Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

“Ask Me! I’m a Local” and the 2010 Games

It is well established that Whistler residents have a strong history of volunteering, both for major events and more regularly within the community.

Perhaps the largest event put on in Whistler with the help of volunteers was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which required hundreds of volunteers each day.  One specific volunteer program that was in place during the 2010 Games was Ask Me! I’m a Local.

The Ask Me! program was conceived by Whistler resident Janis McKenzie and her visiting friend Dan Perdue over a cup of coffee in January 2009.

The idea was simple: connect friendly, button-wearing locals to visitors who might need some help.  Local residents would sign up to wear an Ask Me! button while in the Whistler Village, and the button would identify them as someone visitors could approach to ask directions of, make recommendations, or even take a photo (though selfies were becoming increasingly popular, front-facing cameras on phones were not as common as they are today).

Ask Me! I’m a Local program creators stand with Sumi, the 2010 Paralympic Games mascot. Photo courtesy of Janis McKenzie.

McKenzie approached the RMOW, which agreed to fund the program, and got to work developing it so it would be in place by 2010.  According to the Ask Me! strategic plan, “[Whistler is] a community that prides itself on being friendly and reaching out to help our visitors in their native tongue.  We do this because we genuinely care and know that the experience our guests have will define our future.”  Unlike official Olympic volunteers with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), this program did not require a set number of shifts often lasting eight to ten hours.  This meant that residents could volunteer and act as ambassadors for Whistler simply by walking through town wearing their button.

To recruit volunteers and raise awareness of the program, a launch party was planned for October 1, 2009.  While McKenzie said they hoped to have 80 to 100 people attend and sign up, over 200 people lined up to attend the party at the GLC.  Those who signed up for a button at the party were entered into a draw prize and were eligible to win a season pass donated by Whistler Blackcomb, who also covered all of the costs for the party.

According to McKenzie, over 600 people had registered for buttons by the time of the Games.  The buttons were available in five languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese), and businesses could also take part by displaying a decal in their window.

Joan Richoz poses proudly with her Ask Me! I’m a Local button during the 2010 Games. Photo courtesy of Claire Johnson.

Though organizers originally thought that few participants would want extra training, over 80 per cent of participants registered for in-person training and over 90 per cent registered to receive a monthly newsletter in order to learn more about Whistler.

The success of the simple grassroots program was recognized in the media and the idea spread, with Vancouver introducing its own version of the program for the Games, and Russian representatives asking about it ahead of their own Games.

Though the Ask Me! buttons can no longer be seen, many of its duties are now carried out by the Village Host program.  McKenzie described the program as “an incredible journey” that exceeded all expectations.  Throughout the Games locals could be found in Whistler proudly wearing their buttons, answering questions, and giving directions to the thousands of visitors and participants of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  The main idea behind the program remains relevant in Whistler today: “It’s the smallest things we do that will make the biggest difference for our guests’ experience.”

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.

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

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.

When Snowboarding Came to Whistler

Looking at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains today, it is hard to imagine there was ever a time when snowboarders weren’t allowed to ride on the mountains.  For over a decade, skiers were all you would find in the Whistler valley, until Blackcomb Mountain became the first of our local mountains to welcome snowboarders in the winter of 1988/89 (Whistler Mountain followed suit the next season).

Blackcomb soon became the freestyle snowboard mountain.  Before the first terrain park was built in 1993, Stu Osbourne, who started working for the mountain in 1990, recalls snowboarders and skiers taking air off of the wind lip on a glacier.  “That’s where I first saw the first photos of Ross Rebagliati and Doug Lungren.  I think he was one of the guys back then that did one of the biggest air ever off the wind lip,” said Osbourne.

Oliver Roy, late 1990s.  Greg Griffith Collection.

Rebagliati began with skiing and was a ski racer with the Grouse Mountain Tyees.  While in high school, a couple of his friends convinced him to try snowboarding.  “I started to snowboard before we were ‘allowed’ to snowboard,” said Rebagliati.  He defined the culture at the time as “underground.”  When snowboarders were finally officially welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain in 1988, he came up from Vancouver with some friends on opening day and was one of the first snowboarders to ride the chairlift on Blackcomb.

American boarder Kevin Delaney takes part in a half-pipe competition held on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

In 1987, when Rebagliati was 16, he had attended the first ever snowboarding camp in Canada.  The camp was led by Craig Kelly, who Rebagliati depicted as the Gretsky of snowboarding.  At the camp, Kelly’s recognition of his talent gave Rebagliati the confidence he needed to pursue the sport seriously, including joining the Burton team.

Snowboarding took off through the 1990s and the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan were the first to include snowboarding.  By then a Whistler local, Ross Rebagliati became the winner of the first Olympic gold medal for snowboarding, beating out the silver medal winner by .02 seconds in the men’s Giant Slalom event.  His win, however, became uncertain when a urine sample returned to him.  He insisted that he only inhaled second hand smoke and didn’t actually smoke at all himself before the competition.

Rebagliati pulled out of World Cup racing not too longer after his Olympic win and didn’t compete in the 2002 Olympics.  He spent time working on media projects, launching his own snowboard, and building a home in Whistler that he described as “the house that snowboarding bought.”

A snowboarder heads down the Saudan Couloir during the Couloir Extreme. Originally strictly a ski race, boarders were admitted when the sport was welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

Over the past three decades, snowboarding has become firmly established as part of the Whistler community and many celebrated snowboarders have trained on both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains.  The museum, however, is lacking information about the sport and athletes in our collection, perhaps because snowboarding is still thought of as quite a young sport.

If you have any snowboardings stories you’d like to share, please come see us at the museum!  We’re looking for personal accounts, photographs, artefacts, and more to fill the gap in our collection and ensure that the snowboarding history of Whistler is as well documented as the valley’s history of skiing.

Canada’s First Interdenominational Chapel

Whistler has had some pretty memorable buildings constructed in the valley, but few are as instantly recognizable as the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel.  This iconic structure stood in various locations in Creekside for decades and, based on the responses we get to any photograph of the Chapel, holds poignant memories for many residents and visitors, past and present.

The Whistler Skiers’ Chapel.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Franz Wilhelmsen, the first president of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., fondly remembered small chapels in ski villages of Norway where he had skied as a young boy, and the lift company was able to donate land for the Chapel right at the base of Whistler Mountain.  In 1966, Marion Sutherland and Joan Maclean formed a Board of Trustees and a fundraising committee for the idea.  They approached the Vancouver Council of Churches to supply ministers and the Diocese of Kamloops agreed to include Whistler in the territory of Father Wilfred Scott of Mount Currie.

There were many people who donated their time and money to the construction of the Chapel.  The Chapel’s stained glass windows, designed by Donald Babcock, were gifted by Mr. & Mrs. Gordon Southam; Dewer Maclean donated a hand-lettered Founders book (currently in the Museum archives); and an organ was purchased with the proceeds from a ski movie night held in Vancouver.

The stained glass window of the Chapel. Wallace Collection.

The simple A-frame design of the Chapel was provided free of charge by Vancouver architect Asbjorn Gathe.  Norwegian-born Gathe studied architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology at the University of Zurich before immigrating to Vancouver in 1951.  He joined the firm of Frank Gardiner and Peter Thornton, becoming a partner in Gardiner, Thornton and Gathe in 1954 before leaving to start his own practice in 1966.

Gathe is best known for his three decades of work designing Westminster Abbey for Benedictine monks in Mission, BC, but he has also left a lasting mark on Whistler.  In addition to donating his design for the Chapel, Gathe also designed Edelweiss Village (a twelve-unit complex near the Creekside gondola base) and is responsible for the design of Tamarisk.

When the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel opened in 1966, it became the first non-denominational chapel in Canada.  It was purposely designed with no purely Christian symbols and its dedication ceremony included clergy from the Anglican, Lutheran, Jewish, and United faiths.

Tony and Irene Lyttle getting married in the Skiers’ Chapel, January 1967.

The first service held at the Chapel was for Christmas Eve and was open to any who wished to attend.  The Chapel’s interdenominational Christmas Carol Service on Christmas Eve proved to be increasingly popular, and by 1978 two additional services had been added to accommodate the several hundred people who attended.  By the mid-1980s, the demand had outgrown the small building and the Christmas Carol Service moved to the newly constructed Whistler Conference Centre.  It continued to be an inter-denominational services, led in 1986 by Reverend Valerie Reay from the United Church and Pastor Lamont Schmidt of the Whistler Community Church, with carols led by the Whistler Singers under the direction of Molly Boyd.

Though the original Whistler Skiers’ Chapel was dismantled after a final Easter Service in 2000, the many weddings, christenings, and services held in the A-frame are well remembered by those who attended.