Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Avalanche Control and Thundering Snow

Next month we will be opening Land of Thundering Snow, a traveling exhibit created by the Revelstoke Museum & Archives.  The exhibit complements Revelstoke Museum’s virtual exhibit of the same name, which examines the history and impact of snow avalanches across Canada, and we are very excited to be its first stop through March 2021!

When we think about avalanches in Whistler, one of the first things to come to mind is often the sound of avalanche control that echoes through the valley in the winter.

An avalanche set off during control on Whistler Mountain. George Benjamin Collection.

According to John Hetherington, who joined Whistler Mountain’s pro ski patrol for the 1967/68 season, early avalanche control was often “putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going, ‘I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.'”  Over time the patrollers learned which slopes and conditions were more likely to have an avalanche, but it was still mostly done by instinct and past experience.

In 1978, Hetherington and Chris Stehem, a former patroller then working as Whistler Mountain’s Safety Supervisor, wrote “Whistler Mountain Avalanche Control Programme,” a technical memorandum, describing the methods then used by Whistler patrollers and providing an idea of a typical morning.  Documents such as this are incredibly useful for learning about past procedures and the development of current practices.

Over a typical season, patrollers would use approximately 1,000 avalauncher rounds and 2,000 hand-charges containing Submagel 95%, a nitroglycerin explosive.  Hand-charges were most often used singly but were sometimes combined into doubles or triples in “special circumstances”.  For control purposes, Whistler Mountain was divided into three sections, Zones A, B & C.  The zones would be covered by teams of two using their own knowledge of the area and radios to communicate.

Some recognizable patrollers examine the data at the Alpine Office. George Benjamin Collection.

On a typical control day, 7 am would see ten to twelve patrollers heading up Whistler Mountain to the Alpine Office at 1,850 m.  Along the way, weather data, snowfall readings, and wind readers were taken.  Once at the Alpine Office, one patroller would take weather readings while the others would begin preparing the day’s charges.  The patrol leader would make an initial evaluation of the avalanche hazard and decide on the control measures.

On an average day, three hand-charge teams and one avalanche gun team would be sent out by 8 am to cover Zone A.  A second gun team would then head out to clear the more inaccessible slopes of Zones B and C.  Radios would be used to update other teams and allow the plan to be adjusted.  If all went according to plan, Zone A would usually be open by 8:45 am when the first skiers were reaching the upper mountain.

The Avalauncher sat in storage at Whistler Mountain for several seasons before improvements were made to the technology. George Benjamin Collection.

On days when helicopters were used, eight patrollers would control Zone A while three patrollers controlled Zones B and C from the air.  The helicopter was not, however, without its shortcomings.  Helicopter use was limited by the weather and reportedly eliminated the “feel” for the snow that teams learned while hiking.

Avalanche control is only one focus of the virtual Land of Thundering Snow exhibit, but it is one with which many are familiar in Whistler.  Though we will not be able to host an opening event, we hope to see many of you (from a distance and a few at a time) at the physical exhibit over the winter.

Land of Thundering Snow

Do you have an avalanche story you’d like to share?

The Whistler Museum will be opening Land of Thundering Snow, a traveling exhibit on avalanches from the Revelstoke Museum & Archives, on December 17.  Because we will not be able to hold an opening event in person, we are putting together online content with a more local perspective to complement the exhibit.

As part of this, we are seeking short (3 – 5 minutes) avalanche-related stories from community members to be shared virtually.  These stories could be recorded in any way that is convenient for you (using a phone, setting up a video chat with us via Zoom or other platform, or any other way).  Videos would then be shared on the Whistler Museum’s social media in the days leading up to the exhibit opening.

If you have a story that you would like to share, or if you have any questions, please contact us at events@whistlermuseum.org or give us a call at 604-932-2019.

If you are interested in taking a look at Revelstoke Museum’s virtual exhibit of Land of Thundering Snow, check it out here.

Starting at the Village

In the past ten years, Whistler Blackcomb has installed several new lifts on both mountains, replacing older lifts with new ones (such as the new Blackcomb Gondola and Emerald Express) or moving existing lifts to replace others (such as the Crystal and Catskinner chairs on Blackcomb Mountain).  While it may seem like there have been a lot of changes in the last decade, the greatest change in lifts in the area was actually seen in the 1980s.  A total of 21 lifts were built, six on Whistler Mountain and fifteen on Blackcomb.  Eight of these lifts opened in the 1980/81 season alone.

On Whistler Mountain, skiers had been skiing down to the site of the Whistler Village and catching a bus or a ride back to the gondola base at Creekside for over a decade.  In 1980, Whistler Mountain opened three trip chairlifts starting from the Village, breaking from its tradition of naming chairs for colours for the first time since opening in 1966.

The official opening of the Village Chair. In 1988 the Village Chair was replaced with a 10 person gondola. Whistler Question Collection.

The imaginatively named Village Chair began at Skiers Plaza and ended at Olympic Station.  From there, skiers had a short run down to the aspirationally named Olympic Chair.  At the top of the Olympic Chair they could then ski over to the Black Chair, which let them off at the top of what today is the top of the Garbanzo Express.  To teach the Roundhouse required skiing down to another chair, either the Green or Red.

The Midstation towers on the new Olympic Chair on Whistler North. Picture taken from the top of the Village Chair. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Of the three lifts, only the Olympic Chair continues to operate on Whistler Mountain today.  The Village Chair was replaced in 1988 by the Whistler Express and, instead of requiring four exposed chairlifts, the ten-person gondola took skiers and sightseers alike straight from the Whistler Village to the Roundhouse.  In 1999 the installation of the four-person Fitzsimmons and Garbanzo Expresses eliminated the need for the Black Chair.  The Olympic Chair was shortened in 1989 and now operates as a beginner chair.  It is one of the few fixed grip lifts still used on Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains.

Blackcomb Mountain opened its first five lifts (named One through Five) in 1980.  Lift Five was a two-person chairlift designed for beginner skiers, located at Base II, then the hub of Blackcomb operations.  The development of the Upper Village and the opening of the Magic Chair in 1987 moved beginners to the new Blackcomb base and Lift Five was removed.

The bottom terminal of Blackcomb Lift #2 takes shape. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Four triple chairs took skiers from Skiers Plaza to the top of the Rendezvous.  Over time, these lifts began to be called by names as well as numbers: Fitzsimmons/One, Cruiser/Two, Choker/Three, and Catskinner/Four.  To ride all four lifts could take over half an hour, a long journey if the weather was not great.  In 1994, Lifts One through Three were replaced by Blackcomb’s first gondola, Excalibur, and the four-person Excelerator Express.  Lift Four remained the only original lift operating on Blackcomb until it was replaced in 2018.

Though only one of the eight lifts installed in 1980 remains, the year marked the beginning of a busy decade of lift building for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Whistler’s Silver Book

When talking about the creation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975 and the early development of the Whistler Village through the 1980s, one of the documents that is often mentioned is the “Silver Book,” also known as the Community Development Study for the Whistler Mountain Area.  The Silver Book was put together in 1974 by the Planning Services Division of the Department of Municipal Affair of BC and contained a study of the current state of the area, thoughts on potential growth, and a recommended framework for creating both a short and long term community development plan.  The report was a key factor in the formation of the RMOW and was one of the first documents to recommend a single-centred Town Centre on the site of the garbage dump.

The aptly named “Silver Book”

The Silver Book also, included plans for residential development, infrastructure such as sewer and water systems, further recreational development, and transportation both to and within the area.  Reading through the report, it is clear that some of the transportation woes experienced by Whistler in the past few years are similar to those thought of back in 1974.

At the time, almost all travel between Whistler and Vancouver was done by private automobiles on the two lane highway.  According to the report, “At peak times, particularly winter Sunday evenings, traffic on the highway is almost bumper to bumper.”  The capacity of the highway in winter conditions was calculated to be about 500 vehicles per hour, but with many skiers arriving and leaving at the same time the traffic slowed to a crawl.

Snowy winter days could already lead to backed up traffic exiting the Whistler Village by 1984. Whistler Question Collection.

The idea of building a new road with a different route to Whistler was dismissed as too expensive at $80-100 million (adjusted for inflation, $400-500 million), as was a proposal to expand the existing highway significantly.  Using rail to expand transport capacity was considered, but it was concluded that the railway, designed for moving freight, “does not lend itself to the operation of high-speed passenger trains.”  A weekend ski-train was proposed but this would have removed only 600 skiers per day from the road.  Though increased bus service was expected to provide only a modest increase in capacity, it was considered the most effective solution.

Buses were also an important part of the transportation plan within the Whistler area.  The community was expected to develop in a linear fashion along the highway and be “somewhat sprawling.”  The plan for a single Town Centre meant that municipal and commercial services would require traveling outside of the different subdivisions, which, if all trips were taken in a private automobile, could lead to excessive traffic noise, air pollution, and “aesthetically inappropriate large-scale parking lots” at the Town Centre.  Instead, the recommendation was to develop an efficient public transport system within the valley.

A bus picks up skiers at the Gondola base, today known as Creekside. Whistler Question Collection, 1979.

The Silver Book outlined several ways of encouraging the use of public transport, but only one was marked “not workable” by the donor of one copy in our collections: toll gates and restricted parking.  The idea was that toll gates at the north and south ends of Whistler would encourage visitors to take a bus or train, while residents could apply for an annual windshield sticker that would allow them through.  These “stickered” vehicles would, however, not be allowed to part at the Town Centre during peak periods, thereby “forcing” residents to use buses and reducing the size of parking structure needed.

The Silver Book provides an interesting look at what the Province thought Whistler could become from the early 1970s.  Some of the plans and predictions of the report (such as the linear development) have been realised while others either have never come to fruition (toll gates) or have far exceeded these early plans.

Blackcomb’s First Season

Back in September the museum posted a series of photos on social media picturing some of the activity taking place on Blackcomb Mountain as they prepared to open for their first season in December 1980.  One comment made on the photos made clear that their first season wasn’t necessarily all that Blackcomb had hoped it would be, point out “except it didn’t snow.”  Unfortunately for Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, this was true for most of the early winter season.

The 1980/81 season didn’t start out too badly.  On December 4th, when Pat Carleton cut the ribbon on Lift 2 with a chainsaw, there was snow in the valley and the weather looked promising.  The new triple chairs to reach the top of Blackcomb were operating and skiers were able to end their day with a piece of the 5 m cake and draw prizes.  According to Hugh Smythe, the mountain enjoyed “phenomenal skiing for three weeks” and then it started to rain.

The opening ceremonies on Blackcomb Mountain had promising snow and skiers lined up to ride the new lifts. Greg Griffith Collection.

The Whistler Question reported that it began raining in the region on December 24, 1980, and it was still raining towards the end of January 1981.  Sections of the highway between Whistler and Squamish were washed on by heavy rains twice in that period, first on December 26 and again on January 21, cutting Whistler and Pemberton off from the Lower Mainland except by train or helicopter.  Within Whistler, Alpine Meadows was cut off from the rest of the town when 19 Mile Creek flooded its banks.  All this rain might not have been too terrible for the ski season, except that the rain was accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures (at one point in January the temperature in Whistler was recorded as 5°C).  On January 8, 1981 the Question editorial stated, “As you look out of the window on January 6 it looks more like May 6 with little or no snow in the valley and only a minimum coverage above 4,500 ft.”

The rains did damage to more than just the snow – bridges, including this rail bridge over Rutherford Creek, were washed away. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The holiday season, usually one of the busiest times of year in Whistler, saw only 20% of its usual volume.  Blackcomb employees delivered newsletters throughout the subdivisions in the valley to let people know that Blackcomb Mountain was open for skiing but bad press coverage of the weather did not encourage skiers to visit.

Whistler Mountain was able to continue operating (or, some might say “limped along”) through January, but Blackcomb shut down operations and laid off staff temporarily because there was not enough snow to get skiers up to Lift 4 and Lift 3 was not designed for downloading.  Blackcomb tried grooming the runs on Lift 4 and moving snow onto the road that led to the top of Lift 2, enabling skiers to ski down to the bottom of Lift 3 before downloading.  They even borrowed snow making equipment from Grouse Mountain, who reportedly did not open at all that season, but the warm temperatures made it impossible to keep or make enough snow.

After the highway washed out a second time, BCR saw an increased demand for passenger cars. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Blackcomb Mountain was able to reopen later in the season and by March there was consistently snow on the mountains.  Blackcomb has gone on to operate for 39 successful seasons and, this December, will celebrate their 40th anniversary (fingers crossed without the rain).

Archiving Your Life in a Digital World

Where and how do you store your personal files and photos?  It’s easy to forget that before the days of cellphone cameras and social media, time and effort were put into printing photographs, labelling them, and putting them into albums.

When I was training to become an archivist, I began to realize that my own photos were scattered across Facebook, my phone, and my laptop, and that if I ever wanted to look back on those memories to share with family or donate them to the archives, it would be one great, big mess.

Personal archiving is the organization and safe preservation of material that relates to the life, memories, and experiences of a person.  Modern personal archiving is often concerned with digital preservation, especially bringing together content from social media and digital devices to ensure the long-term preservation of the memories we store digitally.

Digital files could be stored on many different devices.

It’s hard to know exactly what is going to be of personal or historical importance in the future, and hard to know how to choose what to keep and how to organize it so that we can access it later.  For instance, after actress Vivien Leigh’s death in 1967, her laundry receipts ended up providing insight into how mid-20th century haute couture was preserved and presented in public.  Yet, it’s unlikely that Vivien kept these laundry receipts knowing they would provide historical value later.

While we can’t always know what will be important to keep, we can do our best to keep our core memories and evidence of our impact on the community alive by keeping our media and documents organized, in a safe place.  Based on the Library of Congress’s advice for personal archiving, I’ve provided some steps here that can guide you in preserving you and your family’s digital files:

  1. Locate your files.  Are they on your phone?  On your Google Drive?  On your computer?  On a memory card or USB?  On Facebook?  Decide on one place to compile them.
  2. Choose which files are most important to you and the historical record.  Historical value can often be found in items that document activities, people, places, and events.  Delete duplicates and keep the highest quality versions.
  3. Organize your files chronologically, by subject, or both.  Develop a hierarchical structure of folders for storing the files, and name your files and folders consistently.  Include dates in file and folder names wherever possible.
  4. Preserve your organized files by making copies and storing them in different physical locations (e.g. keep one set of files on your computer, one on an external hard drive, or one on a cloud file-sharing drive, etc.).

If many of your files or photos are not yet in the digital world, consider scanning them.  If you are planning to donate your files to the Whistler Museum & Archives, we are happy to scan any physical photographs you may have and send you copies.

While physical photos can be stored in boxes such as these, digital photos require a different system.

Recently, we have noticed our archival collection is severely lacking in donations from the past 25 years; we believe this may be due to the shift to digital creation with the onset of new technologies.  We would be ecstatic if this article could prompt our community to begin donating old cell phone videos and photos (even if their digital quality is that of a potato nowadays!), or even old Word documents of newsletters from local organizations.  The early days of the internet sparked massive changes in how we create, share, and preserve our stories – this time of change merits preservation.  If you’re able to help us fill the 1995 – 2020 gap in our collection, please email archives@whistlermuseum.org.

Whistler’s Posters

Some of the most memorable images of advertising by both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains from the posters that the two companies produced in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is not unusual for the Whistler Museum to be contacted by someone trying to track down that last Saudan Couloir poster for their personal collection or hoping to find a copy of Whistler Mountain’s 20th anniversary poster of the flying Volkswagen.  In 2015, Mike Hurst, previously the vice-president of marketing, shared stories from behind the scenes of some of Whistler Mountain’s memorable posters.

One of the amazing Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme posters designed by Brent Lynch, who designed many of the posters for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Posters were a relatively inexpensive and, based on how popular they continue to be today, effective form of advertising.  Both Whistler and Blackcomb worked with Brent Lynch (the artist behind most of the Saudan Couloir posters, the flying Volkswagen, and many more) to create some of their most beloved posters.  According to Hurst, though, there was usually at least one thing about the posters that he and Lynch didn’t agree on: the promotional tagline.  Lynch wanted the art on the poster to represent itself, without any marketing language to distract from the message of the art; Hurst wanted every poster to include a promotional line that would be remembered by those who saw it.  As Hurst put it, “I won on getting the promotional line, but he won by trying to bury it as softly as he could so you couldn’t read it.”  Despite this claim, you don’t have to look too closely to find the tagline on at least one of Hurst and Lynch’s posters featuring Whistler’s Mother.

This poster can still be found in homes throughout the area.

Hurst remembered that he was trying to find a way to say, as cheaply as possible that Whistler was the superior mountain to Blackcomb.  He had an idea of Whistler’s Mother skiing down the mountain, riding the gondola and the lifts, and, after checking with Kastle (Whistler Mountain’s suppliers) Lynch created the image of artist James McNeill Whistler’s mother riding the Red Chair.  Hurst gives his wife credit for coming up with the promotional line “Whistler, Mother always loved you best,” that was included on the poster.  Blackcomb Mountain had been advertising their long runs and their status as a “Mile High Mountain” and so Hurst was glad to sneak this poster in on them.

Not all of the posters Whistler Mountain produced in the 1980s were created by Lynch.  The first poster for the Ski Scamps program featured a photograph of three children with skis on top of snow, obviously dressed for a day in Ski Scamps.  What you might not know from looking at the poster is that Whistler Mountain didn’t have much money for a photo shoot, the children are Hurst’s three children, the ski clothes were borrowed, and it was shot on Grouse Mountain.  Apparently they had planned to shoot on a sunny day in Whistler but each time Hurst called to check the weather Whistler had fog.  As the deadline for the advertising campaign approached, Hurst reached out to Gary Kiefer at Grouse and asked to “borrow his mountain.”

The Ski Scamps poster didn’t let on that it taken on Grouse, not Whistler Mountain.

We have many posters in the archives from the 1970s through the 1990s, ranging from World Cup races to Music in the Mountains advertisements, but surprisingly few from the past 20 years.  The posters are a great example of what events were happening in Whistler, what milestones the area was commemorating, and what art styles were popular at the time, and we are always looking to add to the collection.