Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Finding a Space

Last week we mentioned a recent donation of journals published by the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) in the 1960s, covering the period during which the VOC Cabin in Whistler was built.  Combined with an oral history conducted with Karl Ricker (who donated the journals) last year, the journals provide a lot of information about how the VOC Cabin came to be, even before lifts began running on Whistler Mountain.

According to Ricker, Jack Shakespeare, a member of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA), began attending VOC meetings in 1963 to promote the proposed development on Whistler Mountain.  At the time, the VOC already had a cabin on Mount Seymour but it was reportedly not being used as a ski cabin and so the VOC began to look seriously at building a cabin in Whistler in 1964.  The idea had to be approved by the VOC membership and it wasn’t immediately accepted by all, as Ricker recalls some people fighting to stay on Seymour.  The Whistler idea, however, did win out and the VOC began searching for a site to build a cabin.

VOC members touring around Whistler during an exploratory trip to the area in 1964. Karl Ricker Collection.

Charlie Daughney, then a Ph.D. candidate, led what was described in one VOC Journal as “the long and frustrating search for land.”  According to Ricker, the VOC first staked out land in what today is Kadenwood, but were then told that there would be no overnight parking at the Whistler Mountain lifts.  There was land available to buy at Jordan’s Lodge on Nita lake but the VOC did not have the money.  They were encouraged to look into applying for a piece of land on Alpha Lake but a search through records showed it was not Crown land but belonged to a man named John Quirk or his descendants.  The VOC even looked at building on the island in Alpha Lake but backed off due to the cost of building a bridge.

At the time the VOC was looking for a site the highway to the Whistler area was still under construction. Trips were taken by train or using the makeshift roads. Karl Ricker Collection.

Finally, in February 1965, the architect planners for the area and GODA told the VOC that there were plans to create a club cabin area in what is now part of Nordic Estates (Ricker mentioned that a club cabin area was also a way to guarantee customers for the lift company).  The next step was to find the tract of land set aside for club cabins, which at the time was simply marked by lines on a map.  In the early summer of 1965, members of the VOC ran a survey from the last known property lines in the area and put in their own stakes.

Surveying underway at the VOC Cabin site. Karl Ricker Collection.

As the first club to plan to build in the area, the VOC acquired “the choice lot” with views of Whistler Mountain and reasonable access to the parking lot that was to be constructed just off the highway.  Though it took longer than expected, official permission was granted by the provincial government to use the land for club cabins before the end of the summer.  In the process, Ricker received a call from a land inspector who had been told to inspect the parcel of land “right away” but didn’t know where it was.  Ricker met him at the train station and showed him to the parcel and, despite a few concerns, the land was approved for the VOC.  Government surveyors later arrived to do their own survey of the area but, according to Ricker, by that time construction of the VOC Cabin was already underway.

News from the Whistler Museum

Back in September 2020 we posted photos on our social media of exploratory trips taken by the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) in 1964 and the construction of the VOC Cabin from 1965.  The photos were donated by Karl Ricker, a VOC member who had substantial involvement in the VOC Cabin.  Recently, Ricker brought in copies of the VOC Journal from 1964 to 1968 to add to our research collection and, though we’ve only taken a quick look so far (and are looking forward to examining the journals more closely), they appear to be a very valuable addition.

One of the photos posted on our social media, showing the construction of the Cabin by VOC members. Karl Ricker Collection.

The journals cover a period during which the VOC was exploring the possibility of a cabin in Whistler, constructing the cabin in Whistler, and beginning to put the cabin in Whistler to use.  According to the VOC Journal of 1964, the VOC Cabin on Mount Seymour was rarely being used as a ski cabin, as members could drive right up to the lifts, and skiing on Seymour was becoming increasingly crowded.  They also found that Seymour was “inadequate as an area for ski touring, for hiking, or for mountaineering,” the “most important activities of an outdoor club.”  Building a cabin in the Whistler area was thought to be an improvement as the long drive from Vancouver ensured most skiers would stay overnight, there was a proposal to develop lifts on Whistler Mountain, and the surrounding mountains would “present spectacular opportunities for touring and hiking.”  Members of the VOC made their first reconnaissance trips to the area throughout 1964 and began construction of the cabin in 1965.

Skimming the journals, mention of progress on the VOC Cabin are frequent and, as far as we’ve seen, optimistic.  In 1967 then VOC President Paul Sims wrote in his report of the upcoming completion of the cabin, saying: “When the last shake is nailed to the wall, and the last stone mortared into the fireplace, the construction at Whistler will be of a different nature.  The shaking will continue but from dances, pots and pans, sing-songs, laughter and conversation.  The building will bulge with eager and exhausted outdoor groups instead of construction crews.”

Karl Ricker in the midst of a socially distanced recording session (anyone not in front of the camera is also masked at all times).

The journals were brought in by Ricker when he came to the museum to record an interview for an upcoming exhibition by the Museum of North Vancouver.  We were excited to help facilitate the recording as it gave us a chance to try out equipment we’ve now been using in our virtual events.  This past weekend marked our first BC Family Day Kids Après: At Home Edition.  Rather than invite families to the museum, we created Kids Après Packs that brought parts of the museum to you.  Packs were picked up for free at the museum and included materials for two crafts and a Kids Après Activity Book, which combines stories from our exhibits with colouring pages, mazes, trivia and more.  We released craft videos online so that participants could craft along from home, creating their own skiing snowpeople and a (non-edible) mug of hot chocolate, a staple of Kids Après.

The same equipment was also used to create the craft videos as part of BC Family Day Kids Après: Home Edition.

Tomorrow evening we’ll be hosting our first Virtual Speaker Series of 2021, kicking off the series with Whistler Pride: A Look Back with Dean Nelson.  Though the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival was not able to go ahead this year, you could still see the spirit of the festival in the flags along Village Gate Boulevard – we’ll be learning more about how the festival started and how it has grown and become more visible with one of its long-time organizers.  You can register for the free event here.  Find out more about the rest of our Speaker Series line up for 2021 at our website here.

2021 Virtual Speaker Series begins this week!

Our 2021 Virtual Speaker Series kicks off this Wednesday, February 17 with Whistler Pride: A Look Back with Dean Nelson!

The Whistler Pride and Ski Festival has been taking place in Whistler for almost 30 years but it hasn’t always been as visible as it is now.  Beginning as a small weekend gathering in 1992, the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival has since become one of the largest queer-focused ski weeks in the world.  We’ll be taking a look back at how it started and how it has grown with one of its long-time organizers Dean Nelson, followed by a Q&A with Dean and the audience.

Register for the event for free here or contact us at the Whistler Museum.

Early Freestyle on Whistler

When the first Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp was held on Whistler Mountain during the summer of 1966, the camp focused mainly on racing and was motivated partly by the need for competitive skiers to stay in shape and improve their technique between competition seasons.  This focus changed as more recreational skiers began participating in the camps with an interest in improving their own skills under the guidance of skiers such as Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene and Alan White.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1973, however, that freestyle was included in the Ski Camp programming and the legendary Wayne Wong began coaching on Whistler, reflecting a change in the sport of skiing.

The staff of the 1969 Summer Ski Camp, including another freestyle skiing legend, Dag Aabye. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

At the time, freestyle skiing was still a relatively young sport.  The first recorded freestyle skiing competitions in the United States were not held until the mid-1960s and it was not until 1969 that the first instructional program began at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.  In 1971 Waterville Valley hosted the first Professional Freestyle Skiing Competition, drawing together competitive skiers from across North America.  These skiers included Wayne Wong, George Askevold and Floyd Wilkie, all of whom decided to stay at Waterville Valley as coaches of the first Freestyle Ski Team.

We don’t know when exactly the first freestyle skiing competition was held on Whistler Mountain but by the spring of 1971 there was enough demand that Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. hosted the first annual Aerial Ski Acrobatic Championship and Hot Shot Contest.  In 1973 freestyle skiing became part of the Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp programming under the direction of Wong, Askevold and Wilkie, providing more formal training for skiers interested in the growing sport and “teaching youngsters to ski the ‘Wong Way’.”

Three well-known hot dog skiers show off their style in 1973 at the Tony Sailer Summer Ski Camp. Left to right: George Askevold, Wayne Wong and Floyd Wilkie.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

In the spring of 1974, Whistler Mountain expanded its freestyle offerings with a spring Freestyle Skiing Camp for “youngsters who can ski parallel, but who want to master some of the popular new maneuvers of freestyle under competent coaching.”  According to Garibaldi’s Whistler News, the “newest tricks” such as skiing sideways, backwards or upside down were becoming more common on Whistler, but were also risky, especially without training or instruction.  They decided to provide an opportunity to explore techniques and tricks under the tutelage of Michel Daigle, Tetsuo Fuji, and Bob Dufour.

Michel Daigle demonstrates his synchronized skills during a competition on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

While freestyle skiing was becoming increasingly popular through the 1970s, it was not officially recognized as a sport by the FIS until 1979, when international regulations and certifications were introduced.  The next year saw the first FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup with event in moguls, aerials, and “acroski,” also known as ski ballet.  To win the overall title, skiers had to compete in all three disciplines.

In 1986 the first FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships were held in Tignes, France, and then demonstration events were held at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  Over the next two decades, more and more freestyle skiing events joined the Olympic line up, beginning with moguls in 1992, aerials in 1994, ski cross in 2010 and, most recently, halfpipe and slopestyle in 2014.  Unfortunately, ski ballet, though part of competitions and tours in the 1970s and 1980s, did not continue to grow with freestyle skiing in the same way and has not been recognized as an official freestyle discipline since 2000.

Today freestyle skiing looks a little different than it did in the early competition of the 1970s, but it can often be seen on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains and around the world.

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.

A Rainy End to the Holidays

Discussions of weather in Whistler have been going on for decades, as is apparent from past editions of the Whistler Question.  In the early months of winter the conversations usually focus on snow.  Reports from January 1981, however, show that rain, rather than snow, was the topic of discussion in town that year.

While there had been snow in early December 1980, it began to rain in earnest in Whistler and the surrounding areas on December 24.  The rain had not stopped by noon on December 26 and flooding was occurring in places from Squamish to D’Arcy, as well as in the Fraser Valley and other areas of British Columbia.

One of two destroyed power lines when flood waters washed out footings south of the Tisdale Hydro Station.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler and Pemberton were cut off from the rest of the Sea to Sky by both road and rail, as Highway 99 was washed out around Culliton Creek (today the site of the Culliton Creek Bridge, also known as the Big Orange Bridge) and north of the Rutherford Creek junction.  A rail bridge over Rutherford Creek was left handing by the rails when its supports were washed away and other sections of rail were obstructed by small slides and washouts.

BCR Rutherford Creek crossing hangs by its rails after the December 26 flood washed away all supports and girders.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

19 Mile Creek overflowed at the entrance to Alpine Meadows, cutting it off from the rest of town.  The bridge on Valley Drive was also washed out, taking with it part of the main water supply.  In other parts of Whistler sewer lines, water systems, bridges, road and parking lots were damaged, though employees of Whistler Mountain worked quickly to divert water at its gondola base as Whistler Creek rose.  Helicopters were used to ferry residents and visitors in and out of the valley, including Mayor Pat Carleton who was in Vancouver at the time of the flood.

A creative approach to entering Alpine Meadows. George Benjamin Collection.

At the Garibaldi townsite south of Whistler, rising waters caused one house to be swept into the Cheakamus River and another to tip precariously while others were left unaccessible.

The flooding was partly caused by the unseasonable rise in temperature and freezing levels, meaning most of the early snow melted and added to the rain, as well as washing gravel, logs and debris down to the valley.

By the beginning of 1981, the roads to Whistler and Pemberton had reopened and repairs were underway.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still warm and the rain was not over.  On January 21 the detour built around the previous wash out at Culliton Creek was washed out, again cutting off access on Highway 99.  At first it was believed that the closure would be quite brief, but Highway 99 remained closed until January 26.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Luckily, at the time there was still passenger rail service to Whistler.  The two-car passenger train from Prince George to North Vancouver was already full by the time it reached Whistler that day, but skiers trying to get back to the Lower Mainland were able to fill the baggage car and stand in the aisles.  While helicopters and float planes were also used, trains became the most popular means of transport for five days, introducing many travellers to an option they had not considered before.

Rail was also used to transport goods, including delivering the Whistler Question on January 21 and supplying restaurants and food stores.  Due to the limited freight space available, Whistler was limited to ten cases of milk per day and, by the time the road reopened, the stores were out of milk and fresh produce while the gas tanks at the gas station were running low.  The Whistler Grocery Store, which was set to open on January 22, considered delaying but ultimately decided to proceed with its opening as planned when it became apparent that many families in the cut off communities were in danger of running out of certain food stuffs.

On January 26, as the road reopened, snow finally reached the valley again in Whistler.  By January 31 sunshine and new snow had brought crowds of skiers back to Whistler Mountain.  Further Questions continued to report on the weather and snow, but it would appear that after a dramatic start to the winter the 1981 season ended without further mishap.

Trying Out Jobs on Whistler

Last week we took a look at the response to Blackcomb Mountain’s first traffic jam, when Lorne Borgal, Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine ended up directing traffic on Highway 99 in the dark and snow.  When moving over to Whistler Mountian in 1983, Borgal brought this idea that performing duties outside of your own job description could have valuable benefits and made it into policy.

The idea was that everyone at any level of management at Whistler Mountain had to spent at least one day a month during the winter season working a shift on the frontlines (apparently many considered grooming the best assignment).  Mike Hurst, the vice president of marketing, described the initiative this way: “So Lorne would have to be up at Pika’s cooking breakfast, or he’d have to be in the car park, or he’d have to be a liftie for a day, and, boy, did that ever change the mentality of the management people.”

During a Speaker Series in 2015, Hurst recalled his own experience working on the phones at the beginning of December when he received a call from a person from Ontario planning to come ski at Whistler.  Their question was, “We’re coming in February, we’re all booked and everything, so what’s the weather gonna be like?”  Hurst took a moment and looked around, and then replied, “Okay, I’ve got the farmer’s almanac here, and what week is that?  The 7th to, okay, yeah, that looks pretty good.  It’s gonna be a little colder than normal, but just the week prior to that there’s a whole dump of snow so there’ll be beautiful fresh snow.  It’ll be wonderful, yup, but listen, don’t forget, we’re on the coast.  So make sure you bring various changes of clothes just in case, but it looks like a sunny week and it looks great, so you’re gonna have a great time.”  The customer was satisfied with the answer, which seemed to cover any eventualities, though Hurst did not recall whether that week in February was as great as he had promised it would be.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, usually sold Whistler through ad campaigns and the like, not necessarily one-on-one over the phone.  Whistler Question Collection.

While Hurst may have used his marketing skills to sell Whistler Mountain on the phones, the experiences of others helped identify problems and gave management a clear idea of what conditions were like for frontline employees.  One such experience was the day that Whistler Mountain’s CFO David Balfour spent loading the old Whistler gondola.

The role of CFO was described by Borgal as “don’t spend money,” at least not money that hadn’t been budgeted already.  A shift loading gondolas involved loading the freight up in the morning, loading people all day, bringing the garbage down at the end of the day, and putting all the cars away.  All of this was done manually as the gondola.

Balfour worked the gondola shift from beginning to end and, as Borgal remembered, was exhausted.  Borgal said, “I couldn’t stop him talking at me about what we had to change, because this was not humane.”  Balfour wanted to make changes to make the job easier for those who did it full time, even if it did mean spending some money.

For years loading the gondola included physically moving the gondolas and pushing them out of the barn.  Whistler Question Collection.

Balfour’s experience reportedly demonstrated the value of having managers work a frontline position.  It created bonds between staff who might not have otherwise interacted much and made it easier to demonstrate the need for operational changes.  According to Borgal, “If you had to do that frontline job, you really learned fast about what was going on.”