Category Archives: Tales from Alta Lake

Before the lifts came, Alta Lake was a small resource and summer tourism based community.

Reimagining Hillcrest Lodge

When Hillcrest Lodge first opened for business in 1946 it was not meant to be a year-round operation.  Summers were so busy with regular visitors and guests that Jack and Cis Mansell, who built the lodge with their sons Doug and Loyd, would “say goodbye to each other in May and hello in October.”  In October, Hillcrest Lodge closed for the season and Jack and Cis would often leave Alta Lake to spend winters in warmer climes.  This seasonal closure would, however, change in the 1960s.

Hillcrest Lodge, originally built and run by the Mansell family, was renamed the Mount Whistler Lodge under new management soon after Whistler Mountain opened.  Mansell Family Collection.

Jack and Cis retired in 1958 and Doug and his wife Barb took over the management of the lodge.  In the early 1960s Doug and Loyd kept the lodge open on weekends through the winter and even built a small rope tow on the property that they ran for skiers.  In 1965, as the first lifts were completed on Whistler Mountain, Doug and Barb sold Hillcrest Lodge to a group from Vancouver led by Glen Mason.  The lodge’s name was changed to Mount Whistler Lodge and, instead of attracting summer guests, was marketed towards skiers.

Mount Whistler Lodge at the bottom of Whistler Mountain in 1972. Mason Collection.

By the winter 1967/68, winter guests could pay $9.50/day to stay and receive three meals at Mount Whistler Lodge (for those who brought their own sleeping bags, the rate was only $8.50), conveniently located only one mile (1.6km) from the gondola.  The lodge also offered entertainment in the form of pizza and music, including a jug band on Thursday nights.

An advertisement from the winter of 1971/72 announced that the lodge was under new management and introduced “The Purple Ski Cabaret,” though it featured few details about what the cabaret included.  Through the early 1970s the Mount Whistler Lodge also marketed itself as “open all year round.”  Its close proximity to the lifts appealed to skiers while the lodge also drew summer visitors with promises of swimming, fishing, boating and waterskiing on four nearby lakes, horseback rides through the valley, and more.

The Whistler Lodge in the Whistler Answer, October/November 1979.  Photo by George Benjamin.

Mount Whistler Lodge also became popular among Whistler area residents.  According to an article from the October/November 1979 issue of the Whistler Answer, Mount Whistler Lodge (which had by then ceased operations) was “quite simply, the best damn boogie, rockin, boppin, rip-roarin, down home, funky, shit kickin place to ever serve a beer.”  The lodge itself was described as “a log cabin right on the lake, with cracked Tiffany lamps and mildew stains on the ceiling.”  The Answer attributed the “looseness” of the lodge between 1973 and 1974 to managers Rob and Jen Houseman, who figured the best way to ensure rules were not broken was to have no rules.  Before it closed permanently in the mid 1970s, Mount Whistler Lodge was even the venue for the first two Freakers’ Balls.

The Answer ended its article by declaring that, “The Whistler Lodge, although closed today, remains one of the few structures today in Whistler that could be labelled heritage buildings.”  Two years earlier, in 1977, Rainbow Lodge had been mostly destroyed by a fire on the other side of Alta Lake and other buildings, such as the Soo Valley Logging Camp and the Alta Lake Community Hall, had already been burnt down.  In 1986 the main building of the Mount Whistler Lodge joined them and was burnt down as practice for the Whistler Fire Department.  The cabins remained for some years, but today few physical traces can be found of Hillcrest or Mount Whistler Lodge.

These steps are one of the few remaining physical reminders of the Hillcrest Lodge and Mount Whistler Lodge.

Taking a Walk with Pip Brock

Mildred and Reginald Brock first visited Alta Lake in 1927 as guests of friends.  Mildred fell in love with the area and the Brock family bought three small lots on the southwest corner of Alta Lake, hiring Bert Harrop to build a cottage that they named “Primrose”.  The Brocks and their five sons visited Alta Lake each summer; it’s likely that their youngest son, Philip ‘Pip’ Gilbert Brock, spent the most time exploring the area.

A young Dave Brock (formerly identified as Pip) atop Whistler Mountain.  Brock Collection.

At the time, there were only two trains from Squamish to Alta Lake each week, though the steamship from Vancouver to Squamish was daily.  Rather than limiting himself to the train schedule, Pip Brock would often choose to walk over 60km to reach Alta Lake.  According to Pip, this walk would take “a long time, about ten hours.”  The boat would reach Squamish around 2 o’clock.  From there, Pip would sometimes splurge for the 50 cent taxi fare to get as far as Cheakeye, but more often than not he and any companions would walk straight to Primrose.  Pip recalled that not many others wanted “to do the walking,” and so he mostly walked alone.

Parts of his route led him down some of the remaining sections of the Pemberton Trail.  In 1992 Pip recalled that “the parts that were there were excellent, but then it would just disappear under rock falls and stuff.”  For other sections of the journey, he would walk along the railway tracks and, if he was lucky, a freight train might come by and give him a ride.

The Brock Family at Primrose, ca. 1930.  Brock Collection.

Once he reached Alta Lake, Pip would spend his time hiking and exploring the area.  One of his favourite hikes was to Russet Lake, still a favourite destination for many people today.  At the time there was quite a good trail on the northside of Fitzsimmons Creek, which Pip thought was most likely built and maintained by whomever was trapping in the area.

Pip’s trips around the area did not end with the end of the summer; he would continue even after the snow fell using skis.  Around Easter in 1933, Pip climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain and skied down, marking the first reported ascent and descent of Whistler on skis, though he later described the department store skis he used as “terrible things.”  Ski touring had not yet become popular among the majority of mountaineers at that time.  Pip said that, “most mountaineers thought that skiing was impure and indecent.  But a few of us, being frivolous, realized the fun and value of skis for winter touring.”

The Brock boys picnicking near Singing Pass, 1930s.  Brock Collection.

Pip and brothers continued visiting the valley even after the tragic death of their parents in a plane crash at Alta Lake in 1935.  In the 1930s Pip began joining Don and Phyllis Munday, legendary mountaineers from North Vancouver, on trips, including an attempt to reach the top of Mount Waddington.  In 1937 Pip and the Mundays skied up Wedge Creek and then skied and climbed up to the top of Wedge Mountain, marking the first ascent of Wedge by skis.  They also made the first ski descent in the Blackcomb backcountry and “skied right up to the source of Cheakamus to Mount Sir Richard.”

Since Pip began exploring the mountains surrounding Alta Lake by ski, ski touring has become increasingly popular.  Today, however, few of those who head out into the backcountry around Whistler choose to begin their trip with a ten hour walk from Squamish.

Finding a Space

Last week we mentioned a recent donation of journals published by the UBC Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC) in the 1960s, covering the period during which the VOC Cabin in Whistler was built.  Combined with an oral history conducted with Karl Ricker (who donated the journals) last year, the journals provide a lot of information about how the VOC Cabin came to be, even before lifts began running on Whistler Mountain.

According to Ricker, Jack Shakespeare, a member of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA), began attending VOC meetings in 1963 to promote the proposed development on Whistler Mountain.  At the time, the VOC already had a cabin on Mount Seymour but it was reportedly not being used as a ski cabin and so the VOC began to look seriously at building a cabin in Whistler in 1964.  The idea had to be approved by the VOC membership and it wasn’t immediately accepted by all, as Ricker recalls some people fighting to stay on Seymour.  The Whistler idea, however, did win out and the VOC began searching for a site to build a cabin.

VOC members touring around Whistler during an exploratory trip to the area in 1964. Karl Ricker Collection.

Charlie Daughney, then a Ph.D. candidate, led what was described in one VOC Journal as “the long and frustrating search for land.”  According to Ricker, the VOC first staked out land in what today is Kadenwood, but were then told that there would be no overnight parking at the Whistler Mountain lifts.  There was land available to buy at Jordan’s Lodge on Nita lake but the VOC did not have the money.  They were encouraged to look into applying for a piece of land on Alpha Lake but a search through records showed it was not Crown land but belonged to a man named John Quirk or his descendants.  The VOC even looked at building on the island in Alpha Lake but backed off due to the cost of building a bridge.

At the time the VOC was looking for a site the highway to the Whistler area was still under construction. Trips were taken by train or using the makeshift roads. Karl Ricker Collection.

Finally, in February 1965, the architect planners for the area and GODA told the VOC that there were plans to create a club cabin area in what is now part of Nordic Estates (Ricker mentioned that a club cabin area was also a way to guarantee customers for the lift company).  The next step was to find the tract of land set aside for club cabins, which at the time was simply marked by lines on a map.  In the early summer of 1965, members of the VOC ran a survey from the last known property lines in the area and put in their own stakes.

Surveying underway at the VOC Cabin site. Karl Ricker Collection.

As the first club to plan to build in the area, the VOC acquired “the choice lot” with views of Whistler Mountain and reasonable access to the parking lot that was to be constructed just off the highway.  Though it took longer than expected, official permission was granted by the provincial government to use the land for club cabins before the end of the summer.  In the process, Ricker received a call from a land inspector who had been told to inspect the parcel of land “right away” but didn’t know where it was.  Ricker met him at the train station and showed him to the parcel and, despite a few concerns, the land was approved for the VOC.  Government surveyors later arrived to do their own survey of the area but, according to Ricker, by that time construction of the VOC Cabin was already underway.

Baking Mountains at the Fall Fair

If you’ve every tried to make a cake that looks like something other than a cake, you’ve probably discovered that it’s not always that easy to do.  The idea of creating a cake that looks like a specific geological form may seem intimidating, but in 1980 that was just what contestants in the Fall Fair Mountain Cake Bake contest were asked to do.

The Alta Lake Community Club’s (ALCC) Fall Fair was first held in the Myrtle Philip School gym in 1977.  The ALCC had “reactivated” itself in 1976 after a four year hiatus and began supporting adult education classes, a Brownies group, dances and children’s parties.  In May of 1977 they began planning a Fall Fair to be held in November in partnership with the Whistler Mountain Ski Club’s Ski Swap.  The Fair was a fundraiser for the ALCC and featured a cafe in the lunchroom, handmade crafts, a white elephant gift exchange, a raffle, and even a ski demonstration.  This first Fair made a profit and the ALCC began planning a slightly larger fair for the following year.

First Alta Lake Community Club picnic on the point at Rainbow in 1923.  The ALCC had various periods of inactivity, including in the 1970s.  Philip Collection.

The Fall Fair continued to be held in the school gym and over time additions were made.  The ALCC began appointing members to organize the event, one of the club’s main fundraisers.  The 1980 Fall Fair would appear to have been a particularly successful year.

On November 22, 1980, Myrtle Philip School might have the most bustling place in Whistler.  In addition to the Mountain Cake Bake contest, that year’s Fair included stalls selling various crafts, a bale sale stall contributed to by various community members, a rummage sale coordinated by Viv Jennings, and the Port Moody High School Stage band, featuring Whistler regular Mark MacLaurin on trumpet.  For $1 attendees could also buy a raffle ticket and be entered to win prizes including a Whistler Mountain Season Pass, a Blackcomb Mountain Season Pass, and two children’s passes for Ski Rainbow on Rainbow Mountain.

About 1,300 people passed through Myrtle Philip School gym and lunchroom for the 8th annual Fall Fair organized by Heather Gamache and Catherine Wiens from the Alta Lake Community Club. Gamache estimates the club raised close to $1,800 from the fair that featured clothing, jewellery, photography and art and other hand-made crafts. Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

A month before the Fall Fair, an article was published in the Whistler Question outlining the rules and regulations of the Mountain Cake Bake competition.  Written by Cathy Jewett, it included a (unsubstantiated) history of mountain cake baking in the area, supposedly begun by none other than Myrtle Philip who was said to have created a cherry-flavoured replica of Rainbow Mountain, inspiring the formation of the Mountain Cake Baking Society.  The rules of the competition were fairly simple: cakes had to be at the Fall Fair no later than 10:30 am and had to taste good while resembling a local mountain.  That evening the winning cake would be consumed while the runners-up were to be auctioned off.  Though there is no mention of what first prize consisted of, all entrants were eligible for dinner at Beau’s.  To get potential entrants thinking, Jewett offered suggestions such as “a Mount Brew Beer Cake, Sproat Mountain carved out of alfalfa cake, a licorice flavoured Black Tusk,” and more.

The products of the Mountain Cake Bake. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The 1980 Fall Fair was described in the ALCC minutes as a “financial success.”  The prize for the Mountain Cake Bake was awarded to Debbie Cook and her sister Karen, who submitted a model of Diamond Head that was said to be “pleasing both to the eye and the palate.”  It was also a success for Norman Dedeluk, Sid Young, Ross Cameron and Moira Biggin-Pound who all won various seasons passes in the raffle.

1980 appears to be the only year the Mountain Cake Bake competition took place, as there is no other mention of it in the ALCC meetings, but if you would like to share your own experiences trying to recreate Whistler’s landscape out of cake, let us know at the Whistler Museum.