we often feature photographs from the WMAS collection.

Canada’s First Interdenominational Chapel

Whistler has had some pretty memorable buildings constructed in the valley, but few are as instantly recognizable as the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel.  This iconic structure stood in various locations in Creekside for decades and, based on the responses we get to any photograph of the Chapel, holds poignant memories for many residents and visitors, past and present.

The Whistler Skiers’ Chapel.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Franz Wilhelmsen, the first president of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., fondly remembered small chapels in ski villages of Norway where he had skied as a young boy, and the lift company was able to donate land for the Chapel right at the base of Whistler Mountain.  In 1966, Marion Sutherland and Joan Maclean formed a Board of Trustees and a fundraising committee for the idea.  They approached the Vancouver Council of Churches to supply ministers and the Diocese of Kamloops agreed to include Whistler in the territory of Father Wilfred Scott of Mount Currie.

There were many people who donated their time and money to the construction of the Chapel.  The Chapel’s stained glass windows, designed by Donald Babcock, were gifted by Mr. & Mrs. Gordon Southam; Dewer Maclean donated a hand-lettered Founders book (currently in the Museum archives); and an organ was purchased with the proceeds from a ski movie night held in Vancouver.

The stained glass window of the Chapel. Wallace Collection.

The simple A-frame design of the Chapel was provided free of charge by Vancouver architect Asbjorn Gathe.  Norwegian-born Gathe studied architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology at the University of Zurich before immigrating to Vancouver in 1951.  He joined the firm of Frank Gardiner and Peter Thornton, becoming a partner in Gardiner, Thornton and Gathe in 1954 before leaving to start his own practice in 1966.

Gathe is best known for his three decades of work designing Westminster Abbey for Benedictine monks in Mission, BC, but he has also left a lasting mark on Whistler.  In addition to donating his design for the Chapel, Gathe also designed Edelweiss Village (a twelve-unit complex near the Creekside gondola base) and is responsible for the design of Tamarisk.

When the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel opened in 1966, it became the first non-denominational chapel in Canada.  It was purposely designed with no purely Christian symbols and its dedication ceremony included clergy from the Anglican, Lutheran, Jewish, and United faiths.

Tony and Irene Lyttle getting married in the Skiers’ Chapel, January 1967.

The first service held at the Chapel was for Christmas Eve and was open to any who wished to attend.  The Chapel’s interdenominational Christmas Carol Service on Christmas Eve proved to be increasingly popular, and by 1978 two additional services had been added to accommodate the several hundred people who attended.  By the mid-1980s, the demand had outgrown the small building and the Christmas Carol Service moved to the newly constructed Whistler Conference Centre.  It continued to be an inter-denominational services, led in 1986 by Reverend Valerie Reay from the United Church and Pastor Lamont Schmidt of the Whistler Community Church, with carols led by the Whistler Singers under the direction of Molly Boyd.

Though the original Whistler Skiers’ Chapel was dismantled after a final Easter Service in 2000, the many weddings, christenings, and services held in the A-frame are well remembered by those who attended.

Lost on Whistler?

In February 1968, The Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN) published an article entitled “Were 107 Skiers Really Lost on Whistler Mt.?”  The article was meant as a (somewhat belated) response to articles published in Lower Mainland newspapers on December 4, 1967 about an incident that occurred at the Blue Chair on Whistler Mountain.

In 1966, the Blue Chair had become the second chairlift to be installed onWhistler Mountain.  In was located in the same general area that the Harmony Express run today, loading in the same area and carrying skiers up to where today’s Emerald Chair offloads.  According to Lynn Mathews, the Blue Chair was part of a popular circular route.  After riding the gondola and Red Chair, skiers could go up the T-bar, hike over to the back bowl, and ski down to the base of the Blue Chair, which they could take back up to start the circle again.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967 the Blue Chair was shut down for part of the day, and skiers who had expected to take the lift back up were led out from the bottom of the chair via the beginner tail, just over 3 km.

The view from the lineup at the Blue Chair, today the location of the Harmony Chair.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the Blue Chair broke down, “stranding scores of skiers,” but the versions of events presented by those who were “stranded” differed greatly from the lift company.  Those who talked to the paper claimed that 117 skiers were led by four ski patrol volunteers on “a gruelling 6 1/2-hour hike through shoulder deep snow,” with skiers needing rescue after falling off of the single-file trail trampled by the patrollers, finishing long after dark (in December, sometime after 4 pm).

The Sun wrote that the lift company’s response to these claims was to “sneer”.  Jack Bright, then the area manager for Whistler Mountain, reported that it took less than four hours for the group to hike out, using a ski run “which happened to have a bit more fresh snow on it.”  The company handed out free passes to those who had been stranded, but claimed that the number of passes handed out did not necessarily reflect the number stranded, as “Everybody claimed to be stranded so they could get a free ticket.”

Thanks to the colour coded nature of the early Whistler Mountain chairlifts, it’s easy to identify chairs in colour photographs! George Benjamin Collection.

Two months after the incident, the lift company used their publication to clear up lingering questions.

According to Jack Bright in the GWN, high winds and extremely heavy snow caused mechanical difficulties for the Blue Chair, causing the engine to overheat and automatically stop the lift.  The operator announced that it would take from an hour to an hour and a half for the engine to cool off before they could restart.  The auxiliary engine was used to evacuate the chair.  The decision was made to send those waiting in line, accompanied by five experienced patrollers and employees, out along the beginner trail.

Due to the snow, it took longer than expected for the group to make it out.  The trail was marked and, according to Bright, “however irritable people were, there was a general gay harmony throughout the safari.”  This agrees with the memory of Lynn Mathews, who remembered her husband Dave, Whistler Mountain’s operations manager, coming home late and announcing that there were over 100 people lost on the mountain, although she said he told her, “They’re not lost, they’re having too much fun at the moment.”  According to Lynn, Dave claimed the skiers in the group were making snow angels, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time.

No matter what truly happened on the mountain that day, this experience is unlikely to be repeated today as over the past five decades both chairlifts and grooming (as well as on-mountain communications) have advanced.

Tourists, Trains, and the Cariboo Prospector

A few weeks ago, we wrote an article about the history of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.  Today, we’d like to continue that journey, so to speak, and take a look at the history of the PGE passenger trains, which were invaluable to the history of tourism in the Whistler area.

Many communities all along the PGE line were very optimistic about how the railway’s services would help expand infrastructure and encourage their communities to grow.  As it turns out, they were right – once the rail line was operational, many towns saw a huge population increase, and the passenger trains were a definite asset for tourism in BC.  From the beginning, the railway was a quick, easy way for people to visit Alta Lake, which later became the booming Resort Municipality of Whistler.  The PGE started advertising travel options for campers, fishermen, and vacationers as early as 1915.  In the early 1930s, a trip along the PGE line was advertised in newspapers as “the perfect vacation,” and by the end of the decade, the PGE had partnered with Union Steamships to provide tourists and travellers with special one-day excursion packages.

The Rainbow Lodge station could be a bustling place when a train came in, especially the Sunday excursion train. Philip Collection.

One of the longest running passenger services on the PGE line was called the Cariboo Prospector.  The route was serviced by a dayliner that eventually took passengers all the way from Vancouver to Prince George once the rail line was complete.  It boasted a fleet of the Budd Company’s self-propelled diesel multiple unit railcars, the first seven of which were bought brand-new in 1956.  Those seven railcars cost the PGE $1.5 million, which equates to just over $14 million in today’s currency.  At the time, the coaches were state-of-the-art railcars, the largest of which seated 89 people and provided passengers with the luxury of air conditioning.

BC CABINET AT WHISTLER: Mayor Carleton greets Premier Bill Bennett and Labour Minister Allan Williams as they get off the train.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 2001, BC Rail introduced another passenger service call the Whistler Northwind.  The new, luxury train ran a similar route as the Cariboo Prospector, and many people worried that the new train would prove to be too much competition for the older one.  That concern proved to be unfounded.  In the year that it ran, the Whistler Northwind only carried about 2,000 passengers, which was only a small fraction of people travelling via BC Rail.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection.

Despite the praises of train enthusiasts world-wide, and the efforts of newspapers in BC to draw more attention to the beautiful, history route, the high costs of running a railway caught up with BC Rail.  After years of struggling to make ends meet, they were forced to shut down passenger services in 2002.  The decision was met with a lot of backlash from communities along the rail line, who argued that they depended on the trains to bring tourists to their communities.  In fact, the Cariboo Prospector served around 81,000 customers in 2001 alone, about 45,000 of whom went to Whistler as their final destination.  Protests were held in an attempt to convince BC Rail to reverse their decision, and Dan Stefanson, the director of the Northern BC Tourism Association at the time, was even quoted in the Houston BC newspaper saying that cancelling the passenger services was “the worst tourism decision made in BC.”  Despite everything, though, the financial consequences of continuing to run the trains were too much.  The beloved Cariboo Prospector made its last trip on October 31, 2002.