Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Getting Ready for Blackcomb’s First Season

This December Blackcomb Mountain will mark an impressive milestone as they open for their 40th winter of operations.  Before the mountain could welcome guests on December 4, 1980, there was a lot of work to be done, from hiring and training staff to constructing restaurants, installing lifts, and building runs.

In June 1980, the Whistler Question announced the addition of two new members to Blackcomb Skiing Enterprise.  Boyd Stuwe, who had previously worked in Squaw Valley, CA and Soda Spring, CO, joined Blackcomb Mountain as the Operations Manager while Lorne Borgal joined as its Administrative Manager fresh out of Stanford.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Borgal spent his teenage years in North Vancouver.  On weekends he volunteered as part of the Whistler Mountain volunteer ski patrol and through his years at university he taught skiing under Ornulf Johnsen at Grouse Mountain.  He spend five years in Ontario working in marketing and sales for a computer-based accounting system before deciding to pursue his MBA at Stanford.

In 1980, Borgal reached out to Aspen Ski Company, then the owners of Blackcomb, and told them who he was and that he would love to come to Whistler.  This led to a meeting that spring with Hugh Smythe, whom he had met previously through the ski patrol on Whistler Mountain.  The day after his graduation, Borgal drove up from California and started working at Blackcomb.

The Town Centre as it was in last week of October, 1980, from the north looking south. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The Whistler Village was still under construction, as were the facilities on Blackcomb Mountain, so the small Blackcomb team worked out of offices housed in construction trailers on the village site.  According to an oral history interview with Borgal from 2015, eighteen hour days, seven days a week were normal leading up to the first season.  As he put it, “it was just a crushing, overwhelming amount of stuff to do.”

This work was not made easier in September when Aspen supplied them with a brand new IBM computer and custom accounting system.  The first challenge was to find a space for the new hardware, which Borgal described as “just giant,” as the Blackcomb team was still working out of construction trailers.  They found a space to rent above the pharmacy in Village Square but then discovered some issues with the software.  The accounting system had been designed specially for Aspen Ski Company by a person living in Denver, CO.  This meant that, according to Borgal, “payroll taxes, sales taxes, you name it, anything that was unique to Canada, they’d never heard of before.”  For a company operating in Canada, the system was not very helpful.  Borgal even claimed that, “A pencil on paper would have been better.”

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Despite some setbacks (there are also stories about telephone wires and a delivery of rental skis that drove into a ditch by Brohm Lake) the hard work of the Blackcomb team paid off.  Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing on Thursday, December 4, 1980.  We will be sharing more tales from the 1980s, the Whistler Village, and Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains over the next while and we would love to hear your own stories from this time of dramatic change in the valley.

Selling Whistler by Radio

If you listened to Vancouver radio in the 1980s, chances are you heard radio ads for Whistler mountain featuring Dave Murray.  Targeting Lower Mainland listeners, the ads had a very catchy tune that urged listeners to “Get away to Whistler” and Murray’s voice explaining why skiers should head to Whistler Mountain.  Once of the creators of the ads was Mike Hurst.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, presenting the grand prize for an unknown promotion, early 1980s.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Hurst first came to know Whistler in 1971 while working as a marketing executive for Labatt’s Brewing.  He left Labatt’s in the early 1980s to raise his family in BC.  About a month after he arrived, he received a call from the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) offering him a job as vice president of marketing.  He was presented with the challenge of competing with the newly opened Blackcomb Mountain while at the same time cooperating with Blackcomb to market Whistler as a destination for skiers.  To complicate matters further, when Hurst asked about the marketing budget he was told, “Well, zero.”  Nevertheless, he began working for WMSC and stayed with the resort until he returned to Labatt’s in 1989.

In 2015 Hurst participated in a Speaker Series at the Whistler Museum along with Lorne Borgal and Bob Dufour during which he described his early years of working for Whistler Mountain.  During his part of the presentation, Hurst talked about some of the programs and marketing that those who skied Whistler in the 1980s and 1990s will find familiar.  At the time, WMSC was adjusting to the idea that they were no longer the only ski hill in town.  Blackcomb Mountain was proving worthy competition with on-mountain restaurants, a ski school specifically for kids (Kids Kamp), and an overall focus on friendly customer service.

Kids are put through the hoops at Blackcomb Mountain ‘Kids Kamp’.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

One of the most enduring Whistler Mountain programs that Hurst spoke about was the master camps run by Dave Murray.

After Murray retired from racing in 1982 he and Hurst sat down to talk about him coming to work at Whistler.  According to Hurst, he asked Murray what he wanted to do and over the next hour and a half Murray laid out his vision of using race training techniques to improve recreational skiers’ abilities, partly by getting them involved in competing against themselves for fun.  Murray was made director of skiing for Whistler Mountain and his camps soon became a reality for all ages.

As the new Director of Ski Racing for Whistler Mountain, Dave Murray will be coordinating downhill race clinics, ski promotions and special events. Murray, 29, retired from the Canadian National Ski Team last year after the World Cup held at Whistler.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Murray’s new position included becoming the spokesperson for WMSC, which is how he came to be the voice on their radio ads (Hurst said that at the time they couldn’t afford television).  According to Hurst, Whistler Mountain was seen as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back,” while Blackcomb had a reputation as a friendly family mountain.  Murray was able to change that perception by engaging with people and making the mountain personal.

Murray told Hurst that he had never done radio ads before but that didn’t stop them.  Hurst wrote some ads and they went down to the studio in Vancouver to record for an hour.  Hurst said that, “It was amazing to watch Dave… first couple of times he fumbled and bumbled, but the third time, nailed it.”  They even had time to record extra ads, written on the spot.

Dave Murray coaching one of the kids master classes on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Each ad starts with the same phrase, “Hi, I’m Dave Murray of Whistler Mountain,” after which Murray would talk about the variety of skiing on offer, Whistler’s new Never-Ever Special, Whistler’s improved dining options, Ski Scamp programs, or his Masters Racing Camps.  The ads were personable and friendly, with Murray encouraging skiers to “ski with me on my mountain.”  Every ad ended with one of Whistler Mountain’s slogans of the day: “Whistler Mountain, above and beyond,” or “Whistler Mountain, come share the magic.”

The 1980s were a period of huge change for Whistler Mountain and for the area as a whole.  Dave Murray and Mike Hurst played a large role in changing the way that Whistler Mountain presented itself and operated during this period.  Keep an eye out for more stories from the 1980s over the next few weeks and months!

Visiting a Different Whistler

There is a lot to do in Whistler in the summer, even with the restrictions currently in place across British Columbia.  You can go up the mountains to hike and ride the Peak 2 Peak, hike throughout the valley, relax at a lake, or even visit Whistler’s Cultural Connector (which includes the Whistler Museum).  What about, however, if you had visited Whistler during the summer of 1980?

Thanks to Whistler News, a supplement published by The Whistler Question, we can get an idea of what summer visitors to Whistler could have expected forty years ago.

The Whistler Village at the base of Whistler Mountain as visitors would have found it in the summer of 1980. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The first step to visiting Whistler was getting here.  Though it’s relatively easy today to find your way to Whistler, in 1980 there were no directional signs in Vancouver pointing the way and Whistler News encouraged drivers to obtain a road map and head north on Highway 99.  The drive up included a 12km section through the Cheakamus Canyon that was set to be realigned and improved by 1981 but was still somewhat treacherous.  This was still an easier route than those from the north.  The route to Whistler through Bralorne was suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles and the Duffy Lake Road would not be paved until 1992.

Visitors had a choice of lodgings, both in and near to Whistler.  While some of these lodgings, such as the Highland Lodge and Whistler Creek Lodge, are still standing, others such as the Alpine Lodge (a lodge and cabins located in Garibaldi, which the provincial government declared unsafe in 1980) and the White Gold Inn (more commonly known as the Ski Boot Motel) have since been demolished.  Those looking to camp had quite a few options, including a BC Hydro campground at Daisy Lake and a forestry camp at the Cheakamus and Callaghan Rivers.  Supposedly, the summer of 1980 was also going to see the construction of new camping facilities as part of Lost Lake.

Lost Lake south shore showing where a beach and picnic ground will be built. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler also offered a variety of dining options, from Chinese cuisine at the Alta Lake Inn Dining Room to the Keg at Adventures West.  Those looking to provide their own meals, however, were encouraged to plan ahead, as the only grocery shopping in the area was at the Gulf and Husky Mini-Marts.

Visitors could still do many of the things that have brought people to Whistler in recent summers.  They could go hiking around the valley (Lost Lake was recommended as having the “spectacular sight” of the ski jump) and spend time around and on Whistler’s lakes, where windsurfing was becoming increasingly popular.  Those more interested in snow could attend the 15th year of the Toni Sailer Ski Camp, perfecting their skiing under the direction of Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene, Wayne Wong and Bob Dufour.

The group at the Sailer Fischer Ski Camp party catered by the Keg. (L to R) Wayne Wong, Wayne Booth, Schultz, Nancy Greene, Toni Sailer, Rookie, Alan White. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The summer of 1980 was also a season of huge changes in the area and would have offered visitors many opportunities to view construction in the valley.  There was not yet a Whistler Village as we know it today.  In the Town Centre the first buildings of Phase I were expected to open that season and construction of Phase II buildings was underway.  Late in the summer Whistler Mountain installed its first lifts that ran from what would become the Whistler Village.  At the same time Blackcomb Mountain was building its first lifts, as well as on-mountain restaurants and utility buildings.

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a recent tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

With all this construction, changing businesses and development, it’s no surprise that summer visitors to the museum will often tell us that Whistler is almost unrecognizable as the same place they visited in the 1970s or 1980s.

Whistler Mountain’s Expressions

Over the last year we’ve written about some of the newsletters we’ve come across in our collections, including one written by the Whistler Museum in 2001 and a whole series of newsletters published by Blackcomb Mountain (the Blabcomb) in the 1980s and 90s.  While the museum was closed to the public from March through June we continued to receive donations to our archives, including a few issues of The Whistler Expression, Whistler Mountain’s counterpart to the Blabcomb.

Copies of the Whistler Expression, presumably named after the Whistler Express gondola.  Whistler Museum Collection.

The issues donated come from the 1990/91 ski season, Whistler Mountain’s 25th Anniversary season.  Much of the content of the newsletters is what you would expect to find in a company publication – a start of the season welcome from Executive Vice-President & COO Don Murray, an end of season message from President Charles Young, announcements of new programs (for example, a paper recycling program that featured prominently for two months) and introductions to new staff members (such as Bruce Warren, then the new Controller for Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC)).

Though today many visitors and even residents may not know that Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains were once competitors, there are a few references to a seemingly friendly rivalry throughout the newsletters.  At the time Charles Young served as the President of the Fundraising Committee for the Dandelion Daycare Centre and made a promise that Whistler Mountain would match any donation made by Blackcomb Mountain, who promptly donated $10,000, showing that this competition could be good for the community.

Dandelion Daycare Society president Sharon Broatch and WM Young Foundation Maury Young unveil the special plaque painted by Isobel MacLaurin which lists the sponsors who made possible the creation of the new Whistler Children’s Centre. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

Despite being published almost thirty years ago, many people, organizations, and even events mentioned in the newsletters are familiar today.  In November 1990 the Whistler Mountain social club held a (by all accounts successful) ULLR party to sacrifice skis to the Norse snow god.  In January 1991 Kevin Hodder won the contest to name the staff social club.  His entry was Club Shred (Staff Having Really Excellent Days), a name that can still be found on staff passes.

During this season WMSC introduced Peak Performer Awards “recognizing those employees who contribute to giving Superior Guest Service at Whistler Mountain” (not unlike Blackcomb Mountain’s ICE Awards) and published the names of those who were recognized.  If you worked at Whistler Mountain in 1990/91, there is a good chance you could find your name on the four-page list alongside Pat Beauregard, Ruth Howells, Pat Bader, Viv Jennings, and many more.

The newsletters aren’t all made up of lists and two of the most exciting incidents related in The Whistler Expression featured Bill Duff, fittingly the same person who donated the newsletters to our collections.  One day in December a call to all radios about a pair of stolen skis was promptly resolved when Bill saw a man exit the Express with just such a pair.  He had apparently mistaken the skis for his own and so the incident ended with “one very happy skiers who got their skis back, one very red-faced gentleman who had to wait until his own skis were brought down and one very proud validator who saved the day.”

Whistler Mountain celebrated its silver anniversary with a mountain of cake! Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

That same month, Bill (or “Ticket Validator Extraordinaire”) saw a family tobogganing on the busy run at the base of the mountain and went over to advise them of the danger.  As reported in The Expression, “After speaking with the father, Bill said, ‘Has anybody ever told you that you look like Chuck Norris?’  To which the gentleman replied, ‘I am Chuck Norris!'”

While we have almost a full run of the Blabcomb, we currently have only four issues of The Whistler Expression.  Newsletters are a great source of information about an organization, who worked there, and what was happening in town around them.  If anyone happens to come across copies while cleaning or reorganizing, we would love to see them!

Canoeing through Whistler’s Past

This evening (Tuesday, July 7) the museum will be hosting our first virtual Speaker Series, an adapted version of the talk and film screening with Mike Stein that we were originally planning to present in March.  Though Whistler is known internationally as a ski resort, the film features a different form of recreation and transportation that is commonly found in the valley: canoeing.

In the 1980s there was even a Whistler Canoe Club, which held races on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Canoeing has a much longer history in the area than snowsports, as canoes are important to both the Lil’wat and Squamish Nations.  The Great Hall of the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre features a 40 foot long Salish hunting canoe carved from a single cedar tree which at times is removed from the exhibition and taken on an ocean journey.  Learn more about this canoe and others by visiting the Squmaish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which reopened last month.

The Whistler Museum also has records of canoes being used to transport people and products around the valley for over a century.

In the early 1900s the Barnfield family established a dairy farm on their property at the northeast end of Alta Lake.  As summer tourism became more popular in the area following the arrival of the Pacific Great Eastern Railway in 1914, the Barnfield’s dairy began supplying the lodges and visitors with fresh supplies.  They used a dugout canoe to deliver milk, cream, eggs, news and gossip to the different lodges on Alta Lake.  By 1920 their largest customer was Rainbow Lodge, which had a daily order of 80 quarts of milk, 4 quarts of cream, and 2 quarts of table cream.

This dugout canoe is similar to the one Alfred and Fred would have used. It may in fact be the one they used, but we have no records to confirm or deny that.

Rainbow Lodge itself had a number of boats, including canoes, for guests and staff to use for fishing or paddling down the River of Golden Dreams, one of which now resides in the museum’s collection.  In 2011 the museum, with the generous support of the Province of British Columbia, was able to purchase a cedar canoe bought by Alex and Myrtle Philip in 1916 for Rainbow Lodge.  After the Philips sold the lodge in 1948, Myrtle kept the canoe for her own personal use for the next 25 years.  The canoe and aged and, before coming back to Alta Lake, was restored by Dave Lanthier, an expert vintage canoe restorer and member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.  The canoe is currently displayed in the Whistler Public Library, as the museum does not have the space to exhibit such a large item.

Myrtle’s canoe, pre-restoration.  The canoe now hangs on the wall of the Whistler Public Library, until such a time as we have space to display it at the museum.

The popularity of canoeing continued even after skiing came to Whistler.  In 1975 canoes represented the water part of the first Great Snow Earth Water Race, with cyclists passing the baton to canoeists who worked their way up Alta Lake to the first weir on the River of Golden Dreams, where they handed off to the runners.  From all reports, the canoeing was the most fun for the spectators.  According to Dave Steers, “Most of the teams had members who could tell the front of a canoe from the back.  A few teams didn’t even have that.”  As you can imagine, quite a few canoes tipped and those watching got to see a lot of splashing.

The canoe portion of the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race heads out on Alta Lake.  Whistler Question Collection.

Three years before that inaugural race, Mike Stein, Adolf Teufele, Wink Bradford, Ferdi Wenger, and Jim McConkey set out on their own journey by canoe on the Liard River.  Teufele captured their adventures in the Grand Canyon, a 20 km stretch of the Liard, on 16mm film and the film has now been digitized, edited, and narrated by Stein.  This evening we’ll be hearing from Stein about the film and the journey, as well as screening Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard, via Zoom.  Visit here to learn more about the event and register.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part Two)

There is an often told story of the first meeting of Stefan Ples and Franz Wilhelmsen of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. on Whistler Mountain.  Apparently Franz arrived at the top of the mountain by helicopter to find Stefan there on skis.  Franz asked, “What are you doing on my mountain?”, to which Stefan replied, “What are you doing on mine?”  Though we do not know exactly how their first meeting occurred, the story certainly demonstrates Stefan’s love of the mountain and his preferred way to navigate it.  (For more information on Stefan’s life before coming to Alta Lake, check out last week’s article here.)

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

Although Stefan didn’t understand why people would prefer going up on lifts and skiing only a short distance down, he became greatly involved in the development of Whistler Mountain.  By the mid 1960s he had been exploring the mountain on his skis for years and knew the are perhaps better than anyone at the time.  Stefan began working for the lift company in 1963, going up to Alta Lake every weekend for over a year to climb up to a meadow at the bottom of the T-bar, where he would record the temperature and snowfall and other information (his handwritten reports were donated to the Whistler Museum & Archives by his daughter Renate Bareham in 2013).

When construction of the runs and lifts began Stefan moved up to Alta Lake full time to work.  Part of his responsibilities was to bring the horses up the mountain with supplies to a work camp that was set up in what may have been the same meadows he gathered his reports from.  Renate accompanied him on one of his trips up with the horses and told the museum, “It was just magical, because we went up through the forest and everything and we ended up in this meadow.  Oh, it was so beautiful up there.”

During one particularly bad snow year, Stefan also introduced the sport of Ice Stock Sliding to the valley.  “The old master, Stefan Ples, who introduced ice stock sliding to the Whistler area, sending one of the “rocks” down the recently blacktopped course next to the school at Whistler.” (Garibaldi Whistler News Fall 1977)

Though Gerda had continued to run their rooming house in Vancouver when Stefan first started working for the lift company, the rest of the family moved to Alta Lake in 1966.  According to Renate, not many people lived in the area at the time, and those who did either worked for the lift company or worked construction around the gondola base.  Renate attended high school in Squamish and worked for the lift company on the weekends and breaks.  At fourteen she began by stapling lift tickets and then handing out boarding passes, moving on to teach skiing for Jim McConkey when she turned sixteen.  She also babysat, caring for the Bright and Mathews children whose parents worked for the mountain.

Stefan continued working for the lift company and led ski tours to areas the lifts didn’t access.  One summer Renate even remembered helping him paint the top of the Red Chair.  Despite working for the lift company and receiving a lifetime pass in 1980, Stefan continued to prefer walking up, occasionally taking a lift as far as midstation before beginning his climb.

According to Renate, the only person who could go up the mountain on skis faster than her father was Seppo Makinen: “It took my dad three hours, probably, to get to the peak.  Seppo made it in an hour and a half.  I think he actually ran, you know, on his cross country skis, and my dad walked on his cross country skis, but Seppo ran.  He was also considerably younger than my father.”

Stefan Ples, long-time resident of Whistler, receives a lifetime pass from Garibaldi Lifts President Franz Wilhelmsen in recognition of his long involvement with Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Parts of Stefan’s legacy can be seen throughout the area though many may not know of his role in creating it, from the Tyrol Lodge to the two runs off Whistler Peak that bear his name (Stefan’s Chute and Stefan’s Salute).  He was a founding member of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s and helped start Whistler’s first Search and Rescue Team in 1973.  His name can also be found on the Stefan Ples trophy, the prize for the overall winners of the Peak to Valley Race, as he like to climb to the peak and then ski all the way down.

Though some people may come to Whistler to build a career or make it rich, Renate said of her father that, “All he wanted to do was be in the mountains,” a goal it would appear he certainly accomplished.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part One)

Well before people started to pay for lift access and a day’s skiing, skiers were climbing Whistler and the surrounding mountains, either in search of skiable terrain, such as the George Bury expedition in 1939, or simply to spend time outdoors exploring, such as Pip Brock in the early 1930s.  One person who spent countless hours ski touring on Whistler Mountain was Stefan Ples.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1912, Stefan Ples spent much of his life surrounded by mountains.  When he was a young man it was common to work until noon on Saturdays, leaving Saturday afternoons and Sundays as his free time.  According to his daughter Renate Bareham, Stefan would work until noon and then get on a train or his bicycle and head for cabins in the mountains.  Ski lifts were still relatively new and uncommon at the time (the first recorded ski lift was built by Robert Winterhalder in Germany in 1908) and so Stefan would spend his time climbing up the mountain, skiing down only once at the end of his trip.  This would remain his preferred way to ski for the rest of his life.

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

During the Second World War Stefan lived in Hallein, a town outside of Salzburg, where his wife sadly passed away, leaving him with their young son.  After a move to Sweden Stefan met Gerda.  She came from Leipzig, Germany and had lost her fiancé in the war.  Like Stefan, Gerda was planning to come to Canada.  The pair got married and Stefan, Gerda and Steve came to to Canada together, docking in Halifax and then going by train to Montreal.  In Montreal, Stefan would hike up Mount Royal whenever he got the chance, though it couldn’t compare to the mountains he grew up in.  The family spent some time there before moving on to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Stefan and Gerda ran a rooming house in the West End, a Victorian building located on Denman and Davie Streets, right across the street from English Bay.  Renate, who was born in Vancouver, remembered that their house became the first stop for Austrian immigrants coming to the city.  In 2013 she told the museum, “I think I met just about every Austrian that came to Canada in the first ten years that I was born.”

Settling in Vancouver also meant Stefan was once again living amongst mountains.  In the early 1950s he, along with Norbert Kamnig, Fips Broda, and Erhard Franks, instructors at Hans Brunner’s ski school on Hollyburn Mountain, became founding members of the Tyrol Ski and Mountain Club.  The Club soon built a cabin on Mount Seymour, where Stefan and his family would often go in the summers.  Renate learned to ski on rope tows on both these mountains, though she remembers Seymour more clearly.

The Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club enjoyed the area so much they even decided to build a lodge in the 1960s. The Tyrol Lodge still stands above Nita Lake today.  Tyrol Lodge Collection.

According to the Club, it was a chance meeting with an Alta Lake resident at a cobbler that first introduced Stefan to the area around Whistler Mountain.  He and a few other Club members took the train up to Alta Lake and were impressed with the location, returning afterward to continue ski touring around the area.  In 1959, Stefan and Gerda went further and bought a property on Alta Lake next to Cypress Lodge.  This became their own cabin in the mountains, though it would be a few more years before the family moved to Alta Lake full time.

Next week we’ll be continuing with a look at Stefan Ples and his family’s time at Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain.