Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Learning to Ski Whistler

Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lynn Mathews filled various roles for Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. She worked in the office and, in addition to the more typical office work, her responsibilities also included creating ski passes with a polaroid camera and a crank-turned laminator and putting together editions of Garibaldi’s Whistler News to help spread the word of what was going on at Whistler Mountain. As well, every so often, she would teach a ski lesson.

When Lynn and her husband Dave came to Whistler Mountain for the winter of 1966/67, they intended to be there only part-time to teach skiing on the weekends. Instead, Dave was brought on by the lift company as operations manager and Lynn began working in the office. When the mountain was short ski instructors, however, Lynn would sometimes be asked to teach.

Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices were located at the base of the Gondola. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

Lynn had previously taught skiing at Grouse Mountain for a season and before that at Gray Rocks Inn in Quebec, where she met Dave. According to Lynn, those mountains did not prepare her for the amount of snow that Whistler Mountain could get.

Lynn would get called out when all the other instructors were busy or hurt, often with dislocated shoulders. In a series of interviews in 2019, she recalled the first time she was asked to teach on a big powder day with fresh snow that got as high as her hip.

In the 1960s and 70s, Whistler Mountain could get very, very big snowfalls and had very little in the way of grooming equipment, so most runs were ungroomed. George Benjamin Collection

After being called in and getting her boots on and gear together, Lynn discovered a problem. Lynn had been raised an eastern skier and, though very comfortable on ice and hard-packed snow, she didn’t know how to ski in that much powder. Unfortunately, neither did her class of beginners.

After a long trip up the mountain, Lynn took her class into the Roundhouse. According to Lynn, she found her husband Dave, Garibaldi Lifts president Franz Wilhelmsen, and Dave Brewer there. She went up to them and told them, “Ok you guys, help. How do I get off this mountain? I can’t ski this.” Their response was to laugh at her, apparently finding the situation “hysterical.” Dave Brewer did, however, giver her some helpful advice, explaining that she should lean back on her heels, keep her arms forwards, and keep her tips up.

Students in Lynn’s class may have looked a bit like this by the time they arrived at the Roundhouse. George Benjamin Collection

Lynn and her class headed out to make their way down the mountain. She began by doing a demonstration of how they were going to ski down, despite never having done it herself. Preparing herself mentally, Lynn said a prayer and pointed her skis down the hill. Keeping Dave Brewer’s tips in mind, her first few turns worked and she began calling her students down one by one. They did, eventually, make it back to the gondola.

Lynn also filled in to teach weekly school programs and, under special circumstances, was called on to coach at the summer ski camp on Whistler Mountain. One year, Lynn recalled being a private coach for a camp participant who was really a beginner skier. As the young man had come from California, they didn’t want to send him home, but he couldn’t keep up with the other campers. Instead, Lynn taught him and by the end of the camp he was able to go down the slalom course, even if he was much slower than the others.

Whistler’s Red Chairs

Many people, when asked about their experiences on Whistler Mountain, tell us stories that include the Red Chair. This is not all that surprising; until 1980, the Red Chair was part of the only lift route up from the valley and almost everyone who skied on Whistler Mountain had to ride the lift (apart from a few hardy individuals like Stefan Ples and Seppo Makinen, who preferred to climb up on their own).

The Red Chair on Whistler Mountain. George Benjamin Collection

On his first trip to Whistler during the summer of 1965, Paul Burrows and a group of friends hiked up the mountain with their skis to test out the area and, though they may have gotten stuck on a cliff for a while on their way down, the memories of seeing the Red Chair under construction stuck with him. Renate Bareham recalled a summer when she helped her father paint the top of the Red Chair.

At an event in 2019, Hugh Smythe described one of his experiences skiing on Whistler Mountain. The weekend after Whistler Mountain first opened in January 1966, Smythe drove up from Vancouver through heavy snow to work as part of the first ski patrol team. After a long journey (the drive through the Cheakamus Canyon took and hour and a half), the trailers at the base of the mountain set up as staff accommodation were full. Smythe and his group spent the night on the floor of the lift company cafeteria. Before going to sleep, however, they were told they would need to be back up at 5 am to shovel the top of the Red Chair so skiers could reach the top of the mountain.

Digging out the top of the Red Chair. Coates Collection

It was still dark when the ski patrol made their way up the gondola to the bottom of the Red Chair. There, they were told to take their shovels and ride up on the back of the chair, holding tight to the lift. As Smythe remembered it, “I was holding on so hard with my one arm and hand, and we actually got to Tower 15 and that was about, oh, fifteen, twenty minute ride at that point to get there, then all of a sudden we hit the snow and the chair tilted back like this, and we’re dragging in the dark.” They unloaded at the top and then spent two hours digging out the chair’s path as it continued to snow in order for the skiing to open to the public. In contrast, when describing the challenging winter of 1976/77, John Hetherington remembers how very limited snow meant skiers had to download on the Red Chair, a slow ride down.

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

The Red Chair was the first double chairlift installed on Whistler Mountain by Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. in 1965, along with a gondola and two t-bars. It was later joined by the Little Red Chair, which ran mostly parallel to the Red Chair, another double chairlift that helped ease line ups. Both chairs were removed in 1992, replaced by the Redline Express Quad, which was then also replaced in 1997 by the current Big Red Express. In September 2021, plans were announced to replace the current chair with a new high-speed six-person chair for the 2022/23 season. For anyone wishing to relive their memories of the first Red Chair, however, a red chair can be found in Florence Petersen Park that, if it snows enough, might even require some digging.

Building the Boot

Visitors coming to Whistler today have a variety of accommodation options, from campsites to luxury hotel suites, but in the 1970s there weren’t nearly as many choices. In 1972, Garibaldi’s Whistler News described the situation as: “There are no big, fancy resort-type hotels in the area offering everything under the sun. Instead, scattered around the base of the lifts are numerous inns and restaurants offering a good selection of accommodations and dining facilities.” Most of these establishments, such as the Cheakamus Inn, Highland Lodge, and Christiana Inn, were located around the area now known as Creekside. The Ski Boot, however, was a little further away.

Ski Boot Hotel, later the Shoestring Lodge and Boot Pub

In 1966, David and Irene Andrews purchased a ten-acre site along Highway 99 and Fitzsimmons Creek for $10,000, about 5 km north of the newly opened gondola base. Over the next year, they began construction of the Ski Boot Motel, a “modern” motel expected to open during the 1967/68 ski season. The Andrews offered a variety of accommodations in their 32 units, from private rooms to suites that slept eight. During its first season, the Ski Boot Motel provided reasonable rates, sometimes as low as $5/night, and even offered a “ski week” that included five nights accommodations, meals, and lift tickets for just $67.50.

Over the next few years, more development was planned and built north of the ski lifts, though the majority of the lodges and nightlife continued to be found around the gondola base. In 1971, the Andrews announced a major investment of $100,000 (today about $1.35 million) in their Ski Boot property, now called the Ski Boot Lodge Hotel, to turn it into “Whistler’s Largest and Most Complete Tourist Resort.” They proposed to add a full-service dining room, cocktail lounge, beer parlour, convention facilities, laundromat, Finnish sauna, and additional accommodations, along with plans for live entertainment and a bus to transport skiers between the lifts and the lodge (the purple bus became known to some as the “Purple People Eater,” no double from the 1958 song). The beer parlour opened to the public (guests and residents alike) in January 1972, with the dining room following that March. The lodge also introduced two new members of staff that season: two St. Bernard puppies named Ski and Boot. While rates did increase during the period, the Ski Boot continued to be known for reasonable prices.

The Ski Boot Hotel and Bus, with additions under construction. WMSC Collection

The Andrews reportedly sold the Ski Boot Lodge Hotel for $350,000 in 1973, though not much is known about this period. Over the next few decades, the property was sold numerous times and went by various names, including the White Gold Inn (during which time exotic dancing was first introduced), Fitzsimmons Lodge, Bavarian Inn, and the Shoestring Lodge. The term “Boot,” however, continued to be associated with the property and specifically the Boot Pub.

Despite being located outside of both the gondola base and later the Whistler Village, the Andrews’ early commitment to reasonable rates and additions to the original lodge laid the foundation for the Boot to grow into an institution as the Whistler area continued to develop and grow. Though it closed its doors in 2006 and was then demolished, many residents and visitors still fondly share their stories of times spent at the Boot, whether they stayed there when they first arrived in Whistler, ate at Gaitors as a child, or spent memorable evenings at the bar.

Whistler’s Waterslides

By the time Whistler Springs, Whistler’s first (and so far only) waterslide facility, opened in August 1985, it had already caused quite a bit of controversy. The project was first proposed in 1983 and was expected to be completed by December of that year, but it took two years before the first riders flung themselves down the fibreglass tubes.

In the spring of 1983, Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) was studying the economic viability of a waterslide at the base of their northside lifts after they were approached by a development company. According to Dave Balfour, then the vice president of finance and administration, studying how it could be incorporated into their operations and ski runs was “an interesting design problem.” Because the site was part of the ski area, the developer Hugh Hall first needed to apply for tenure from the Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing through WMSC in order to apply for a development permit from the municipality. WMSC did not think this would be a problem and by the end of the summer plans had moved ahead.

Whistler Springs on the side of Whistler Mountain. Though covered, the walkway up was still exposed to the weather and reportedly very chilly after one’s first slide. Coates Collection

As described by Hall, the proposed facility would include a spiral staircase up to the lobby, offices, a gift shop, a juice bar, multiple spas, a heated and covered walkway, and two slides made of semi-transparent tubes. It would be one of a small number of non-skiing family-oriented facilities in Whistler and would operate for most of the year (according to Hall, it would be closed for half of May and all of June as “everyone has to accept the fact that in any resort there are certain months of the year things aren’t open.”) When it came time to apply for a development permit, however, there was some vocal opposition, especially from the site’s neighbours.

Kurt Gagel, president of the Telemark Strata Corporation, and Peter Gregory, the developer of the Delta Mountain Inn, expressed concern about the location and its impact on their property values due to the aesthetic of “unattractive waterslide tubes” and potential noise complaints. Others expressed concerns about the visual impact of the waterslides and whether there would be adequate landscaping to make the facility blend in with its surroundings. In September, over fifty people attended a three-hour public meeting to discuss the development. Only about twenty people showed up to the next meeting where council was set to vote on the matter, but letters from both neighbours were read indicating possible legal action if the permit was approved. Despite this, council voted to approve the permit 4-3 but with fourteen conditions attached before a building permit would be issued.

After many twists and turns, sliders were let out into a shallow pool. Coates Collection

Over the next two years, changes were made to the design and construction began on Whistler Springs in 1984. December was again proposed as an opening date, but the facility was not completed until August 1985, after another small controversy over 400 sq ft of floor space that had not been in the original permit.

Whistler Springs officially opened to the public on August 23. Visitors and residents alike arrived to test out the slides and it was soon discovered that the right slide ran slightly more quickly than the left. Despite what some have described as a very chilly walk up to the top, the slides became very popular with the summer ski camp kids and others. In 1987, the waterslides were even included in articles meant to advertise Whistler as a resort destination.

The slides operated for less than a decade before the space was taken over by WMSC Employee Services. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

By the early 1990s, the popularity of the waterslides was waning and Whistler Springs closed permanently in 1991. According to Peggy Vogler, after the slides closed the building was used by WMSC employees. The restaurant space upstairs became offices for the ski school and the downstairs was used by Employee Services. The site was sold to developers and eventually developed into the Westin Resort & Spa. The only trace of the waterslides left today is the name of the Whistler Blackcomb Employee Services building, still called The Springs.