Category Archives: Whistler Blackcomb

Volunteers of 2010: The Weasel Workers

This past month, the Whistler Museum opened a temporary exhibit on the Sea to Sky volunteers of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The exhibit will run through March as Whistler continues to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paralympic Games.  One of the groups included in this exhibit is a group that formed well before the Games ever came to Whistler.

The Weasel Workers formed in the 1970s when Bob Parsons bad his crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.  Most of the early volunteers were parents of Whistler Mountain Ski Club members, but membership grew over the years as Weasels continued to work on the courses for large races on Whistler and began sending volunteers to help build courses for World Cups, World Championships, and Winter Olympics on other mountains.  When the Games were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003, the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team well in advance of the alpine events held on Whistler Mountain.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

During the 2010 Games, the number of Weasel Workers swelled to about 1,500 volunteers.  Volunteers came from across Canada and other nations to join a core group of 400 to 500 volunteers from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky area.  About 300 volunteers worked specifically for the Paralympics, and a couple hundred Weasel Workers volunteered to work for both the Olympics and Paralympics.  Weasel volunteers began their work for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on Whistler Mountain as early as mid-November 2008 and continued to clean the courses well after the Games had left town.

Even during the Games, the Weasels continued to be a family affair.  Bunny Hume, who began volunteering the with Weasels with her husband Dick in the early 1980s when their grandsons began ski racing, volunteered alongside multiple family members.  She handed out and collected race bibs, her son Rick was the Chief of Course for the women’s course, and her grandsons Jeff and Scott worked on the dye crew.  Rick’s wife Lynne also worked as a Weasel during the Paralympics.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

Some of the Weasel Workers who began volunteering as ski club parents even had children competing in the Games.  Long-time Weasel Andrée Janyk, who could often be found working on a course with a smile, saw two of her children, Britt and Mike, race in the Olympics in their hometown.

Karl Ricker, also a long-time dedicated Weasel Worker, was on the mountain trying to prevent people from crossing where the winch-cats were working when he received the news that Maëlle Ricker, his daughter, had won a gold medal in snowboard-cross on Cypress Mountain and become the first Canadian woman to claim an Olympic gold on home soil.  He went down to Vancouver to attend her medal ceremony, but was back at work on the course early the next morning.

Despite rain, wet snow, and warm weather over the first few days of the Games, and the postponement of three races, the Weasel Workers created and maintained courses for the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic alpine races that were seen around the world in 2010, and those who came to Whistler to work with the Weasels became just as much a part of the team as the long-time volunteers.  Patrick Maloney, then the Weasel president, told The Whistler Question that, “Anybody that’s on that track is a Weasel Worker.”  This sentiment was echoed by Weasel Worker Colin Pitt-Taylor, who claimed that, “as soon as you started working on an alpine course, you became a Weasel Worker, whether you like it or not.”

“Ask Me! I’m a Local” and the 2010 Games

It is well established that Whistler residents have a strong history of volunteering, both for major events and more regularly within the community.

Perhaps the largest event put on in Whistler with the help of volunteers was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which required hundreds of volunteers each day.  One specific volunteer program that was in place during the 2010 Games was Ask Me! I’m a Local.

The Ask Me! program was conceived by Whistler resident Janis McKenzie and her visiting friend Dan Perdue over a cup of coffee in January 2009.

The idea was simple: connect friendly, button-wearing locals to visitors who might need some help.  Local residents would sign up to wear an Ask Me! button while in the Whistler Village, and the button would identify them as someone visitors could approach to ask directions of, make recommendations, or even take a photo (though selfies were becoming increasingly popular, front-facing cameras on phones were not as common as they are today).

Ask Me! I’m a Local program creators stand with Sumi, the 2010 Paralympic Games mascot. Photo courtesy of Janis McKenzie.

McKenzie approached the RMOW, which agreed to fund the program, and got to work developing it so it would be in place by 2010.  According to the Ask Me! strategic plan, “[Whistler is] a community that prides itself on being friendly and reaching out to help our visitors in their native tongue.  We do this because we genuinely care and know that the experience our guests have will define our future.”  Unlike official Olympic volunteers with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), this program did not require a set number of shifts often lasting eight to ten hours.  This meant that residents could volunteer and act as ambassadors for Whistler simply by walking through town wearing their button.

To recruit volunteers and raise awareness of the program, a launch party was planned for October 1, 2009.  While McKenzie said they hoped to have 80 to 100 people attend and sign up, over 200 people lined up to attend the party at the GLC.  Those who signed up for a button at the party were entered into a draw prize and were eligible to win a season pass donated by Whistler Blackcomb, who also covered all of the costs for the party.

According to McKenzie, over 600 people had registered for buttons by the time of the Games.  The buttons were available in five languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese), and businesses could also take part by displaying a decal in their window.

Joan Richoz poses proudly with her Ask Me! I’m a Local button during the 2010 Games. Photo courtesy of Claire Johnson.

Though organizers originally thought that few participants would want extra training, over 80 per cent of participants registered for in-person training and over 90 per cent registered to receive a monthly newsletter in order to learn more about Whistler.

The success of the simple grassroots program was recognized in the media and the idea spread, with Vancouver introducing its own version of the program for the Games, and Russian representatives asking about it ahead of their own Games.

Though the Ask Me! buttons can no longer be seen, many of its duties are now carried out by the Village Host program.  McKenzie described the program as “an incredible journey” that exceeded all expectations.  Throughout the Games locals could be found in Whistler proudly wearing their buttons, answering questions, and giving directions to the thousands of visitors and participants of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  The main idea behind the program remains relevant in Whistler today: “It’s the smallest things we do that will make the biggest difference for our guests’ experience.”

Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that he would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

The Snow (or not) of 1976-77

by John Hetherington, WMAS President

November 1976 was dry, with a cold north wind blowing into December. From the time that Whistler Mountain opened for skiing in 1966 through the 1975-76 season, there had always been plenty of snow, with extraordinary snowfall amounts in the 1966-67, 1968-69, 1971-72, and 1973-74 seasons (1973-74 is still stated as the record year).

Despite the stories of Dick Fairhurst, who moved to the Alta Lake area in 1944, most of us living here in the 1970s thought that the big snow years would never end, and so snowmaking had never been considered. Fairhurst claimed that there had been a couple of no-snow winters in the 1950s and that he had built the foundation for Cypress Lodge during a snowless February. 1976-77 came as a severe shock to the rest of us.

Dick Fairhurst also opened the first ski lift in the Whistler valley, a tow rope on Sproatt Mountain, and knew a bit about the area’s winters. Fairhurst Collection.

Very early in the 1976-77 season, there was some snow in the alpine and just enough that skiers had been able to ski to the bottom of the Green Chair. Then it rained and skiers had to hike down the last 100 metres or so in the gravel and mud.

In mid-December, Lift Operations managed to borrow a snow gun from Grouse Mountain and transport it to the bottom of the Green Chair. There used to be a small creek that ran down on skiers’ right of the old Green Chair. The ski patrol put a full case of Submagel, a very potent explosive designed for underwater uses, into the creek near the base of the Green Chair. Everyone was evacuated from the area due to the obvious hazard of raining debris and the explosion created a reservoir in the creek. After a dam was built at the low end, the reservoir could impound enough water to permit snowmaking for 2 to 3 hours each day.

The two Green Chairs can be seen heading up towards the Roundhouse. In early winter 1976-77, this slope would have been almost entirely bare. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

With this limited capability, the packer drivers were able to spread a narrow ribbon of snow that allowed skiers to ski to the base of the Green Chair. Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays. Those who came could ski on the Green Chair and in the T-bar bowl, but had to download on the Red Chair and the gondola. After the holidays, however, there was a warm rain that wiped out the snow on the lower slopes of the Green and Whistler was forced to close for three weeks in January 1977.

While most of the staff on Whistler Mountain had been laid off, a few of us were kept on so the ski area would at least have some core staff when the mountain was able to re-open. Those of us still employed referred to it as Garibaldi Lifts welfare. The lift company opened a soup kitchen so that its laid-off employees wouldn’t starve.

Myrtle Philip and Agnes Harrop ice-boating on a frozen Alta Lake. Philip Collection.

During this time, the weather was mostly clear with a strong temperature inversion. The local lakes were frozen, allowing a perpetual hockey game on Alta Lake, and, after running out of useful things to do, Jamie Tattersfield, the head packer driver, and I built a rather crude iceboat in the maintenance shop. We put it on Alta Lake in front of Tokum Corners and spread the word that anyone could use it as long as they brought it back.

Cheakamus Lake was frozen and clear of snow, so many locals hiked in with their skates on the snowless trail to skate the entire length of Cheakamus Lake. There were a couple of pressure ridges to jump over and the ice was incredibly noisy, constantly pinging and boinging and echoing in the narrow valley.

A small amount of snow came in late January, allowing the mountain to re-open on a limited basis. More snow came later in February, and then the real snow finally came in March. Given the shallow snow pack and early cold temperatures, there was a thick layer of well-developed basal facets, which helped produce some stupendous avalanches later in March.

When Snowboarding Came to Whistler

Looking at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains today, it is hard to imagine there was ever a time when snowboarders weren’t allowed to ride on the mountains.  For over a decade, skiers were all you would find in the Whistler valley, until Blackcomb Mountain became the first of our local mountains to welcome snowboarders in the winter of 1988/89 (Whistler Mountain followed suit the next season).

Blackcomb soon became the freestyle snowboard mountain.  Before the first terrain park was built in 1993, Stu Osbourne, who started working for the mountain in 1990, recalls snowboarders and skiers taking air off of the wind lip on a glacier.  “That’s where I first saw the first photos of Ross Rebagliati and Doug Lungren.  I think he was one of the guys back then that did one of the biggest air ever off the wind lip,” said Osbourne.

Oliver Roy, late 1990s.  Greg Griffith Collection.

Rebagliati began with skiing and was a ski racer with the Grouse Mountain Tyees.  While in high school, a couple of his friends convinced him to try snowboarding.  “I started to snowboard before we were ‘allowed’ to snowboard,” said Rebagliati.  He defined the culture at the time as “underground.”  When snowboarders were finally officially welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain in 1988, he came up from Vancouver with some friends on opening day and was one of the first snowboarders to ride the chairlift on Blackcomb.

American boarder Kevin Delaney takes part in a half-pipe competition held on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1992.

In 1987, when Rebagliati was 16, he had attended the first ever snowboarding camp in Canada.  The camp was led by Craig Kelly, who Rebagliati depicted as the Gretsky of snowboarding.  At the camp, Kelly’s recognition of his talent gave Rebagliati the confidence he needed to pursue the sport seriously, including joining the Burton team.

Snowboarding took off through the 1990s and the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan were the first to include snowboarding.  By then a Whistler local, Ross Rebagliati became the winner of the first Olympic gold medal for snowboarding, beating out the silver medal winner by .02 seconds in the men’s Giant Slalom event.  His win, however, became uncertain when a urine sample returned to him.  He insisted that he only inhaled second hand smoke and didn’t actually smoke at all himself before the competition.

Rebagliati pulled out of World Cup racing not too longer after his Olympic win and didn’t compete in the 2002 Olympics.  He spent time working on media projects, launching his own snowboard, and building a home in Whistler that he described as “the house that snowboarding bought.”

A snowboarder heads down the Saudan Couloir during the Couloir Extreme. Originally strictly a ski race, boarders were admitted when the sport was welcomed on Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Question Collection, 1995.

Over the past three decades, snowboarding has become firmly established as part of the Whistler community and many celebrated snowboarders have trained on both Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains.  The museum, however, is lacking information about the sport and athletes in our collection, perhaps because snowboarding is still thought of as quite a young sport.

If you have any snowboardings stories you’d like to share, please come see us at the museum!  We’re looking for personal accounts, photographs, artefacts, and more to fill the gap in our collection and ensure that the snowboarding history of Whistler is as well documented as the valley’s history of skiing.

Lost on Whistler?

In February 1968, The Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN) published an article entitled “Were 107 Skiers Really Lost on Whistler Mt.?”  The article was meant as a (somewhat belated) response to articles published in Lower Mainland newspapers on December 4, 1967 about an incident that occurred at the Blue Chair on Whistler Mountain.

In 1966, the Blue Chair had become the second chairlift to be installed onWhistler Mountain.  In was located in the same general area that the Harmony Express run today, loading in the same area and carrying skiers up to where today’s Emerald Chair offloads.  According to Lynn Mathews, the Blue Chair was part of a popular circular route.  After riding the gondola and Red Chair, skiers could go up the T-bar, hike over to the back bowl, and ski down to the base of the Blue Chair, which they could take back up to start the circle again.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967 the Blue Chair was shut down for part of the day, and skiers who had expected to take the lift back up were led out from the bottom of the chair via the beginner tail, just over 3 km.

The view from the lineup at the Blue Chair, today the location of the Harmony Chair.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the Blue Chair broke down, “stranding scores of skiers,” but the versions of events presented by those who were “stranded” differed greatly from the lift company.  Those who talked to the paper claimed that 117 skiers were led by four ski patrol volunteers on “a gruelling 6 1/2-hour hike through shoulder deep snow,” with skiers needing rescue after falling off of the single-file trail trampled by the patrollers, finishing long after dark (in December, sometime after 4 pm).

The Sun wrote that the lift company’s response to these claims was to “sneer”.  Jack Bright, then the area manager for Whistler Mountain, reported that it took less than four hours for the group to hike out, using a ski run “which happened to have a bit more fresh snow on it.”  The company handed out free passes to those who had been stranded, but claimed that the number of passes handed out did not necessarily reflect the number stranded, as “Everybody claimed to be stranded so they could get a free ticket.”

Thanks to the colour coded nature of the early Whistler Mountain chairlifts, it’s easy to identify chairs in colour photographs! George Benjamin Collection.

Two months after the incident, the lift company used their publication to clear up lingering questions.

According to Jack Bright in the GWN, high winds and extremely heavy snow caused mechanical difficulties for the Blue Chair, causing the engine to overheat and automatically stop the lift.  The operator announced that it would take from an hour to an hour and a half for the engine to cool off before they could restart.  The auxiliary engine was used to evacuate the chair.  The decision was made to send those waiting in line, accompanied by five experienced patrollers and employees, out along the beginner trail.

Due to the snow, it took longer than expected for the group to make it out.  The trail was marked and, according to Bright, “however irritable people were, there was a general gay harmony throughout the safari.”  This agrees with the memory of Lynn Mathews, who remembered her husband Dave, Whistler Mountain’s operations manager, coming home late and announcing that there were over 100 people lost on the mountain, although she said he told her, “They’re not lost, they’re having too much fun at the moment.”  According to Lynn, Dave claimed the skiers in the group were making snow angels, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time.

No matter what truly happened on the mountain that day, this experience is unlikely to be repeated today as over the past five decades both chairlifts and grooming (as well as on-mountain communications) have advanced.

Whistler Mountain’s Early Operations

As we approach another opening day for Whistler Blackcomb, we’ve been looking back at the early days of operations on Whistler Mountain.  Much of the information we have on these early years comes from oral history interviews, some lift company records, and Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN).

Earlier this year, a volunteer for the museum conducted a series of interviews with none other than Lynn Mathews.  Lynn was the editor, and so much more, of GWN, and she shared a wealth of knowledge about both the paper and her experiences at Whistler.

The Skiers Chapel was still under construction when the Mathews first came to town. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Mathews was born on Staten Island, New York.  She is a journalist and writer by profession, and before moving to Whistler worked for magazines and at Harshe-Rotman & Druck, one of the leading PR firms in New York City.  In the early 1960s, Lynn spent a winter in Quebec, teaching skiing at Gray Rocks Inn.  It was there she met Dave Mathews, who was involved in resort business in the area, and the two were married the following year.  The couple soon moved west to Vancouver, and Dave planned to leave the ski business to work full-time for an irrigation company where he had previously worked summers.  The ski industry, however, would prove hard for the pair to leave behind.

During their first winter in BC, Lynn taught skiing at Grouse Mountain, while also working for various magazines and publications.  The irrigation business was slow in the winter, and so for the season of 1966/67, Dave and Lynn planned to spend their weekends teaching at a new ski area north of Vancouver that was just opening for its first season of full-time operation.

Even by 1970, the Creekside area was a little empty. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Lynn’s first trip to the Whistler Valley in August 1966 didn’t necessarily impress her.  As she put it, “There was nothing here.  There was the gondola, that was there, the daylodge had been built, there were two A-frames on the hillside,” and not too much else.  Due to extensive logging and burning, Lynn said that without snow, the Creekside area “looked like a war zone.  It wasn’t a pretty alpine village at all.”

For about $125, Lynn and Dave rented one of the log cabins at Jordan’s Lodge for the season.  Lynn chose the cabin “that tilted the least,” and the self-described “city girl” prepared for a winter with no electricity, no plumbing, and a wood cookstove.

In the 1970s, this was more likely to be the scene at Jordan’s Lodge. Benjamin Collection.

Lynn recalled that in December, Franz Wilhelmsen, who was acting as a combination of general manager, CEO, and chairman of the board, got very sick with pneumonia, right when Whistler Mountain was heading into its first full season.  Two managers were brought on board, Dave Mathews as operations manager and Jack Bright as mountain manager.  According to Lynn, Dave was responsible for “anything that moved,” and Jack was in charge of ticket sales, administration, image, publicity, and much more.

Lynn worked in the mountain’s office as well.  Though some ski passes were sold at the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices in Vancouver, others were sold at Whistler Mountain and Lynn was in charge of making those passes.  Without any computer systems, she used a polaroid camera and a hand-cranked laminating machine.  Each person got two photos, one for their pass and one for the files, and a lift ticket to go skiing.  At the end of the day they could pick up their pass at the office.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more tales from Lynn and others who have told their stories to the museum.  Have a story about Whistler to contribute to the Museum’s collection?  Please come see us!