Category Archives: Ski-Town stories

Fire at The Keg

While cataloguing the Griffith Collection (a collection of roughly 50,000 images donated by photographer Greg Griffith), our Assistant Archivist Stephanie recently came across slides of a fire at The Keg building that we had previously only seen in black and white.

The first Keg in the Whistler valley was opened at Adventures West on Alta Lake in 1974, but when construction of the Whistler Village began in 1979 plans were made to open a new Keg restaurant in the Whistler Village Inn.

When the first Keg building was moved up Lorimer Rd. to become the new Municipal Hall in 1981, the new Keg building was still under construction.  The hotel and restaurant were expected to open by the end of January 1982, in time for the World Cup, and by the beginning of January restaurant staff had already been hired.

The Whistler Volunteer Fire Department works to contain the fire in The Keg and Whistler Village Inn building. Greg Griffith Collection.

Around 3:30 pm on Wednesday, January 13, 1982, a fire broke out in the building, caused by a leaking propane tank.  The fire started in the restaurant section, spread upwards into the roof and, aided by strong winds, spread across the entire building.

The Whistler Volunteer Fire Department (WVFD) worked well into the night.  According to the Whistler Question, they poured water on the building for over seven hours.  Luckily there were no injuries from the fire, but one firefighter was taken to hospital with chest pains and several others were treated for smoke inhalation.

The next week the WVFD sent a whole bundle of roses into the Whistler Question’s “Bricks & Roses” section to thank those who had helped.  The Whistler and Pemberton ambulance crews were present all night, Dr. Christine Rodgers spent the night on call, Terry Rodgers manned the radio, Carol Simmie, Kathy Hicks and Katie Rodgers helped coordinate the effort, and the RCMP provided crowd control.  Members of the Surrey Fire Department and Squamish Fire Department who were in Whistler also came out.

Crowds watch the fire from the Village Stroll. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

As it was January, dry clothing and hot food were greatly appreciated in the -20°C weather.  The Grocery Store opened late to provide food supplies, the Alta Lake Community Club, Stoney’s, the Brass Rail, Tapley’s and The Gourmet all brought coffee and food, and the Blackcomb Lodge offered the use of their dryers.

The fire was contained to the top floor of the hotel section, and most of the building was considered structurally sound on the lower levels, with some damage from water and smoke.  The damage was estimated at $2.5 million.

By mid-February demolition work had already begun.  Smith Brothers & Wilson Construction Ltd. got to work repairing and reconstructing the restaurant and hotel.  Because the Whistler Village Inn was designed in two separate buildings, they were able to open 44 rooms in 1982, but the hotel was missing planned amenities such as a pool, restaurant, and permanent lobby.

Brian Moran, Ken Till, Bob Elliott and John Grills outside the soon-to-be-opened Whistler Keg.  Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

January 1983 was a busy month, as finishing touches were put on the restaurant and over 100 staff were hired from over 500 applicants.

The Keg was finally able to open on Friday, February 4, with some familiar faces.  Herb Capozzi, a founder of the Keg restaurant chain, was one of the first to be served, and some staff members from The Keg at Adventures West came back, such as Scott Paxton.  Over the first three evenings, the restaurant served over 900 meals.

A face from yesteryear – Scott Paxton, who worked at The Keg at the Mountain many years ago when it was located in Whistler Cay has now resurfaced at the new Keg as the official “bunmaster”. Paxton and fellow employees geared up for the opening night at The Keg Friday, February 4 for another era of Keg lovers.  Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

Though the Whistler Village has expanded and prices may have changed (in 1983 an 8 oz sirloin would cost you $8.95 and highballs at Brandy’s were $1.85), The Keg and Brandy’s continue to occupy the space opened in 1983.

Volunteers of 2010: The Weasel Workers

This past month, the Whistler Museum opened a temporary exhibit on the Sea to Sky volunteers of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The exhibit will run through March as Whistler continues to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paralympic Games.  One of the groups included in this exhibit is a group that formed well before the Games ever came to Whistler.

The Weasel Workers formed in the 1970s when Bob Parsons bad his crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.  Most of the early volunteers were parents of Whistler Mountain Ski Club members, but membership grew over the years as Weasels continued to work on the courses for large races on Whistler and began sending volunteers to help build courses for World Cups, World Championships, and Winter Olympics on other mountains.  When the Games were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003, the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team well in advance of the alpine events held on Whistler Mountain.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

During the 2010 Games, the number of Weasel Workers swelled to about 1,500 volunteers.  Volunteers came from across Canada and other nations to join a core group of 400 to 500 volunteers from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky area.  About 300 volunteers worked specifically for the Paralympics, and a couple hundred Weasel Workers volunteered to work for both the Olympics and Paralympics.  Weasel volunteers began their work for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on Whistler Mountain as early as mid-November 2008 and continued to clean the courses well after the Games had left town.

Even during the Games, the Weasels continued to be a family affair.  Bunny Hume, who began volunteering the with Weasels with her husband Dick in the early 1980s when their grandsons began ski racing, volunteered alongside multiple family members.  She handed out and collected race bibs, her son Rick was the Chief of Course for the women’s course, and her grandsons Jeff and Scott worked on the dye crew.  Rick’s wife Lynne also worked as a Weasel during the Paralympics.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

Some of the Weasel Workers who began volunteering as ski club parents even had children competing in the Games.  Long-time Weasel Andrée Janyk, who could often be found working on a course with a smile, saw two of her children, Britt and Mike, race in the Olympics in their hometown.

Karl Ricker, also a long-time dedicated Weasel Worker, was on the mountain trying to prevent people from crossing where the winch-cats were working when he received the news that Maëlle Ricker, his daughter, had won a gold medal in snowboard-cross on Cypress Mountain and become the first Canadian woman to claim an Olympic gold on home soil.  He went down to Vancouver to attend her medal ceremony, but was back at work on the course early the next morning.

Despite rain, wet snow, and warm weather over the first few days of the Games, and the postponement of three races, the Weasel Workers created and maintained courses for the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic alpine races that were seen around the world in 2010, and those who came to Whistler to work with the Weasels became just as much a part of the team as the long-time volunteers.  Patrick Maloney, then the Weasel president, told The Whistler Question that, “Anybody that’s on that track is a Weasel Worker.”  This sentiment was echoed by Weasel Worker Colin Pitt-Taylor, who claimed that, “as soon as you started working on an alpine course, you became a Weasel Worker, whether you like it or not.”

Revisiting Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard

Due to the popularity of the film last year, we’re bringing back Mike Stein and his film Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard!

In 1972 Mike Stein and five fellow adventurers (Adolf Teufele, Wink Bradford, Ferdi Wenger, Jim McConkey & Harvey Fraser) set out on a journey on the Liard River through parts of the Yukon, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  Their trip focused on the Grand Canyon, a 20 km stretch of the Liard containing numerous class IV and higher rapids, and was filmed by Adolf Teufele.  For decades the resulting 16mm film was thought lost, but Mike not only found a copy but had it digitized.

Since its premiere at the Whistler Museum’s 2019 Speaker Series, the film has been on a journey of its own, and Mike Stein will be on hand to discuss the experiences he has had with Highways of the Past over the last year.

Doors open at 6:30 pm.  Show begins at 7 pm.

Tickets are on sale at the Whistler Museum.  Early bird tickets are $10 ($5 for museum and Club Shred members).  Tickets on March 18 are $12 ($7 for museum and Club Shred members).

Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that he would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Garibaldi Lifts’ Early Employees

Since Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. first began hiring staff in 1965, Whistler Mountain has employed thousands of people in the area, some for a season and some for careers that span decades.  Like today, one of the challenges facing lift company employees then could be find a place to stay while working.  In an oral history interview conducted with Lynn Mathews this past summer, there were some names of employees that came up again and again while discussing early mountain operations.  One thing that three of these names, Doug Mansell, Denis Beauregard, and Frank Arundel, had in common was that they all had a place to stay well before the lifts began operating on Whistler.

Doug Mansell was a superintendent of lift operations for almost two decades.  He first moved to Alta Lake with his family in 1945 at the age of 8, after his father purchased property on the east side of the lake.  There the family built and operated Hillcrest Lodge, which opened its doors to guests in July 1946.  Doug and his brother grew up at Hillcrest Lodge, and Doug even married a Hillcrest guest, Barb.  At 14, Doug began working in Alf Gebhart’s Rainbow Lumber Mill and from 1951-56 he worked as a telephone lineman for the PGE Railway.  Doug and Barb took over the management of Hillcrest when his parents retired in 1958 and later sold the lodge to Glen Mason in 1965.  Hillcrest later became known as the Mount Whistler Lodge.

Doug Mansell, Franz Wilhelmsen, Stefan Ples and Jim McConkey pose together at the dedication ceremony for Franz’s Run. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

After selling, Doug and Barb both went to work for the lift company.  As Lynn put it, “Growing up in Alta Lake, you had to be handy, and know how to do things.  And Doug was really good.”  Doug continued working on Whistler Mountain until he and Barb retired to North Vancouver in 1983.

Like Doug, Denis Beauregard, an electrician for the lift company, was an Alta Lake resident before runs and lifts were built on Whistler Mountain.  He and his wife Pat began visiting Alta Lake with the “Witsend” group and built their own summer cottage on the lake in 1961.  The story we’ve heard is that a party at Rainbow Lodge in 1966, Denis remarked that if he could get a job in the area, he would move up permanently.  Brian Rowley, who worked for the lift company at that time, told Denis he could supply the job, and neighbour Don Gow offered to share his well water with the Beauregards in exchange for use of their washing machine.  The Beauregards moved up and both Denis and Pat began working at the mountain.  Both continued to be active members of the Alta Lake community, and even hosted the community club film screenings in the lift company cafeteria.

Denis and Pat Beauregard receiving silver coins for Whistler Mountain’s 25th Anniversary from Maurice Young (centre).

Both of the Beauregards’ sons worked for the lift company as well, and in 1991 Denis and Pat received silver coins commemorating their 25 years of service.  The pair retired to Squamish in 1994.

Frank Arundel worked for the lift company as a heavy-duty mechanic.  He and his family lived outside of the Alta Lake area, in Garibaldi Townsite, until an Order in Council and subsequent government actions cleared all residents from the area in the 1980s.  Frank had a workshop on the top of the mountain, which, according to Lynn, “was usually buried in snow.”  For Julie Gallagher, who grew up at Brandywine Resort in the 1960s and early 1970s, Frank’s work at Whistler Mountain was very convenient as she and his daughter were able to catch rides up to go skiing whenever he went to work.

We know there are many more stories of early employees (such as Stefan Ples, who perhaps knew the mountain better than anyone) and the early days of mountain operations, and we would love to hear them at the museum, whether you worked for the lift company yourself or heard stories passed down through the decades.

The Snow (or not) of 1976-77

by John Hetherington, WMAS President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our 2020 Speaker Series Begins!

We’ll be opening our 2020 Speaker Series with a screening of Pro Patrol, Curtis Petersen’s 1980 short documentary on ski patrol on Whistler Mountain, followed by a talk on changes in ski patrol and mountain safety with Roger McCarthy, Brian Leighton and Bruce Watt.

Doors open at 6:30 pm. Show begins at 7pm. Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum and Club Shred members) and will be available at the Whistler Museum beginning January 17.