Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

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.”

Directing Ski Traffic

As many people who have worked at small or relatively new organizations (and even some larger, more established ones) know, it is not unusual for one’s job to include many duties that would not necessarily be found in the job description.  Sill, you generally wouldn’t expect to see a company’s president and administrative manage, along with another organization’s general manager, out directing traffic in the dark.  That, however, is exactly what happened in 1980 when Blackcomb Mountain experienced its first traffic jam.

Go-carts and formula cars demonstrate the turns of a freshly paved Blackcomb Way, which experienced solid lines of traffic on Blackcomb’s first busy weekend.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s administrative manager, the issue occurred when Blackcomb had one of its first “big weekend days.”  Skiers spent the day on the snow, had a great time, and then all tried to leave.  While in his office at Base II about 4 o’clock, he realized that it had been a while since a car had left the parking lot.  They were all lined up, idling and waiting to go, but traffic was not moving.

Borgal, Blackcomb’s president Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine (then the general manager of the Whistler Resort Association) jumped in a pickup truck and drove the wrong way down Blackcomb Way to find the source of the gridlock.  Unfortunately, some of the cars saw this and followed them down, creating two lines of cars and no way back up the road.

The location of the administrative offices provided a great view of the parking lot and Blackcomb Way. Greg Griffith Collection.

The problem, they discovered, was that the northbound traffic on the highway form the Whistler Mountain gondola base was not allowing any car to leave the Village area.  At the time, there was no traffic light and only one entrance onto the highway, controlled by a stop sign.  It was also dark and snowing.

Smythe, Raine and Borgal began directing traffic.  As Borgal recalled, “We had all the parking lots in the valley merging onto the one little road out… There was no flashing lights or anything, there was just the little glow there, […] and I was the idiot who stood out on the road.  You’re out in the road, in the dark, flashing a little flashlight, trying to get these guys to stop to get some people out of the valley.”  The fact that gondola traffic had never had to stop before didn’t make the situation any easier.

Traffic attempts to merge onto Highway 99 from Village Gate in the snow, still a problem spot at times. Whistler Question Collection.

At one point, the local RCMP did come by, putting on his lights and asking what was going on.  When told about the problem, however, he decided that the Blackcomb staff had it in hand and left.  Directing traffic became another of the many “amazing things to do” that marked the early operations of Blackcomb Mountain.

Though this season has certainly been different, it has not been uncommon in past years to see lines of cars backed up through the Village at the end of a good snow day, much as they would have been forty years ago.  Directing traffic, however, in included in job descriptions now and those who do it get proper lights and signage.  Next week, we’ll be taking another look at mountain employees (temporarily) taking on duties outside their given roles, this time on Whistler Mountain.

Opening Land of Thundering Snow

Last Thursday (December 17) we were very excited to open Land of Thundering Snow, the first traveling exhibit that the Whistler Museum has hosted since moving into our current building in 2009.

While Whistler will be the first museum to host the physical exhibit, Land of Thundering Snow began as a virtual exhibit launched by the Revelstoke Museum and Archives in partnership with Parks Canada and Avalanche Canada in 2015. (find it here) The exhibit explores the history of snow research and avalanche safety in Canada, from a fatal avalanche in 1910 that took the lives of 58 rail workers in Rogers Pass to the creation of Avalanche Canada in 2004.  The virtual exhibit was reportedly the first time that the history of Canadian avalanches had been gathered together in one place.  The content for both the virtual and physical exhibit was developed by retired Parks Canada biologist and naturalist Dr. John Woods.

Come check out Land of Thundering Snow and discover how an entire exhibit can be transported in just one (very impressive) box!

In preparation for hosting the exhibit, we’ve taken a look at what we have in our own collections related to avalanches and avalanche safety, from photographs to films to oral histories.  We also invited anyone with their own avalanche story from the area to share it with us.  We ended up learning quite a bit about one specific avalanche that took place on Whistler Mountain in 1978.

Beginning on March 6, 1978, a storm system brought significant snowfall on the mountain.  On March 8, patrollers headed out to do avalanche control on Whistler’s peak.  At the time, two patrollers from Snowbird in Utah were visiting Whistler as part of a training exchange and joined the group heading out that morning.

While the morning had started out clear, by the time the patrollers were out visibility had become quite limited.  A shot from an avalauncher was fired into the Whistler Peak North Face but, due to the lack of visibility, it was unclear what the result of the shot was.  Over the course of controlling that morning, an avalanche began on the North Face and caught two patrollers who were traversing below: Bruce Watt of Whistler and Rick Mandahl of Snowbird.

MAN, DOG & MOUNTAIN – Patroller Bruce Watt with his rescue dog Radar at the top of Whistler.  Whistler Question Collection.

Watt was recovered almost immediately as he had managed to get a hand above the snow.  It took seven minutes to locate and receive Mandahl using transceivers.  Luckily, both were relatively unharmed.

On March 15, the avalanche and recoveries made the front page of the Whistler Question, and the avalanche was also recounted in a larger report on avalanche accidents by Chris Stethem, which provided a lot of factual information but did not include personal accounts.

This image of the slide was included in the official report. Photo courtesy of Chris Stethem.

If you have been following the Whistler Museum’s social media over the past couple of weeks, however, you might have seen two accounts of this avalanche from patrollers who were involved: Bruce Watt and John Hetherington. (You can find their stories here and here.)  Their personal accounts of the avalanche provide information that neither the newspaper nor an official report would include, such as what was going through Watt’s head as he was caught or how Hetherington had to turn off his radio in order to hear the transceiver while searching for Mandahl.

If you have an avalanche story from the area that you would like to share with the museum, we will be continuing to gather and share more local information about avalanches while Land of Thundering Snow is exhibited through March 31, 2021.  We Would love to hear from you, or see you at the exhibit!

Looking Back at Whistler: 1970

Last week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Blackcomb Mountain’s official opening in 1980, so this week we thought we’d look further back at a few of the things that were new on Whistler Mountain and the Whistler area in 1970, when the area was constantly growing and changing.

Though they weren’t having to finish new lifts or set up mountain operations from scratch, the summer and fall of 1970 were still a hive of activity on Whistler Mountain, with changes being made to runs, lifts, and facilities for the upcoming season.  Many of the runs had grooming work done such as flattening some steep pitches and clearing trees, stumps, and boulders.  The lengthening of the Green Chair was accompanied by the cutting of a new run and the widening of both Jolly Green Giant and Ego Bowl.

This photo was used as the cover for the Garibaldi’s Whistler News of Winter 1970/71. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

While the Green Chair was extended, the Valley T-bar, described as “the forgotten lift at Whistler,” was being moved up the mountain to run parallel to the Alpine T-bar.  The Alpine T-bar provided access to some of Whistler’s most popular terrain: Harmony Bowl, T-Bar Bowl, and (with a bit of traversing) Whistler Bowl.  It was hoped that the addition of a parallel lift would shorten the lift lines.

Another lift, the Blue Chair, gained a “high-speed” loading ramp and a few new trails, with one being cut from the bottom of Harmony Bowl, another from the base of Blue Chair over to the Green Chair, and Dad’s Run (now Ratfink) cut adjacent to Mum’s Run (now Marmot).

Roger McCarthy gets into some deep snow on the side of Dad’s Run.  Whistler Question Collection.

Indoors, the Roundhouse received some substantial upgrades, most notably electricity.  Propane heaters were replaced by diesel-powered electric heaters.  A “new modern electric food preparation” area was installed alongside increased seating capacity, which opened up new hot food options at the top of the mountain that winter, such as French fries, chili, stews, soups, hot dogs, and even “shake and bake” chicken.  For the first time, the Roundhouse offered breakfast as well, from a continental breakfast to cold cereal to hot porridge.  While it may not have been considered gourmet cuisine, these new offerings greatly increased the on-mountain dining options.

Rudi Hoffmann prepares the steak at a Rotary luncheon.  Whistler Question Collection.

Down in the valley, a new dining option opened up that, though now closed, is still talked about in Whistler today: Rudi and Merrilyn Hoffmann’s Mountain Holm Steakhouse.  Rudi Hoffmann, who had completed his three year apprenticeship in Germany, had worked as the head chef at the Christiana Inn on Alta Lake during the 1969/70 season before opening his own restaurant at Nesters late in 1970.  The Mountain Holm Steakhouse invited guests to “relax in an European atmosphere with good food at moderate prices” and, by the holiday season, were busy enough that reservations were recommended.  They even offered a traditional European Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, featuring goose, dumplings, and a homemade Christmas pudding.

All these changes would have made the 1970 season rather different from winters that came before.  While each season may not bring new runs or changed lifts, the Whistler valley and the mountains continue to change fifty years later.

Blackcomb’s 40

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations.  Last Thursday (December 4) marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift Two using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.

The opening ceremonies at Lift Two on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith Collection.

This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain.  The day before, on December 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems.  The previous winter Blackcomb had offered Snowcat tours for twelve skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain.  December 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.

Jerry Blan and Hugh Smythe from Fortress Mountain Resorts present the Blackcomb development to the public.  Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

In 1978 the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination.  Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR).  As Smythe recalls, it was on October 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.

Opening day, when it arrived, was accompanied by 18 feet of cake from Gourmet Bakery.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager.  In 1974 he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) (today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada) after going into bankruptcy in 1971.  When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co.  Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain.  According to him, his watch was “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.”  Luckily, they did.

The Blackcomb snowcat tours promised skiers fresh snow and a hot lunch. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978/79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails.  Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front year.  The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979/80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours.  The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains.  In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

The original target date set in 1978 was December 1, 1980.  Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days later, a feat described by the management as “not bad.”  Lift One from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.

Mayor Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe load the first chair to head up Blackcomb. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Happy 40th Blackcomb!