Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

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!

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.