Category Archives: Whistler: A Town

As well as being a resort, Whistler is town (kind of) like any other.

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.

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.

Looking Back at Whistler: 1970

Last week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Blackcomb Mountain’s official opening in 1980, so this week we thought we’d look further back at a few of the things that were new on Whistler Mountain and the Whistler area in 1970, when the area was constantly growing and changing.

Though they weren’t having to finish new lifts or set up mountain operations from scratch, the summer and fall of 1970 were still a hive of activity on Whistler Mountain, with changes being made to runs, lifts, and facilities for the upcoming season.  Many of the runs had grooming work done such as flattening some steep pitches and clearing trees, stumps, and boulders.  The lengthening of the Green Chair was accompanied by the cutting of a new run and the widening of both Jolly Green Giant and Ego Bowl.

This photo was used as the cover for the Garibaldi’s Whistler News of Winter 1970/71. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

While the Green Chair was extended, the Valley T-bar, described as “the forgotten lift at Whistler,” was being moved up the mountain to run parallel to the Alpine T-bar.  The Alpine T-bar provided access to some of Whistler’s most popular terrain: Harmony Bowl, T-Bar Bowl, and (with a bit of traversing) Whistler Bowl.  It was hoped that the addition of a parallel lift would shorten the lift lines.

Another lift, the Blue Chair, gained a “high-speed” loading ramp and a few new trails, with one being cut from the bottom of Harmony Bowl, another from the base of Blue Chair over to the Green Chair, and Dad’s Run (now Ratfink) cut adjacent to Mum’s Run (now Marmot).

Roger McCarthy gets into some deep snow on the side of Dad’s Run.  Whistler Question Collection.

Indoors, the Roundhouse received some substantial upgrades, most notably electricity.  Propane heaters were replaced by diesel-powered electric heaters.  A “new modern electric food preparation” area was installed alongside increased seating capacity, which opened up new hot food options at the top of the mountain that winter, such as French fries, chili, stews, soups, hot dogs, and even “shake and bake” chicken.  For the first time, the Roundhouse offered breakfast as well, from a continental breakfast to cold cereal to hot porridge.  While it may not have been considered gourmet cuisine, these new offerings greatly increased the on-mountain dining options.

Rudi Hoffmann prepares the steak at a Rotary luncheon.  Whistler Question Collection.

Down in the valley, a new dining option opened up that, though now closed, is still talked about in Whistler today: Rudi and Merrilyn Hoffmann’s Mountain Holm Steakhouse.  Rudi Hoffmann, who had completed his three year apprenticeship in Germany, had worked as the head chef at the Christiana Inn on Alta Lake during the 1969/70 season before opening his own restaurant at Nesters late in 1970.  The Mountain Holm Steakhouse invited guests to “relax in an European atmosphere with good food at moderate prices” and, by the holiday season, were busy enough that reservations were recommended.  They even offered a traditional European Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, featuring goose, dumplings, and a homemade Christmas pudding.

All these changes would have made the 1970 season rather different from winters that came before.  While each season may not bring new runs or changed lifts, the Whistler valley and the mountains continue to change fifty years later.

Blackcomb’s 40

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations.  Last Thursday (December 4) marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift Two using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.

The opening ceremonies at Lift Two on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith Collection.

This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain.  The day before, on December 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems.  The previous winter Blackcomb had offered Snowcat tours for twelve skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain.  December 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.

Jerry Blan and Hugh Smythe from Fortress Mountain Resorts present the Blackcomb development to the public.  Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

In 1978 the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination.  Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR).  As Smythe recalls, it was on October 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.

Opening day, when it arrived, was accompanied by 18 feet of cake from Gourmet Bakery.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager.  In 1974 he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) (today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada) after going into bankruptcy in 1971.  When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co.  Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain.  According to him, his watch was “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.”  Luckily, they did.

The Blackcomb snowcat tours promised skiers fresh snow and a hot lunch. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978/79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails.  Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front year.  The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979/80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours.  The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains.  In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

The original target date set in 1978 was December 1, 1980.  Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days later, a feat described by the management as “not bad.”  Lift One from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.

Mayor Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe load the first chair to head up Blackcomb. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Happy 40th Blackcomb!

Starting at the Village

In the past ten years, Whistler Blackcomb has installed several new lifts on both mountains, replacing older lifts with new ones (such as the new Blackcomb Gondola and Emerald Express) or moving existing lifts to replace others (such as the Crystal and Catskinner chairs on Blackcomb Mountain).  While it may seem like there have been a lot of changes in the last decade, the greatest change in lifts in the area was actually seen in the 1980s.  A total of 21 lifts were built, six on Whistler Mountain and fifteen on Blackcomb.  Eight of these lifts opened in the 1980/81 season alone.

On Whistler Mountain, skiers had been skiing down to the site of the Whistler Village and catching a bus or a ride back to the gondola base at Creekside for over a decade.  In 1980, Whistler Mountain opened three trip chairlifts starting from the Village, breaking from its tradition of naming chairs for colours for the first time since opening in 1966.

The official opening of the Village Chair. In 1988 the Village Chair was replaced with a 10 person gondola. Whistler Question Collection.

The imaginatively named Village Chair began at Skiers Plaza and ended at Olympic Station.  From there, skiers had a short run down to the aspirationally named Olympic Chair.  At the top of the Olympic Chair they could then ski over to the Black Chair, which let them off at the top of what today is the top of the Garbanzo Express.  To teach the Roundhouse required skiing down to another chair, either the Green or Red.

The Midstation towers on the new Olympic Chair on Whistler North. Picture taken from the top of the Village Chair. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Of the three lifts, only the Olympic Chair continues to operate on Whistler Mountain today.  The Village Chair was replaced in 1988 by the Whistler Express and, instead of requiring four exposed chairlifts, the ten-person gondola took skiers and sightseers alike straight from the Whistler Village to the Roundhouse.  In 1999 the installation of the four-person Fitzsimmons and Garbanzo Expresses eliminated the need for the Black Chair.  The Olympic Chair was shortened in 1989 and now operates as a beginner chair.  It is one of the few fixed grip lifts still used on Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains.

Blackcomb Mountain opened its first five lifts (named One through Five) in 1980.  Lift Five was a two-person chairlift designed for beginner skiers, located at Base II, then the hub of Blackcomb operations.  The development of the Upper Village and the opening of the Magic Chair in 1987 moved beginners to the new Blackcomb base and Lift Five was removed.

The bottom terminal of Blackcomb Lift #2 takes shape. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Four triple chairs took skiers from Skiers Plaza to the top of the Rendezvous.  Over time, these lifts began to be called by names as well as numbers: Fitzsimmons/One, Cruiser/Two, Choker/Three, and Catskinner/Four.  To ride all four lifts could take over half an hour, a long journey if the weather was not great.  In 1994, Lifts One through Three were replaced by Blackcomb’s first gondola, Excalibur, and the four-person Excelerator Express.  Lift Four remained the only original lift operating on Blackcomb until it was replaced in 2018.

Though only one of the eight lifts installed in 1980 remains, the year marked the beginning of a busy decade of lift building for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Whistler’s Silver Book

When talking about the creation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975 and the early development of the Whistler Village through the 1980s, one of the documents that is often mentioned is the “Silver Book,” also known as the Community Development Study for the Whistler Mountain Area.  The Silver Book was put together in 1974 by the Planning Services Division of the Department of Municipal Affair of BC and contained a study of the current state of the area, thoughts on potential growth, and a recommended framework for creating both a short and long term community development plan.  The report was a key factor in the formation of the RMOW and was one of the first documents to recommend a single-centred Town Centre on the site of the garbage dump.

The aptly named “Silver Book”

The Silver Book also, included plans for residential development, infrastructure such as sewer and water systems, further recreational development, and transportation both to and within the area.  Reading through the report, it is clear that some of the transportation woes experienced by Whistler in the past few years are similar to those thought of back in 1974.

At the time, almost all travel between Whistler and Vancouver was done by private automobiles on the two lane highway.  According to the report, “At peak times, particularly winter Sunday evenings, traffic on the highway is almost bumper to bumper.”  The capacity of the highway in winter conditions was calculated to be about 500 vehicles per hour, but with many skiers arriving and leaving at the same time the traffic slowed to a crawl.

Snowy winter days could already lead to backed up traffic exiting the Whistler Village by 1984. Whistler Question Collection.

The idea of building a new road with a different route to Whistler was dismissed as too expensive at $80-100 million (adjusted for inflation, $400-500 million), as was a proposal to expand the existing highway significantly.  Using rail to expand transport capacity was considered, but it was concluded that the railway, designed for moving freight, “does not lend itself to the operation of high-speed passenger trains.”  A weekend ski-train was proposed but this would have removed only 600 skiers per day from the road.  Though increased bus service was expected to provide only a modest increase in capacity, it was considered the most effective solution.

Buses were also an important part of the transportation plan within the Whistler area.  The community was expected to develop in a linear fashion along the highway and be “somewhat sprawling.”  The plan for a single Town Centre meant that municipal and commercial services would require traveling outside of the different subdivisions, which, if all trips were taken in a private automobile, could lead to excessive traffic noise, air pollution, and “aesthetically inappropriate large-scale parking lots” at the Town Centre.  Instead, the recommendation was to develop an efficient public transport system within the valley.

A bus picks up skiers at the Gondola base, today known as Creekside. Whistler Question Collection, 1979.

The Silver Book outlined several ways of encouraging the use of public transport, but only one was marked “not workable” by the donor of one copy in our collections: toll gates and restricted parking.  The idea was that toll gates at the north and south ends of Whistler would encourage visitors to take a bus or train, while residents could apply for an annual windshield sticker that would allow them through.  These “stickered” vehicles would, however, not be allowed to part at the Town Centre during peak periods, thereby “forcing” residents to use buses and reducing the size of parking structure needed.

The Silver Book provides an interesting look at what the Province thought Whistler could become from the early 1970s.  Some of the plans and predictions of the report (such as the linear development) have been realised while others either have never come to fruition (toll gates) or have far exceeded these early plans.

Archiving Your Life in a Digital World

Where and how do you store your personal files and photos?  It’s easy to forget that before the days of cellphone cameras and social media, time and effort were put into printing photographs, labelling them, and putting them into albums.

When I was training to become an archivist, I began to realize that my own photos were scattered across Facebook, my phone, and my laptop, and that if I ever wanted to look back on those memories to share with family or donate them to the archives, it would be one great, big mess.

Personal archiving is the organization and safe preservation of material that relates to the life, memories, and experiences of a person.  Modern personal archiving is often concerned with digital preservation, especially bringing together content from social media and digital devices to ensure the long-term preservation of the memories we store digitally.

Digital files could be stored on many different devices.

It’s hard to know exactly what is going to be of personal or historical importance in the future, and hard to know how to choose what to keep and how to organize it so that we can access it later.  For instance, after actress Vivien Leigh’s death in 1967, her laundry receipts ended up providing insight into how mid-20th century haute couture was preserved and presented in public.  Yet, it’s unlikely that Vivien kept these laundry receipts knowing they would provide historical value later.

While we can’t always know what will be important to keep, we can do our best to keep our core memories and evidence of our impact on the community alive by keeping our media and documents organized, in a safe place.  Based on the Library of Congress’s advice for personal archiving, I’ve provided some steps here that can guide you in preserving you and your family’s digital files:

  1. Locate your files.  Are they on your phone?  On your Google Drive?  On your computer?  On a memory card or USB?  On Facebook?  Decide on one place to compile them.
  2. Choose which files are most important to you and the historical record.  Historical value can often be found in items that document activities, people, places, and events.  Delete duplicates and keep the highest quality versions.
  3. Organize your files chronologically, by subject, or both.  Develop a hierarchical structure of folders for storing the files, and name your files and folders consistently.  Include dates in file and folder names wherever possible.
  4. Preserve your organized files by making copies and storing them in different physical locations (e.g. keep one set of files on your computer, one on an external hard drive, or one on a cloud file-sharing drive, etc.).

If many of your files or photos are not yet in the digital world, consider scanning them.  If you are planning to donate your files to the Whistler Museum & Archives, we are happy to scan any physical photographs you may have and send you copies.

While physical photos can be stored in boxes such as these, digital photos require a different system.

Recently, we have noticed our archival collection is severely lacking in donations from the past 25 years; we believe this may be due to the shift to digital creation with the onset of new technologies.  We would be ecstatic if this article could prompt our community to begin donating old cell phone videos and photos (even if their digital quality is that of a potato nowadays!), or even old Word documents of newsletters from local organizations.  The early days of the internet sparked massive changes in how we create, share, and preserve our stories – this time of change merits preservation.  If you’re able to help us fill the 1995 – 2020 gap in our collection, please email archives@whistlermuseum.org.