Category Archives: Whistler: A Town

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

Before the Fitzsimmons Express

With a new eight-person chair announced to replace the four-person Fitzsimmons (Fitz) Express chairlift (pending approvals) we take a look back at how mountain access from Whistler Village has changed.

The first lift from Whistler Village opened for the 1980/81 season, around the same time the Town Centre opened and lifts on Blackcomb started turning. Prior to this, everyone accessed Whistler Mountain from the area known today as Creekside. When Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain officially opened in January 1966, it had a four-person gondola, the original double Red Chair and two T-Bars.

Whistler Mountain trail map from 1966 or 1967. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Trees were eventually cleared on Whistler Mountain for the aspirationally-named Olympic Run, however skiers who skied down the north side of Whistler Mountain were only met with a garbage dump where the Village now sits and had to catch the bus back to Creekside. Olympic Run generally only opened on weekends when the bus was running, otherwise skiers had to hitchhike back to Creekside.

Janet Love Morrison described being a rebel and skiing the closed run on a school trip. “I remember we went under the rope to ski the Little Olympic Run and we were really cool until we got to the bottom and had absolutely no way to get back to Creekside. Suddenly we were super scared because we knew we had to get back to get to the bus, because we went to school in Port Coquitlam.” Finding no cars or people at the base of the mountain, the grade eight students followed a gravel road to Highway 99 where they were picked up by a tow truck driver. They proceeded to get a dressing down by the driver and then their teachers, a first-hand experience that helped when Janet was writing Radar the Rescue Dog.

The garbage dump at the base of Whistler Mountain, where the Village is today. Whistler Question Collection.

When the lifts from the Village finally went in for the 1980/81 season multiple chairlifts were required to make it to the top. To get to the Roundhouse from Skiers Plaza, skiers first took the Village Chair, which finished slightly higher in elevation than today’s Fitz, and then skied down to Olympic Chair. Olympic Chair is still the original chair from 1980, however it was shortened in 1989 to service strictly the beginner terrain. Originally Olympic Chair met Black Chair at the bottom of Ptarmigan. If you wanted to continue on to the Roundhouse or Peak, Black Chair dropped skiers where the top of Garbanzo is today, then skiers would ski down and take Red or Green Chairs to the top. Four lifts to get to the Roundhouse and they were all slow fixed grip lifts, not the high-speed lifts that service the mountains today. (Olympic Chair, Magic Chair and Franz’s Chair are the only remaining fixed grip chairs in Whistler.)

Before Fitzsimmons Express and the Whistler Express Gondola, skiers could upload on the Village Chair. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Uploading from Whistler Village was simplified in 1988 when the Whistler Express Gondola replaced the four chairlifts, taking skiers and sightseers straight from the Village to the Roundhouse, in a gondola (apparently) designed to hold ten people.

The four-person Fitz that we know and love was built in 1999 and, together with Garbanzo, eliminated the need for the Black Chair. Prior to 1999, the biking on Whistler Mountain was predominately run by private enterprise, notably Eric Wight of Whistler Backroads, who mostly used the Whistler Express Gondola to access terrain. When the Bike Park was taken over by Whistler Blackcomb in 1999 and further developed, Fitz began to be used to access the Bike Park throughout summer, as the sport rapidly grew. These days the Bike Park sees way over 100,000 riders a year, most of whom who access the terrain from Fitz Express.

If Fitz is upgraded next summer it will be the start of a new era, greatly increasing the number of riders and skiers arriving at midstation.

Framing Whistler

Today you are less likely to come across and A-frame in Whistler than you would have been a few decades ago. However, the once widely popular structure can still be spotted throughout Whistler’s older neighbourhoods and found in many photographs of Whistler’s mountain resort past in the Whistler Museum’s archival collections.

While A-frames have historically been used for various purposes around the world, the A-frame did not become widespread in North America until after the Second World War. It then became a popular vacation home for affluent middle class households, especially in the mountains. A-frames were relatively simple to build and were soon available in prefabricated kits. This popularity continued through the 1960s when Whistler Mountain was first being developed as a ski resort, so it is no surprise that A-frames began to appear throughout the area soon after development began.

The Whistler Skiers’ Chapel at the base of Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Some of the A-frames built in Whistler at the time were constructed right at the base of the Whistler Mountain lifts, including the Whistler Skiers’ Chapel, the first interdenominational chapel in Canada. The Whistler Skiers’ Chapel was constructed in 1966 after the first shortened season of skiing on Whistler Mountain. It was inspired by the memories of lift company president Franz Wilhelmsen who recalled small chapels in the ski villages of Norway where he had skied as a child. The lift company donated land near the gondola base and the A-frame design of the Chapel was provided free of charge of Asbjorn Gathe. Like Wilhelmsen, Gathe had been born in Norway. He studied architecture at the Federal Institute of Technology at the University of Zurich and then immigrated to Vancouver in 1951, where he worked as an architect. The Chapel was easily identifiable at the gondola base thanks to both its A-frame structure and its stained glass windows designed by Donald Babcock.

One of the A-frames built by the lift company to house their managers. Wallace Collection.

In 1966, the lift company also built two A-frames at the gondola base to serve as staff housing for its manager and their families (at the time, the Bright and Mathews families). The houses were situated right on the hill and Lynn Mathews, whose husband Dave was operations manager, recalled that their A-frame had seventeen steps up to the deck in the summer but only three in the winter when snow built up around them.

The Burrows’ A-frame on Matterhorn, where the first editions of the Whistler Question were created. Burrows Collection.

A-frames were popular away from the gondola base as well. When Don and Isobel MacLaurin built what at the time was their holiday home in the 1960s, they chose to build an A-frame themselves with help from local residents such as Murray Coates and Ron Mackie and beams from a 1915 school in Squamish that was being torn down. Similarly, when Paul and Jane Burrows moved to Whistler full-time in the 1970s they decided to build an A-frame in Alpine Meadows. Like many of the A-frame homes in Whistler, both these A-frames and the managers’ houses at Whistler Mountain later had extensions added onto them, changing the A-frame shape.

These are just a few of the A-frames pictured in the museum’s collections and while they may no longer look quite like the classic A-frame, some of them are still standing in Whistler today.

For the Love of Pants

Trousers, slacks, britches, pantaloons or jodhpurs. There was a time, relatively recently, when local women were challenging societal expectations when choosing to wear pants.

Many will be familiar with the picture of Whistler’s ‘first lady’, Myrtle Philip, in her chequered pants with a big smile and hands on her hips. The image has been immortalised on the side of the Whistler Museum along with many posters and pamphlets. What may surprise some is how shocking it was at this time for visitors from Vancouver to see a women wearing pants.

When Myrtle first came to Alta Lake, now known as Whistler, in 1911 there was no highway or train line and the journey from Vancouver was a difficult three days. The first day involved catching a steamship from Vancouver to Squamish. In Squamish Myrtle and Alex Philip picked up packhorses and then spent the next two days on foot travelling over rough terrain, climbing around boulders and fallen logs, and weaving in and out of deep gullies. The trail was barely 2 feet wide and seldom used, but women were still expected to traverse it in long, heavy skirts as per the fashion and societal expectations at the time.

Myrtle (right) with guests at Rainbow Lodge. Skirts and dresses were the accepted clothing for women at this time. Myrtle had to make her own pants because you could not buy pants for women in stores. Philip Collection.

As most would understand, hiking, horseback riding and working outside in long skirts is not very practical; however, you could not buy pants for women. Myrtle tried various men’s pants, including overalls, but did not like them. In an oral history from 1971, Myrtle explained the solution – she would make all of her own pants. “I had a pattern and then that’s what I wore all of the time.” For many of the visitors from the city, a woman wearing pants was not a regular sight and was seen as rather scandalous by some.

Famed mountaineer, Phyllis Munday, who lived in North Vancouver during this time, also had to explore her limited clothing options. Summiting over 100 mountains during her career, including many around Whistler, she came up with a solution that ensured she did not face prejudice for wearing pants in the city. In an interview with Olga Ruskin she said, “You were never seen on the street with britches in those days, so we would wear a skirt over our britches. Then when you got to the foot of the mountain or the foot of the trail or wherever you happen to be, you took your skirt off and cast it underneath a log and there it would stay until you came down.”

Phyllis Munday on Franklin Glacier. MONOVA: Archives of North Vancouver, INV 9782.

Thankfully societal expectations have changed in Whistler today, and women are not expected to ski, ride and hike in skirts and bloomers. However, this change was more recent than many people would expect. When the lifts were turning on Whistler Mountain in 1966, 55 years after Myrtle had first visited the valley, Renate Bareham lived near Myrtle on West Side Road. Between 1931 and 1976 the local school opened and closed regularly based on the fluctuating number of residents. For Renate, and many other kids in the valley, it was a long and snowy trek to get to the bus, followed by the bus ride to Squamish or Pemberton for school.

After the one hour hike to the bus, Renate remembers, “At that time, you weren’t allowed to wear pants to school when you were a girl. So we would have to wear our pants over to the bus, then as soon as we got to school we had to change into our dresses or skirts.”

My appreciation goes out to those who challenged and continue to challenge the status quo. Thankfully things have changed, and women are not expected to ride the bike park in long dresses.

Vancouver Girl Guides at the top of Grouse Mountain. Phyllis James (later Munday) is on the far right, still hiking in a long skirt in 1912. MONOVA: Archives of North Vancouver, INV 5655.

Rudi’s Famous Strudel

In Whistler today you have your pick of restaurants catering to all tastes, including many fine dining options. Unsurprisingly, the options were more limited in 1970 when Rudi and Merrilyn Hofmann’s Mountain Holm Steakhouse opened at Nesters. Later known simply as Rudi’s Steakhouse, it was an instant favourite often requiring reservations weeks in advance.

Rudi had trained as a chef in his home country of Germany and got his start in Whistler in 1969, working as the head chef at the Christiana Inn. In an interview with the Whistler Question, Rudi said, “When I was at the Christiana, I quadrupled the turnover. I was just serving different food than they were used to. In those days the general fare in ski areas was hotdogs, hamburgers, chilli.” At the time the Christiana Inn and L’Après were the main restaurants in Whistler. Seeing that there was a market in Whistler for finer dining, Rudi set out to start his own restaurant. He purchased Tony’s Hamburger Heaven, a late night eatery running out of a former Pacific Great Eastern railway tool shed, and the rest is history.

While it may not look like much from the outside, Rudi’s Steakhouse was the venue of choice for a fancy meal. Whistler Question Collection.

With appetisers including escargot, goose liver pate, prawns and scallops (’Coquilles Saint Jacques a la Parisienne’) all for under $6 a dish, flipping through a menu is likely to make anyone long for restaurant prices from the 1986 as their mouth begins to water (and when Rudi first opened in 1970 the prices were even lower). The main dishes include additional information to help diners choose. The 8 oz. Filet Mignon Par Excellence includes the claim, ‘You can cut it with a fork!’.

Nello and Jenny Busdon pose for promotional photos in Rudi’s Steakhouse with owner and chef Rudi Hofmann. Greg Griffith Collection.

With loyal customers returning again and again, Rudi’s became the venue of choice for wining and dining. Franz Wilhelmsen, President and Founder of Garibaldi Lift Co., could often be spotted in the Steakhouse. He did not hold back his praise for Rudi’s, saying, “I don’t think I ever had better food anywhere in the whole world.” It was a regular venue for events including the weekly Rotary Club meetings and birthdays, and they would hold an annual traditional European Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve, featuring goose, dumplings and homemade Christmas pudding.

The glowing reviews were global. According to the August 1972 issue of Ski Magazine, ‘While Whistler’s nightlife would rate three on a one-to-one hundred scale, its feeding potential would rate about 92. The main reason is the Mountain Holm Steakhouse, known as Rudi’s because of its bearded proprietor, a master chef from Germany. Rustic, warm, personal; magnificent beef for $6.’ To cater to the demand, Rudi’s was renovated in 1974 to expand the lower seating area and increase the kitchen space, yet the 60 seat restaurant still filled up.

Rudi’s Steakhouse closing party in 1986, featuring left to right – Don and Isobel MacLaurin, Rudi Hofmann, Franz and Annette Wilhelmsen. Petersen Collection.

It has been argued that Rudi’s was more about dessert than dinner. Former local Bob Penner said in an oral history interview, “Rudi wasn’t famous for steak, he was famous for strudel. That was his undoing. The strudel came off of Rudi’s strudel press on Thursdays, and anyone who knew anything in the Valley was lining up on Thursdays to buy Rudi’s strudel. Rudi believed to have a good strudel you had to be able to read a newspaper through it and if it had any breaks he went into an absolute tirade.”

Despite the rave reviews, Rudi was unsuccessful selling the restaurant in 1977, and instead leased the building. This led to a rotating door of restaurants in the space – Vallee Blanche, Madame’s, Le Chalet. Eventually Rudi’s opened back up in 1984 to the excitement of Whistler locals, however, the changing times were hard on Rudi’s Steakhouse. The new town centre kept tourists in Whistler Village and increased competition, and the downturn in the economy meant fewer people were eating out. Rudi’s closed for good in 1986 but is still remembered fondly throughout the community.

Rudi’s was burnt for fire practice after closing in 1986. The next year Nesters Market opened on the same site. Whistler Question Collection.