Category Archives: Ski-Town stories

Whistler’s Weasel Workers

Behind every major race held on Whistler Mountain is a pack of Weasels.  The volunteer organization began in the 1970s when Bob Parsons and a crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.

The term “weasel” was bestowed upon the crew due to their work on the Weasel, a section of Dave Murray Downhill that was too steep for the older snow cats to make it up.  Instead, race workers would flatten the section by treading up and down the Weasel on foot.  Though the organization was formally registered as the Coast Alpine Event Club in 1984, the name is rarely used.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo courtesy of 2010 Olympic Ski Patroller Lance.

In the early years of the Weasel Workers, most of the volunteers were parents of members of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club but as the races they worked on grew so too did membership in the organization.  Since the 1970s, as well as working on World Cups and other races in Whistler, the Weasels have sent volunteers to help build courses for World Cup races in Lake Louise, Alberta, and Beaver Creek, Colorado, World Championships in Europe and the Winter Olympics in Calgary and Salt Lake City.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo courtesy of 2010 Olympic Ski Patroller Lance.

When the Winter Olympics were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003 the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team in preparation of the alpine events to be held on Whistler Mountain.  Working as a Weasel has always required dedication and the willingness to work hard despite the sometimes challenging conditions Whistler winters can create; hosting the Olympics in Whistler was no different, though perhaps on a slightly more tiring scale.  Weasel Workers were routinely called to be ready and up the mountain for 3 am and the long days of shoveling sometimes lasted until 10 pm after which race workers would often walk over to the Weasel House that offered beer, wine and Weasel Wear.  As a 1993 article in the Whistler Answer stated “How do you spot a Weasel Worker?  They’re the ones on race day who look like they could use a good sleep.”

Weasel Workers continue to work on races in Whistler and send volunteers to events around the world.  Most recently a group of Weasels went to Korea in advance of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics next winter.  Three long-serving members of the Weasels joined us this past Wednesday as part of our Speaker Series.

Dennis Waddingham, one of the original Weasel Workers under Bob Parsons, and Owen Carney provided an interesting history of the Weasels (aided as well by Weasels in the audience) and Colin Pitt-Taylor’s photos and stories from their trip to PyeongChang earlier in March provided a preview of some of the venues and events to come in 2018.  Thanks to all three, as well as Pat Taylor for operating the photos and keeping it all moving, and to everyone who joined us for a great evening – we’ll be announcing more details of our next Speaker Series in April soon!

Speaker Series: Weasel Workers

Our next Speaker Series will take place Wednesday, March 22.  Join long-serving Weasel Workers Owen Carney, Colin Pitt-Taylor and Dennis Waddingham for a presentation on the origin and history of Whistler’s Weasel Workers, stories of the many courses they have built, and a discussion of their (very) recent trip to Korea in advance of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics next winter.

Tickets are $10 each ($5 for Museum and/or Club Shred members) and can be purchased at the Museum or by calling as at 604-932-2019.

Speaker Series: Manufacturing in the Mountains

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When asked to name Canadian manufacturing towns, few people will put Whistler at the top of their lists.  Whistler is far better known as a destination resort than as an industrial centre.

There are, however, some products that can proudly bear the label “Made in Whistler”.  Not surprisingly, these products tend to be very closely connected to the mountain culture that brings so many to this town, more specifically:bikes, boards and skis.

From breweries to bike shops, the neighbourhood of Function Junction is at the heart of manufacturing in Whistler.  It is from here that many local companies have garnered international attention for their products.

John Millar (an early settler in the valley) had his cabin at Mile 34 1/2, today known as Function Junction.

John Millar (an early settler in the valley) had his cabin at Mile 34 1/2, today known as Function Junction.

North Shore Billet, founded by Chris Allen and Peter Hammons, began producing bike components in 2003, starting with a Specialized Big Hit derailleur hanger.  Since moving to Whistler they have continued to manufacture all of their products in house and out of aerospace-grade aluminum on their CNC milling machines and even supply components for another popular local manufacturer, Chromag.  Chromag bikes, also located in Function, designs and test their products here in Whistler and has a large and loyal following.

Chris Prior in the Prior factory in Whistler.

Chris Prior in the Prior factory in Whistler.

Perhaps one of Whistler’s best-known manufacturers is Prior.  Founded in 1990 in North Vancouver, the company began manufacturing snowboards out of Chris Prior’s garage (a common theme in Whistler’s history: Whistler’s first council reportedly held meetings in mayor Pat Carleton’s garage).  Chris Prior began his design and manufacturing career creating custom sailboards using skills that transitioned well to a quickly growing snowboard market in the ’80s and ’90s.

In 1999 Prior moved to Whistler and introduced splitboards to their selection of products.  Skis followed soon after.  Today, 18 years after the move, Prior continues to manufacture onsite and offers free tours of their factory in Function where curious onlookers can watch skis and boards being made.

Though the products may differ, companies that manufacture in Whistler (like NSB, Chromag and Prior) tend to have at least one thing in common: their founders, employees and customers are passionate about what they make and the place in which they make it.

Join us on February 23 for a discussion with Chris Prior on the history and development of Prior Snowboards and Skis and how design and manufacturing are influenced by location.

Doors open at 6pm, talk begins at 7pm.  Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum members and Club SHRED members) and are available at the Whistler Museum.

Gerhard Mueller: Designer of Whistler’s First Lifts

With the wet weather, frigid temperatures and winds that have come in the last two months, many of us out on the mountains have appreciated the temporary respite offered by the enclosed gondolas.  To show our appreciation, we’re offering some information on the man who designed the first lifts installed on Whistler Mountain, including the original four-person gondola.

Skiers load the original four-person gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

Skiers load the original gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

Gerhard Mueller was an early pioneer in the ski lift industry.  In the late 1920s, as mountain resorts in the Alps were still beginning to redefine themselves as winter resorts, Mueller was a 17-year-old mechanical engineering student who had grown tired of having to continuously climb up the slop in order to practice his skiing on the way down.

To address this issue Mueller built his (and Switzerland’s) first ski tow at St. Moritz using 1″ hemp rope and the engine from an old motorcycle.  This first rope tow was patented in 1932 and was later improved to address complaints of tired hands and arms.

After the end of World War II Mueller founded his own company, GMD Mueller, in 1947 and continued to design innovative lift systems, including the modern detachable chairlift.

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

In their 1965 catalogue GMD Mueller advertised their ski lift options, claiming that “The roomy 4-seater gondolas, the elegant double-chairs or the smooth springbox-type T-bars will make every ride, both short or long, comfortable and safe, and the good appearance of Mueller Lifts will make you a proud owner.”  In less than two decades they had come a long way from Mueller’s first rope tow.

In the early 1960s when Franz Wilhelmsen and Eric Beardmore, another Garibaldi Lift Company director, visited Europe to study lift systems prior to choosing the systems to be used at Whistler, many chairlifts still had to be stopped both to load and to unload passengers.  The double chairlift designed by Mueller had patented detachable cable grips that detached the chairgrip from the hauling rope at both stations, allowing the hauling rope to continue to run while the chair was slowed for loading and unloading before being reattached to the hauling rope and launched.  This allowed for the creation of a four-person gondola.

When approached, Mueller confirmed that his designs could be adapted to fit the proposed locations on Whistler Mountain.  For the lower stage from the base at Creekside to Midstation, where warmer spring temperatures and wet weather prompted worries of wet clothing before skiers even reached their first run, Mueller proposed a 65-car four-person gondola carrying approximately 500 passengers per hour for a 13-minute ride.  This was to be followed by a double chairlift of 175 chairs carrying approximately 1200 passengers per hour.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

In 1965 four Mueller-designed ski lifts were installed on Whistler Mountain: the four-person gondola, the double chairlift that would become known as the Red Chair and two T-bars.  Mueller travelled to Whistler to oversee the construction and testing of the lifts and to conduct training sessions with lift staff.  GLC workers were also sent to Switzerland to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the lifts at the GMD Mueller factory.  Mueller was present for for the official opening of the lifts on January 15, 1966.

A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

Whistler Mountain was equipped exclusively with Mueller lifts for only two years.  In 1967 the Blue Chair was designed and installed by Murray-Latta Machine Co. Ltd., a Vancouver-based company.  The original gondola and Red Chair were retire in 1992, but both can still be found here at the museum, a lasting legacy of the designs of Gerhard Mueller.

Creative Solutions to Whistler Living: The People Who Lived in Walls

Living in Whistler has always come with unique challenges, whether its’s a lack of housing, money, employment or easily accessible transit (walking three days from Squamish with a packhorse at the beginning of the 20th century was not for the fainthearted).  Despite these challenges, however, thousands of people have chosen to call this valley home.

Though many stories of unorthodox living arrangements have become well known (think Toad Hall or Lot 4 in the mid-to-late ’90s), there is one story that surprisingly few people have heard: the people who lived in wall.  (Please note that the Whistler Museum neither condones nor encourages such practices as follow.)

Adapting accommodations to fit your own needs is common practice - the Jardine-Neiland family built additions to the original cabin of Ol' Mac.

Adapting accommodations to fit your own needs is common practice – the Jardine-Neiland family built additions to the original cabin of Ol’ Mac in the 1920s.

It happened in the early 1990s, in an unnamed Whistler hotel, in the four feet of space between the fifth and sixth guest floors.  A small service hatch in the stairwell meant to provide access to the plumbing and electrical wiring in the space instead provided two very determined young men access to a crawlspace-like room kept warm and cozy by the hot water pipes.

As the entry was located in a little-used firewall stairwell the staff at the hotel had no knowledge of their new residents.  The pair lived somewhat comfortable, if a little bent over, until a search for a water leak led maintenance workers to discover their living quarters.  This discovery explained some odd footage on a recently installed security camera that caught one of these unsuspected tenants stealing the cushions off of a couch in a hallway.

In the 1970s accommodations could be found in Whistler by building your own or taking over an abandoned cabin.

In the 1970s accommodations could be found in Whistler by building your own or taking over an abandoned cabin.

Unfortunately for the young men living in the wall, their identities were easily discovered from the Hard Rock Café pay stubs that had been left sitting in the open.  It was soon revealed that they had been making full use of hotel amenities; they slept on clean sheets taken from housekeeping carts, ate in the staff cafeteria where they were such a common sight that it had been assumed that they were hotel employees, and showered in the hotel health club where a monthly payment provided access to the pool and gym for far less than the cost of rent.

Needless to say, once discovered the two were quickly evicted from the premises and forced to find lodging elsewhere.

Grassroots Galleries – Olive’s Market

What is now Olive’s Community Market in Function Junction used to be The Burnt Stew Café and was originally owned by Colin Pitt-Taylor. Not to be mixed up with Burnt Stew Computing that is still in Function Junction. Colin is now one of the board members for the Whistler Museum but before that he began a collection of his very own on the walls of the café. The collection is mostly made up of photos from Whistler’s early 70’s days and includes a lot of local characters. Though it also includes an old sled (that is no longer there due to needing room for inventory), skis and ski poles as well.

According to one of the managers of the market the artifacts inside the store are on loan from an antique shop in Squamish. Unfortunately this means there is no surefire way to know the history of them, aside from the fact they were probably used on Whistler Mountain in the early days.

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Some of the photos on the wall are the same ones from collections that the museum was given as well, including some of Cliff Jenning’s and Jim Kennedy’s photos as well as a few photos from the Soo Valley.

One of the stand out photos they have on display is the famous Toad Hall poster that is the most popular item in the Museum’s gift shop. It’s fun and quirky attitude perfectly embodies the 70’s era in Whistler and fits right in amongst the other photos in Olive’s.

Colin Pitt-Taylor used a lot of photos from his own collection and gathered the others from his friends. He started the process because after the village was completed there was not much left that recognized what Whistler had been like pre-village life; back when the local community was even smaller than it is today and when there were not as many tourists visiting the area. Colin wanted to commemorate that time in Village history and did so on the walls of the Burnt Stew café. Fortunately for the community it is still there in Olive’s even after the café was closed.

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Many of the photos feature well-known people from Whistler’s history as well as friends of Colin and he has a good recollection of the exact photos he hung up over the years. He can recall exact photos of friends that are on the walls and even where and when they were taken.

One of the managers of Olive’s recounts how people often come in to look at the photos and the occasional visitor points out their younger selves or other people they know in the photos. Quite a few of the images have the names of the people in the photos on them, which means anyone who comes in is able to tell if they may know whoever is in the photos.

The history of Whistler is what makes it the town it is today, and you can find that history all over, not just at the Museum. All you have to do is look.

 

by Michaela Sawyer

Painting the Past – Artists History

Whistler is home to a variety of artists working in many different mediums. Many of the artists throughout Whistler come from all over the world but all of them now call this beautiful area home. The variety of artists include photographers, fine artists, sculptors,  digital artists, artisans, illustrators, and more, and are spread out all over the valley. There are hundreds of artists with different styles and who work in different mediums so you can find almost any type of art being produced in Whistler.

The most commonly celebrated theme, however, is easily the scenic views and beautiful nature that can be found all around the Whistler area. Whether artists literally depict scenes from the landscape or merely take influence from them, the natural wonder of Whistler has not escaped the artists who call this place home. As well, many of these artists have been featured in places outside of Canada not just outside of Whistler.

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Isobel sitting in her hand-painted coffin

The first well-known artist in Whistler is Isobel MacLaurin. Her and her late husband Don have called Whistler their full-time home for more than 30 years (and a part-time retreat for decades before that) and they saw the town grow into what it is today, all while Isobel helped the art scene in Whistler get on its feet. In the days before the creation of the Whistler Arts Council (now known as Arts Whistler) Isobel was the only professional artist in town. That meant she was asked to do a lot of work for the mountains, which included signs that are still on the mountains to this day and all of which were painted by hand in Isobel’s studio.

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Isobel painting on her deck.

Among her more memorable jobs was being flown up into the alpine in a helicopter to sketch the landscape for many of her interpretive signs. Isobel often was not paid for her work, instead preferring an exchange for season’s passes to the mountain for her family. One drastic difference that Isobel herself notes is the budget for signage in the early days compared to now; in the early days of the village Isobel did up a handful of signs for the community and got paid $18 per sign, but nowadays Whistler has a multi-million dollar budget for signage every year!

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Each sign was hand painted by Isobel. She received $18 per sign.

Once the Arts Council was set up, other artists began to come to the area as well. The same year it started the Council also set up their first Children’s Art Festival in which Isobel helped lead free arts courses for the children. Isobel talks fondly about how attentive the children were and how well they all did learning to draw. Isobel MacLaurin has been in Whistler for many years, originally she was one of the only artists and now that number has grown into the hundreds. Whistler’s beauty lends itself easily to the inspiration for many a young artist who finds their way here.

By Michaela Sawyer