Category Archives: Ski-Town Stories

From Whistler to Blackcomb to Whistler Blackcomb.

Licence to Snowboard

Despite skiers and snowboarders charging down the mountain together today, there was a time when single-plankers were strictly not allowed. Skier complaints and safety concerns resulted in both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain remaining closed to snowboarders until the late 80s. Snowboarders were forced to ride smaller undeveloped hills, head to the backcountry, or hike up the mountain while avoiding the watchful eye of mountain staff.

The acceptance of snowboarding was slow because of the perception that snowboarders were dangerous, uncontrolled and uncivilised. The laid-back alternative lifestyle of snowboarders often clashed with that of skiers, and it was not uncommon for skiers to hurl disdain at snowboarders when they were finally allowed on the mountain.

A Greg Stump snowboarding production on Blackcomb in 1989. Even the bright and baggy clothes commonly worn by snowboarders rubbed skiers the wrong way. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Greg Stump Productions.

Early snowboarders to Whistler tell stories about being spat on, chased by snowcats, and getting shovels thrown at them. As Ken Achenbach remarked, “We were called menaces to society, it was wicked man”. All a snowboarder had to do to grind the gears of some skiers was wake up in the morning. Even Hugh Smythe, Blackcomb General Manager, was derided when the decision was made to welcome snowboarders to Blackcomb for the 1987/88 season.

Special rules for snowboarders in resort areas were commonplace at this time. In some resorts, before they were allowed on the lifts, snowboarders had to agree not to use foul language. Similar to many East Coast resorts, Blackcomb went a step further. Unlike skiers, snowboarders were initially required to pass a proficiency test to be licenced to ride Blackcomb. The test cost around the price of a day pass and snowboarders had to prove they could turn both ways and stop safely. A certificate was presented upon passing which allowed the recipient to load the lifts with their board.

Aerials were also originally banned on Blackcomb, with lift tickets confiscated from those who dared leave the ground. Blackcomb was a popular freestyle mountain but riders were required to keep an eye out for patrol when practicing for fear of losing their passes.

It may be hard to believe in the age of triple cork 1440s, but all inverted aerials were initially also banned in snowboard competitions due to concerns over spinal cord injuries. It was not unusual for professional snowboarders to deliberately disqualify themselves in competitions by pulling inverted aerials, including the crippler, in protest of this rule. The rules were eventually changed to prevent medals being awarded only to those who followed the rules and showcased the tamest tricks.

When snowboarders were first allowed on Blackcomb they were required to pass a test before riding the lifts and aerials were banned. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

As a new sport, the snowboarding community in Whistler was small and tight-knit. Being so outnumbered, snowboarders would instantly be best buds with anyone else riding a board. This did not last long however; snowboarding was the fastest growing sport in the 1990s and despite the growth slowing, the community today is so big there is no way anyone could know every snowboarder on the mountain.

For more on the history of snowboarding, join us for our first in-person event for 2022. In this Whistler Museum Speaker Series we will be talking about the history of snowboarding in Whistler with local snowboarding legends Ken Achenbach and Graham Turner.

The event begins at 7 pm on Monday the 28th of March. Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum members) and are available at the Whistler Museum. We look forward to seeing you there!

A Squirrel Named Rigor Mortis

You may have heard of Teddy, the orphaned bear cub raised by Myrtle Philip in 1926, but have you heard of Rigor Mortis the squirrel? In an oral history from 1989 about growing up in Alta Lake, later known as Whistler, Louise (Betts) Smith was asked about local character Charlie Chandler, who passed away peacefully on his porch the winter of 1946. Charlie was found frozen and carried to Alta Lake station for a raucous celebration of life, before being taken away by train for burial.

Being a child at the time, Louise remembered this event vividly. “Some of the men got concerned about him, so they hiked back in there and he had just had a heart attack and died in his chair and he was all stiffened up.”

You can read more about Charlie Chandler’s wake on the Whistler Museum blog. Today’s musing centers around what Louise said next. “I knew at that age that it was called rigor mortis because somebody had a squirrel named ‘Rigor Mortis’ and my mother had explained to me what rigor mortis was, and it really wasn’t a nice name for a squirrel.”

How had a squirrel become known as Rigor Mortis you might ask? We do not know for sure, however the biology of squirrels may give us a clue.

A Douglas Squirrel in Florence Peterson Park. Photo by Jillian Roberts.

The squirrel commonly seen scampering up and down trees, or making mischief during the day in Whistler is the Douglas Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii). Whistler’s other local, the Northern Flying Squirrel, is nocturnal.

Similar to beavers, rats, and other rodents, the squirrel’s front teeth never stop growing. Douglas Squirrels primarily feed on conifer seeds, peeling off the scales of the pine cones to get at the seeds. Douglas Squirrels have also been known to eat fungi, fruit, nuts, insects, and other plant material. (Oh, and they love dinosaur candy. I have a vivid childhood memory of watching a Douglas Squirrel run out of the house with my hard-earned bag of gummy dinosaurs. The candy was never seen again; the squirrel continued to visit often.)

The saying ‘to squirrel away’ refers to the fact that squirrels are larder hoarders. In mid to late summer Douglas Squirrels begin stockpiling cones, conifer seeds, and fungi in one or more middens located within their territory. Middens may contain enough food for one or more seasons and squirrels will defend them against competition and theft. The genus name Tamiasciurus references this behaviour, being derived from the Greek work Tamias, meaning animal that hoards food. Additionally skia means shadow, and oura refers to tail, so this is the genus of tailed shadows that hoard food.

Predators of the Douglas Squirrel include Pine Martens, Bobcats, raptors and owls. They can also become prey to domestic cats and dogs. In response to stimuli, such as predation, we often hear about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. However, this could be more completely described as ‘fight, flight or freeze’, bringing us back to Rigor Mortis. Like other squirrels, the Douglas Squirrel may have a freeze response when alarmed. For example, if a squirrel has been caught by a predator it may respond by freezing up, becoming completely rigid. Douglas Squirrels that have been caught for relocation have exhibited this behaviour.

The freeze response is physiologically much different to rigor mortis – freezing is a mechanism to assist and ensure survival, for one thing. However, it could be perceived as similar to what happens during rigor mortis where the body becomes rigid. The freeze response in Douglas Squirrels may have been how the pet squirrel Rigor Mortis got its name.

Dag Aabye in Whistler

Many of the names of runs on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains pay homage to skiers and, slightly less often, snowboarders who made a mark on the mountains, whether as an employee, an investor, or an athlete. Some of these names, such as Franz’s Run, McConkey’s, and Arthurs’s Choice are fairly easy to trace back to their source, while others like Bushrat, Jam Tart, and Jolly Green Giant require a bit more knowledge of their namesake. During a 2019 speaker event, however, it was pointed out that there is one skier who, despite making quite an impression during his time in the Whistler valley, has no official namesake on Whistler Mountain: Dag Aabye.

Dag Aabye shows off his skills on Whistler Mountain. Cliff Fenner Collection.

When Roy Ferris and Alan White opened the Garibaldi Ski School in 1966, they asked Ornulf Johnsen from Norway to come manage it. Johnsen persuaded the lift company to bring over fellow Norwegian Dag Aabye to work for him. Aabye had previously been working as a ski instructor in Britain and as a movie stuntman, including skiing in the 1965 James Bond film Goldfinger, and he soon arrived to begin instructing on Whistler Mountain.

Dag Aabye runs with his skis as part of the Great Snow Earth Water Race. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

According to Lynn Mathews, Aabye was “tall, lanky, quiet,” a “really nice guy who would do these most unbelievable things.” Mathews described him as “a cat on skis” and remembered watching him ski down the Red Chair lift line, “touching lightly from side to side as he went down these cliffs.” Jim McConkey, who took over the management of the ski school in 1968, described Aabye as “just a phenomenal skier” and recalled watching him jump off a cornice on the Whistler glacier, land, and ski straight down.

Aabye became known for his first ski descents on Whistler Mountain, including areas of Whistler’s peak that are permanently closed today such as Don’t Miss and the Weekend Chutes, sometimes waiting days for the right conditions before hiking up from the top of the t-bar. In some cases, it would be another twenty to thirty years before the next person made the same descent.

Norwegian hot-shot Dag Aabye jumping off the roof of the Cheakamus Inn, 1967. Walt Preissl, who took the photo, recalls the occasion: “We were in the Cheakamus Inn Hotel at Whistler, sitting in the bar with Marg Egger, when we saw this pile of snow go swiftly by the window, including a body with it , we ran out and it was Dag. Ornulf was taking some pics, he asked him to go back up and do it again so that he could get a better shot. And so he did go back and jump off the roof of the Cheakamus Inn [again]. He was a match for Jim McConkey who used to do things like that.” Photo courtesy of Walt Preissl.

Aabye could be seen skiing in films by Jim Rice, including a short 1968 film featuring Aabye and Cliff Jennings skiing the glaciers around Whistler by helicopter. Off the mountain, he also became known for his willingness to ski off man-made structures, such as the Cheakamus Inn. According to Mathews, this was done mostly “for fun. Cause doesn’t everyone ski off the roof and land 50 feet down?” Aabye also built his own jump for his efforts to land a backflip on 215 cm skis and could often be found walking on his hands with his skis still attached to his feet. In summers, Aabye worked as a coach at the summer ski camps alongside ski celebrities such as Toni Sailer and Nancy Greene.

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

In his 80s today, Aabye is still known as an athlete, competing annually in ultra marathons prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though he long ago left Whistler and ended up outside SilverStar (where the run Aabye Road bears his name), Aabye is still talking about in the valley and on the mountain.

Helmets on the Hill

Whistler is a hub for adventure sport and, if you have been here long, it is likely you know someone who has been affected by a head injury. With helmet use so standard on the mountain today, I found it surprising to see the following question asked in a 2011 museum oral history “Do you think that sometimes more people get injured when they are wearing safety gear? They suddenly feel empowered and attempt something far beyond their abilities?” Similar sentiments are echoed throughout many publications at this time.

Ski School instructor leading students in Whistler in the 1970s.
Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Unlike today, helmets were initially far less popular on the slopes than while riding a bike (helmets have been mandatory for cycling in BC since 1996 and you can be fined up to $100 for non-compliance). Looking at photos from skiing in the early days of Whistler Mountain, it is unusual to see people wearing helmets on the mountain even into the 80s, and they clearly gained popularity throughout the 90s and early 2000s as designs improved and they became more ingrained in local mountain culture.

Helmets were recommended on the slopes a long time before any mandates were introduced. There are stories from Whistler Blackcomb orientation where employees were asked to put their hand up if they wore a helmet. Those with their hands up were acknowledged as the smartest of the group.

Spot the helmet. Willie Whistler with Ski Scamps on Whistler Mountain, February 1982. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Helmets became compulsory for all people under 18 attending ski or snowboard lessons in the 2009/10 winter season (requirements for children under 13 occurred earlier). Employees and anyone in lessons were also required to wear helmets in the terrain park. At this time, Whistler Blackcomb also began to make a conscious effort to feature skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets in their promotional material.

Easily the most contentious decision around helmets occurred in April 2013, when Whistler Blackcomb was allegedly told by WorkSafe BC that they were not in compliance with Section 8.11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This act mandates that safety headgear is required for any employees where there is a risk of head injury. Until then, this decades-old regulation had never been enforced on ski hills. According to Director of Employee Experience Joel Chevalier “The WorkSafe BC officers told us that at any time during or after the meeting, they could go outside, see one of our employees on skis or a snowboard without a helmet and write us an order, which from our perspective was quite a serious statement to make.”

Whistler Blackcomb took this discussion very seriously and announced that all employees on skis or snowboards were required to wear a helmet at work from May 4, only two weeks after the meeting with WorkSafe BC. To ensure all employees were able to meet this regulation there was a helmet borrowing policy for the rest of the season and staff could get 45% off when purchasing helmets from Whistler Blackcomb-owned stores.

Ski school in 1991. Helmets optional. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Tom Ericson.

Some members of Whistler Blackcomb management and staff were incensed with the swift decision by WorkSafe BC because there were still concerns about the safety of wearing helmets in certain situations, particularly during avalanche control when Ski Patrol are required to listen for hazards. (According to a survey around this time, patrollers were evenly distributed, with one third always wearing helmets, one third sometimes wearing helmets and one third never wearing helmets.) Headings such as “Helmet policy riles workers” and “Ski hills question ‘helmet rule’ for employees” dotted the local and provincial newspapers. Still, the greatest controversy surrounded whether it was appropriate to mandate helmet wear, or whether it should be a personal choice.

Despite helmets remaining a choice for visitors, the tide has turned. A Statistics Canada survey from 2017 found that 78.6% of skiers and 76.3% of snowboarders always wear helmets (and this is likely higher in Whistler), while helmet use amongst cyclists is lower at 45.5% Canada-wide. Today you can often tell approximately how old a photo is based on the number of helmets you see on the hill.