Category Archives: Skiing

Speaker Series: Weasel Workers

Our next Speaker Series will take place Wednesday, March 22.  Join long-serving Weasel Workers Owen Carney, Colin Pitt-Taylor and Dennis Waddingham for a presentation on the origin and history of Whistler’s Weasel Workers, stories of the many courses they have built, and a discussion of their (very) recent trip to Korea in advance of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics next winter.

Tickets are $10 each ($5 for Museum and/or Club Shred members) and can be purchased at the Museum or by calling as at 604-932-2019.

Gerhard Mueller: Designer of Whistler’s First Lifts

With the wet weather, frigid temperatures and winds that have come in the last two months, many of us out on the mountains have appreciated the temporary respite offered by the enclosed gondolas.  To show our appreciation, we’re offering some information on the man who designed the first lifts installed on Whistler Mountain, including the original four-person gondola.

Skiers load the original four-person gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

Skiers load the original gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

Gerhard Mueller was an early pioneer in the ski lift industry.  In the late 1920s, as mountain resorts in the Alps were still beginning to redefine themselves as winter resorts, Mueller was a 17-year-old mechanical engineering student who had grown tired of having to continuously climb up the slop in order to practice his skiing on the way down.

To address this issue Mueller built his (and Switzerland’s) first ski tow at St. Moritz using 1″ hemp rope and the engine from an old motorcycle.  This first rope tow was patented in 1932 and was later improved to address complaints of tired hands and arms.

After the end of World War II Mueller founded his own company, GMD Mueller, in 1947 and continued to design innovative lift systems, including the modern detachable chairlift.

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

In their 1965 catalogue GMD Mueller advertised their ski lift options, claiming that “The roomy 4-seater gondolas, the elegant double-chairs or the smooth springbox-type T-bars will make every ride, both short or long, comfortable and safe, and the good appearance of Mueller Lifts will make you a proud owner.”  In less than two decades they had come a long way from Mueller’s first rope tow.

In the early 1960s when Franz Wilhelmsen and Eric Beardmore, another Garibaldi Lift Company director, visited Europe to study lift systems prior to choosing the systems to be used at Whistler, many chairlifts still had to be stopped both to load and to unload passengers.  The double chairlift designed by Mueller had patented detachable cable grips that detached the chairgrip from the hauling rope at both stations, allowing the hauling rope to continue to run while the chair was slowed for loading and unloading before being reattached to the hauling rope and launched.  This allowed for the creation of a four-person gondola.

When approached, Mueller confirmed that his designs could be adapted to fit the proposed locations on Whistler Mountain.  For the lower stage from the base at Creekside to Midstation, where warmer spring temperatures and wet weather prompted worries of wet clothing before skiers even reached their first run, Mueller proposed a 65-car four-person gondola carrying approximately 500 passengers per hour for a 13-minute ride.  This was to be followed by a double chairlift of 175 chairs carrying approximately 1200 passengers per hour.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

In 1965 four Mueller-designed ski lifts were installed on Whistler Mountain: the four-person gondola, the double chairlift that would become known as the Red Chair and two T-bars.  Mueller travelled to Whistler to oversee the construction and testing of the lifts and to conduct training sessions with lift staff.  GLC workers were also sent to Switzerland to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the lifts at the GMD Mueller factory.  Mueller was present for for the official opening of the lifts on January 15, 1966.

A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

Whistler Mountain was equipped exclusively with Mueller lifts for only two years.  In 1967 the Blue Chair was designed and installed by Murray-Latta Machine Co. Ltd., a Vancouver-based company.  The original gondola and Red Chair were retire in 1992, but both can still be found here at the museum, a lasting legacy of the designs of Gerhard Mueller.

Happy National Ski Day!

Today marks the third annual CIBC National Ski Day in Canada.  Across the country 17 different mountain resorts offer discounted tickets or unique experiences in support of Alpine Canada and Canadian ski teams.  In celebration of National Ski Day we wanted to share a selection of photographs from our archives of people, you guessed it, skiing!

In May 1939 George Bury and three other skiers began a 10-day exploratory trip of the Garibaldi region.

In May 1939 George Bury and three other skiers began a 10-day exploratory trip of the Garibaldi region.  This was over 20 years before Franz Wilhelmsen and GODA would begin developing Whistler Mountain for skiing.  Bury collection.

A family ski day on Whistler Mountain.

A family ski day on Whistler Mountain when skiing with a child on your back was permissible and helmets were an unusual sight.  WMSC collection.

Skiing Whistler Mountain in the 1970s.  Benjamin collection.

Skiing Whistler Mountain in the 1970s. Benjamin collection.

1980s skiing

Visibility of skiers was not an issue with the fashions of the 1980s.  Griffith collection.

You can never be too young (or old) for skiing.

You can never be too young (or old) for skiing.  WMSC collection.

 

Enjoy the snow!

Celebrating Peak Chair’s 30th Birthday

To most non-advanced skiers Whistler’s Peak was completely inaccessible before 1986.

No panoramic view, no glimpse of the vast expanse of Garibaldi Park and no feeling of being on top of the entire mountain.  This past month marked the 30th anniversary of the Peak Chair opening on Whistler Mountain.  In 1986, the 1,000-metre lift was imported from Grand Junction, Colorado, at a cost of $900,000, costing $1.48 million overall.

Since 1980, Whistler Mountain had been struggling to make ends meet and part of the strategy behind adding the new lift was to broaden the appeal of Whistler to Lower Mainland skiers.  Additionally, Whistler Mountain intended to keep pace with Blackcomb Mountain, which had opened their new T-Bar System and 7th Heaven in the high alpine in 1985.  Just a year later, Whistler Mountain countered this opening of new high alpine terrain with their opening of the Peak Chair on December 22, 1986.

The first poster advertising the new Peak Chair.

The first poster advertising the new Peak Chair.

The official opening of the Peak Chair was attended by a few big names: Premier Bill Vander Zalm, Mayor Drew Meredith, Female Athlete of the 20th Century Nancy Greene-Raine, Mount Everest climber Sharon Wood, Whistler Mountain president Lorne Borgal and the event’s master of ceremonies Jim McConkey.

“For years, people have been climbing and skiing off the peak and hiking to the peak in summer,” said Nancy Greene-Raine in the original December 24, 1986 Whistler Question article.  “It’s wonderful that now they’ll be able to ride p and ski it, with a little caution.”

The mayor cracked a joke at the idea of quick access to all those steep new runs: “I think this is something Lorne dreamed up while riding the Scream Machine at Expo (’86) last summer.”

As we know well today, there are some intense line choices available from Whistler’s Peak, some having gained legendary status in this town, like the cliff drop visible from Peak Chair known as “Air Jordan” and the Peak to Creek run, the longest groomer in North America at 5.5 km.

The chair was first opened only to advanced skiers due to the steepness of the terrain and the early season rock hazards.  More than 70 skiers eagerly awaited the opening of the chair that day.  Unfortunately, intermediate and beginner skiers still missed out on most of the runs coming down from the Peak; the only run accessible for non-advanced skiers was aptly named “Last Chance”.

Today we take for granted the opportunity to zip up to Whistler’s peak as easily as taking a seat on a chair.  Give a brief pause to take in the stunning panoramic vistas when you’re up on Whistler’s peak this winter, and perhaps remember the work that went into making those views possible for every skier and snowboarder to experience without a treacherous hike up.

Peak to Peak

The Peak to Peak Gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb was built in 2007 and 2008. The idea for the gondola was conceived so that skiers and snowboarders could ski both mountains without having to go through the village or take multiple lifts to get to the other mountain. The original idea was to have lifts that went down the sides of the mountains and over Fitzsimmons creek but the land on the slopes in between them is unsuitable for skiing, not to mention it is protected land. In order to build a gondola that would not go all the way to the ground they needed to take in to account the enormous costs. Intrawest, who owned both mountains at the time was able to receive the funding and the project was set in motion.

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Whistler-Blackcomb broke ground in late May of 2007 after having to delay the project by a year. Most of the components of the system including the Gondola cabins themselves were made in Switzerland and then shipped over to Canada once completed. The Peak to Peak includes 4 towers, 2 of which were completed in the first summer of construction and the second 2 were added after the winter.In June of 2008 the 5 cables arrived in Whistler from Switzerland and had to be winched down Blackcomb Mountain to the valley floor then up Whistler Mountain.

Peak2PeakposterfinalA total of 28 cabins were constructed and the first 12 crossed the span for the first time on September 19 of 2008. After successfully making it across the span the rest of the cabins were added and the whole system was tested rigorously till the grand opening that December.

The whole system was built by the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group and is the first tri-cable lift by Doppelmayr in North America. The only other gondola’s like it in the world are ones in Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany but none of them can match the scale of the Peak to Peak.

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The Peak to Peak holds 2 world records, one for longest free span between the towers, which is just over 3 kilometres (3.3 to be exact), and one for highest point above the ground, 436 metres.  It can hold over 4000 people in an hour and only takes 11 minutes to cross between the mountains. The total cost of building the gondola came to $51 million Canadian.

To celebrate the unveiling of the Peak to Peak, Red Bull Air Force Members base jumped from the middle of the gondola. Since then, in 2014 1 man carried out an illegal base jump from the tallest point of the Peak to Peak and cause some $10,000 worth of damage to the gondola car from prying open the doors. His accomplice was arrested shortly after and the act was condemned by many.

The Peak to Peak is a great attraction all year round to let athletes enjoy both mountains but also to allow sightseers to experience the beauty of the Valley and the hikes and views both mountains have to offer.

 

by Michaela Sawyer

Jim McConkey’s Movie Magic

Whistler-Blackcomb is a very athlete-driven resort. So much so that when it came time celebrate the resort’s 50th anniversary last winter, the single, official image they chose to promote the anniversary was this:

The famous "Legends & Icons" image. Photo by Blake Jorgensen, courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb.

The famous “Legends & Icons” image. Photo by Blake Jorgensen, courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb.

In the front left, next to freestyle phenomenon Wayne Wong is none other than Jim McConkey, Whistler’s first local celebrity-athlete.

When “McConk” moved here in 1968 to run the ski school and rental/retail operations, he was already an established ski star, with feature roles in films by filmmaking icons like Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore. For nearly two decades he lent his personality, fame, and expertise to the growing resort, all the while still appearing in films and magazines that featured his big-mountain and powder skiing prowess.

McConkey enjoying some of Alta, Utah's famous champagne pow.

McConkey enjoying some of Alta, Utah’s famous champagne powder during the filming of Ski Crazy! (1955).

We have a few photographs of McConkey in our archives, but very little video, until now.

A few week’s ago “Diamond Jim” (his other main nickname) stopped by the museum for a visit. We planned on recording an oral history interview with him, and figured he’d be bringing in a few more photos for us to digitize and share.

What we didn’t count on was him bringing in the original 16mm film reels from 25 of his original ski films!

This is what 25 films on their original 16mm reels looks like.

This is what 25 films on their original 16mm reels looks like.

The collection includes features like “Skiing is Freedom” & “The Snows of Garibaldi,” as well as instructional and promotional films. Jim ran Whistler’s second heli-ski operation, so there should be lots of wonderful early aerial footage of McConkey and friends skiing untracked powder on the Coast Mountains’ vast glaciers. McConkey was such a renowned and well-rounded outdoorsman that we even have “Canoeing the North Country.”

The titles are tantalizing, but unfortunately, we won’t be holding any screenings in the immediate future. We don’t have the means to view the film, and wouldn’t want to run the risk of permanently damaging such fragile and significant film stock.

The classic image of Jack Bright (right) skiing Whistler with "Diamond Jim" McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

The classic image of Whistler Mountain GM Jack Bright (left) skiing Whistler with “Diamond Jim” McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

Our first step is researching to find out which of these gems has not yet been digitized by another individual or institution, then securing funding to digitize those films. This is not a cheap prospect, but as these films represent such an important part of our local ski heritage, and will likely make for highly entertaining viewing, we are confident that this will be accomplished.

So hopefully some day not too long from now, we will have these films digitized and available to see. In the meantime, take some inspiration from Jim himself and go play outside!

 

 

 

The Nancy Greene-Raine Connection

We recently announced our upcoming Speaker Series on May 6th, celebrating 50 years of summer camps. The inclusion of Nancy Greene-Raine on the speaking panel quickly made it apparent that, although we have decent coverage of her husband Al Raine’s contributions to Whistler on this blog (plus here), up until now, Nancy’s presence is notably lacking. This blog post will start to fix that problem.

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Though Nancy was born in Ottawa, grew up in the Kootenay ski haven of Rossland, BC with its historic Red Mountain Resort, and has lived in Sun Peaks for roughly two decades, her connection and contributions to Whistler remain strong.

Nancy, of course, is one of the most recognized and celebrated Canadian athletes of all-time, regardless of discipline, even earning the title of Canadian Female Athlete of the Century!  She was the most dominant female ski racer of the 1960s, earning 13 World Cup victories, 2 overall world titles, and her gold medal (and silver, all while battling a severe ankle injury) performance at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, alongside French legend Jean-Claude Killy, is the stuff of legend.

Here’s a complete run-down of her ski-racing accomplishments. 

 

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1969 Toni Sailer Summer Camp staff. Nancy is front row, 2nd from left, Toni Sailer is back row, 2nd from right, both wearing cowboy hats.

Nancy retired at the top of her field and a global celebrity after her dominant 1968 season. Retirement from ski racing was no permanent vacation, as the pervious winter she had already launched her Nancy Greene Ski League, Canada’s national, grassroots-level ski racing program. In the nearly 50 years of operation, virtually every single Canadian ski racer of note, from Steve Podborski to Ashleigh McIvoor, and countless thousands of others, started competitive skiing in Nancy’s program.

In 1969, she began coaching at Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camps on Whistler Mountain, a position she maintained for several years and which she will be recollecting at this Friday’s Speaker Series.

Al and Nancy first built a cabin in Whistler in 1970, which was their summer home while Nancy coached on the glacier. Once Al retired as a ski coach in 1975, they moved to Whistler full-time and set out to help Whistler become a leading international ski destination.

Nancy skiing on Blackcomb, circa 1980s.

Nancy skiing on Blackcomb, circa 1980s.

Nancy and her husband Al Raine also played a huge role in the early success of Whistler and their legacy carries on to this day. Nancy became an spokeswoman and ambassador for the resort, using her celebrity to promote the upstart ski area. As such, she was one of Whistler’s original “Celebrity-Athletes” that played such a pivotal role in Whistler becoming, well, Whistler.

Al sat on the first municipal council and was a leading figure in the planning, design, and construction of Whistler Village and Blackcomb Mountain.

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Nancy and husband Al, representing Blackcomb Mountain (note the matching Blackcomb Mountain outfits, and Nancy’s Blackcomb logo name tag). circa 1980s.

In 1985 they built Nancy Green’s Olympic Lodge in the heart of the Village, and despite having long since sold it, the building bear’s Nancy’s name to this day. In the 1990s, Al and Nancy moved on to Sun Peaks in the B.C. interior, but they still maintain close ties to Whistler.

We are truly honoured to have Nancy join this Friday’s  panel, and we hope you can join us. Get your tickets in advance, it will sell out!

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