Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

2021 Virtual Speaker Series begins this week!

Our 2021 Virtual Speaker Series kicks off this Wednesday, February 17 with Whistler Pride: A Look Back with Dean Nelson!

The Whistler Pride and Ski Festival has been taking place in Whistler for almost 30 years but it hasn’t always been as visible as it is now.  Beginning as a small weekend gathering in 1992, the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival has since become one of the largest queer-focused ski weeks in the world.  We’ll be taking a look back at how it started and how it has grown with one of its long-time organizers Dean Nelson, followed by a Q&A with Dean and the audience.

Register for the event for free here or contact us at the Whistler Museum.

Early Freestyle on Whistler

When the first Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp was held on Whistler Mountain during the summer of 1966, the camp focused mainly on racing and was motivated partly by the need for competitive skiers to stay in shape and improve their technique between competition seasons.  This focus changed as more recreational skiers began participating in the camps with an interest in improving their own skills under the guidance of skiers such as Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene and Alan White.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1973, however, that freestyle was included in the Ski Camp programming and the legendary Wayne Wong began coaching on Whistler, reflecting a change in the sport of skiing.

The staff of the 1969 Summer Ski Camp, including another freestyle skiing legend, Dag Aabye. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

At the time, freestyle skiing was still a relatively young sport.  The first recorded freestyle skiing competitions in the United States were not held until the mid-1960s and it was not until 1969 that the first instructional program began at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.  In 1971 Waterville Valley hosted the first Professional Freestyle Skiing Competition, drawing together competitive skiers from across North America.  These skiers included Wayne Wong, George Askevold and Floyd Wilkie, all of whom decided to stay at Waterville Valley as coaches of the first Freestyle Ski Team.

We don’t know when exactly the first freestyle skiing competition was held on Whistler Mountain but by the spring of 1971 there was enough demand that Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. hosted the first annual Aerial Ski Acrobatic Championship and Hot Shot Contest.  In 1973 freestyle skiing became part of the Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp programming under the direction of Wong, Askevold and Wilkie, providing more formal training for skiers interested in the growing sport and “teaching youngsters to ski the ‘Wong Way’.”

Three well-known hot dog skiers show off their style in 1973 at the Tony Sailer Summer Ski Camp. Left to right: George Askevold, Wayne Wong and Floyd Wilkie.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

In the spring of 1974, Whistler Mountain expanded its freestyle offerings with a spring Freestyle Skiing Camp for “youngsters who can ski parallel, but who want to master some of the popular new maneuvers of freestyle under competent coaching.”  According to Garibaldi’s Whistler News, the “newest tricks” such as skiing sideways, backwards or upside down were becoming more common on Whistler, but were also risky, especially without training or instruction.  They decided to provide an opportunity to explore techniques and tricks under the tutelage of Michel Daigle, Tetsuo Fuji, and Bob Dufour.

Michel Daigle demonstrates his synchronized skills during a competition on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

While freestyle skiing was becoming increasingly popular through the 1970s, it was not officially recognized as a sport by the FIS until 1979, when international regulations and certifications were introduced.  The next year saw the first FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup with event in moguls, aerials, and “acroski,” also known as ski ballet.  To win the overall title, skiers had to compete in all three disciplines.

In 1986 the first FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships were held in Tignes, France, and then demonstration events were held at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  Over the next two decades, more and more freestyle skiing events joined the Olympic line up, beginning with moguls in 1992, aerials in 1994, ski cross in 2010 and, most recently, halfpipe and slopestyle in 2014.  Unfortunately, ski ballet, though part of competitions and tours in the 1970s and 1980s, did not continue to grow with freestyle skiing in the same way and has not been recognized as an official freestyle discipline since 2000.

Today freestyle skiing looks a little different than it did in the early competition of the 1970s, but it can often be seen on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains and around the world.

Learning to Ski with Ski-ed

Each week we really enjoy sharing stories, events and photos from Whistler’s past through the Museum Musings column in Pique Newsmagazine.  This column offers a way to share far more stories than would be possible in our physical building.  In 1980, another Whistler institution had its own column in another Whistler newspaper, the Whistler Question, that they used to share knowledge and information each week.  This was “Get Ski-ed on Blackcomb,” written by various employees of Blackcomb Mountain.

In preparation for the official opening of Blackcomb Mountain in December, the first “Get Ski-ed” column was published in the early fall of 1980.  Though the main purpose of the column was stated as “to keep you informed on the most up-to-date skiing ideas and hints to further your skiing education,” the column also offered a way to introduce members of the Blackcomb team and new programs to the public.

Dennis Hansen, the first director of Ski-ed, poses outside the temporary Blackcomb offices. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

“Get Ski-ed” was kicked off by Dennis Hansen, a 29 year old Level 4 instructor who had previously worked at the Grouse Mountain Ski School.  He joined Blackcomb as the director of Ski-ed, “a new focus on ski education offering programs for everyone.”  Hansen shared his tips for getting in shape before the winter season, stating that getting in shape by skiing was not recommended.  Conveniently, this article coincided with the introduction of a “Get fit for skiing” program for adults offered by Ski-ed.

Running or jogging was the preferred way of getting in shape for Bob Fulton, the assistant director of Ski-ed.  He recommended varying your running rout to prevent boredom, using a run as a chance to take in the scenery around Whistler’s many trails.

Jose (Pepo) Hanff shows off some the Blackcomb uniform pieces featuring the original Blackcomb logo. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Over October and November, Fulton and Hansen shared tips for buying equipment (“The most important part of your equipment for any level of skier is your boots.”) and maintaining current equipment.   From minor ski tuning to how to wax skis, they encouraged skiers to prepare for the upcoming season and continue taking care of their equipment throughout the season.

In total, seven of Blackcomb Mountain’s “Ski Pros” were introduced through the Whistler Question column by the end of 1980.  Linda Turcot and Jose (Pepo) Hanff discussed the Molstar Race program for recreational racers and how to start racing as an adult skier.  Rob McSkimming offered tips for skiing smoothly with less effort, taking inspiration from Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark.  Jani Sutherland, Ski-ed’s Kids Specialist, gave parents helpful tips for getting their kids ready for ski lessons.  Her advice included such practical matters as ensuring they were send to a lesson with Chapstick, Kleenex, and contact information for a parent in the pockets.  Sutherland also provided information about buying equipment for children and advised parents to pay attention to their own form when skiing, as children learn through imitation.

Cathy MacLean thought that one of the most important parts of learning to ski was mastering the chairlift. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Perhaps the most practical advice provided by “Get Ski-ed” column that year was from full-time Ski Pro Cathy MacLean, who wrote her article about how to ride a chairlift.  According to MacLean, “first thing to do is try to find a person who has ridden a chairlift before, and is willing to go up with you.”

At the time, the “Get Ski-ed” column, like the earlier articles by Jim McConkey in Garibaldi’s Whistler News, blended advice, information, and promotion of Blackcomb Mountain’s events and programs.  Today, however, they offer insight into changes in equipment technology, the teaching of skiing, and even the individuals who worked at Blackcomb Mountain in its first year of operations.

A Rainy End to the Holidays

Discussions of weather in Whistler have been going on for decades, as is apparent from past editions of the Whistler Question.  In the early months of winter the conversations usually focus on snow.  Reports from January 1981, however, show that rain, rather than snow, was the topic of discussion in town that year.

While there had been snow in early December 1980, it began to rain in earnest in Whistler and the surrounding areas on December 24.  The rain had not stopped by noon on December 26 and flooding was occurring in places from Squamish to D’Arcy, as well as in the Fraser Valley and other areas of British Columbia.

One of two destroyed power lines when flood waters washed out footings south of the Tisdale Hydro Station.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler and Pemberton were cut off from the rest of the Sea to Sky by both road and rail, as Highway 99 was washed out around Culliton Creek (today the site of the Culliton Creek Bridge, also known as the Big Orange Bridge) and north of the Rutherford Creek junction.  A rail bridge over Rutherford Creek was left handing by the rails when its supports were washed away and other sections of rail were obstructed by small slides and washouts.

BCR Rutherford Creek crossing hangs by its rails after the December 26 flood washed away all supports and girders.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

19 Mile Creek overflowed at the entrance to Alpine Meadows, cutting it off from the rest of town.  The bridge on Valley Drive was also washed out, taking with it part of the main water supply.  In other parts of Whistler sewer lines, water systems, bridges, road and parking lots were damaged, though employees of Whistler Mountain worked quickly to divert water at its gondola base as Whistler Creek rose.  Helicopters were used to ferry residents and visitors in and out of the valley, including Mayor Pat Carleton who was in Vancouver at the time of the flood.

A creative approach to entering Alpine Meadows. George Benjamin Collection.

At the Garibaldi townsite south of Whistler, rising waters caused one house to be swept into the Cheakamus River and another to tip precariously while others were left unaccessible.

The flooding was partly caused by the unseasonable rise in temperature and freezing levels, meaning most of the early snow melted and added to the rain, as well as washing gravel, logs and debris down to the valley.

By the beginning of 1981, the roads to Whistler and Pemberton had reopened and repairs were underway.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still warm and the rain was not over.  On January 21 the detour built around the previous wash out at Culliton Creek was washed out, again cutting off access on Highway 99.  At first it was believed that the closure would be quite brief, but Highway 99 remained closed until January 26.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Luckily, at the time there was still passenger rail service to Whistler.  The two-car passenger train from Prince George to North Vancouver was already full by the time it reached Whistler that day, but skiers trying to get back to the Lower Mainland were able to fill the baggage car and stand in the aisles.  While helicopters and float planes were also used, trains became the most popular means of transport for five days, introducing many travellers to an option they had not considered before.

Rail was also used to transport goods, including delivering the Whistler Question on January 21 and supplying restaurants and food stores.  Due to the limited freight space available, Whistler was limited to ten cases of milk per day and, by the time the road reopened, the stores were out of milk and fresh produce while the gas tanks at the gas station were running low.  The Whistler Grocery Store, which was set to open on January 22, considered delaying but ultimately decided to proceed with its opening as planned when it became apparent that many families in the cut off communities were in danger of running out of certain food stuffs.

On January 26, as the road reopened, snow finally reached the valley again in Whistler.  By January 31 sunshine and new snow had brought crowds of skiers back to Whistler Mountain.  Further Questions continued to report on the weather and snow, but it would appear that after a dramatic start to the winter the 1981 season ended without further mishap.

Trying Out Jobs on Whistler

Last week we took a look at the response to Blackcomb Mountain’s first traffic jam, when Lorne Borgal, Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine ended up directing traffic on Highway 99 in the dark and snow.  When moving over to Whistler Mountian in 1983, Borgal brought this idea that performing duties outside of your own job description could have valuable benefits and made it into policy.

The idea was that everyone at any level of management at Whistler Mountain had to spent at least one day a month during the winter season working a shift on the frontlines (apparently many considered grooming the best assignment).  Mike Hurst, the vice president of marketing, described the initiative this way: “So Lorne would have to be up at Pika’s cooking breakfast, or he’d have to be in the car park, or he’d have to be a liftie for a day, and, boy, did that ever change the mentality of the management people.”

During a Speaker Series in 2015, Hurst recalled his own experience working on the phones at the beginning of December when he received a call from a person from Ontario planning to come ski at Whistler.  Their question was, “We’re coming in February, we’re all booked and everything, so what’s the weather gonna be like?”  Hurst took a moment and looked around, and then replied, “Okay, I’ve got the farmer’s almanac here, and what week is that?  The 7th to, okay, yeah, that looks pretty good.  It’s gonna be a little colder than normal, but just the week prior to that there’s a whole dump of snow so there’ll be beautiful fresh snow.  It’ll be wonderful, yup, but listen, don’t forget, we’re on the coast.  So make sure you bring various changes of clothes just in case, but it looks like a sunny week and it looks great, so you’re gonna have a great time.”  The customer was satisfied with the answer, which seemed to cover any eventualities, though Hurst did not recall whether that week in February was as great as he had promised it would be.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, usually sold Whistler through ad campaigns and the like, not necessarily one-on-one over the phone.  Whistler Question Collection.

While Hurst may have used his marketing skills to sell Whistler Mountain on the phones, the experiences of others helped identify problems and gave management a clear idea of what conditions were like for frontline employees.  One such experience was the day that Whistler Mountain’s CFO David Balfour spent loading the old Whistler gondola.

The role of CFO was described by Borgal as “don’t spend money,” at least not money that hadn’t been budgeted already.  A shift loading gondolas involved loading the freight up in the morning, loading people all day, bringing the garbage down at the end of the day, and putting all the cars away.  All of this was done manually as the gondola.

Balfour worked the gondola shift from beginning to end and, as Borgal remembered, was exhausted.  Borgal said, “I couldn’t stop him talking at me about what we had to change, because this was not humane.”  Balfour wanted to make changes to make the job easier for those who did it full time, even if it did mean spending some money.

For years loading the gondola included physically moving the gondolas and pushing them out of the barn.  Whistler Question Collection.

Balfour’s experience reportedly demonstrated the value of having managers work a frontline position.  It created bonds between staff who might not have otherwise interacted much and made it easier to demonstrate the need for operational changes.  According to Borgal, “If you had to do that frontline job, you really learned fast about what was going on.”

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!