Tag Archives: archival photographs

Getting into Gear: Have Bike, Will Ride

Like much of the Whistler community, we have the Whistler Mountain Bike Park on our minds. When talking about the history of the bike park we often hear that mountain bike design and rider ability had to catch up before the bike park could take off. Thanks to generous funding from 100 Women of Whistler, and the local community who have been generous with their time, we have heard some great reflections on that recently through oral histories.

An unidentified rider heads down Blackcomb Mountain in the late 1980s or early 1990s, cut-off jeans the only armour required. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Not interested in road biking, Jim Kennedy, preferably Jimbo, was inspired to buy a mountain bike after watching the ET movie where they ride through the forest. Purchasing one of the first bikes when Doris Burma opened the door to Summit Cycles in 1983, Jim was the proud new owner of a $500 Nishiki Bushwacker. Not everyone was thrilled with his purchase, however. Mountain biker riders regularly copped abuse in the Village in regards to their choice of transport, as expletive laced “get a real bike” rang out.

In the mid-1980s, long before the bike park opened, Jimbo and friends were taking their bikes up the gondola to mid-station to ride down as part of a stag party. Luckily for them, a friend was working at mid-station, and with much encouragement let them stay on until the top of the mountain. A group filled with many former downhill racers, the ride was fast, wild and they didn’t see a single other person. Starting on snow and then following Jolly Green Giant, Jimbo remembers, “We were on these bikes, just handbrakes, no shocks or anything like that. By the time you got down your hands were just seized.” Additionally the rim brakes could get so hot they would burn or cause the tires to blow. So to ride more comfortably the bike technology had to catch up.

A few years later, the Kamikaze Descent down from the top of Blackcomb as part of Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge in 1989 followed the 15 km service road down the mountain, still no features involved. When Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures started to offer commercial downhill tours on Whistler Mountain many of the trails ridden were still the gravel access roads dotting the mountain, although Eric Wight and other passionate individuals had started to build some mountain bike specific trails across the mountains.  

Mountain bike riders cruising down Blackcomb. The marketing photos for on-mountain riding adventures have also changed in the last 30 years. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

The opening day of the bike park in 1996 saw 500 keen riders take to the lifts. Then when Intrawest took over Whistler Blackcomb in 1998 they were convinced, with much lobbying, to further invest in the bike park. However rider ability and gear still had some catching up to do. After the first staff demo day an employee from Guest Relations remarked, “After trying the trails I couldn’t believe some of the people who had been getting on the lifts, even the greens are much harder than we were led to believe. We warn people that they need enclosed, appropriate footwear and I’ve seen people in slip-on flats go up, completely unprepared for what they are about to do.” Today it is recommended that every rider has a full face helmet, gloves, armour and a full suspension downhill bike.  

Some things change while others stay the same. A commonly heard adage in the 1990s was “You can tell if someone is a Whistler local because their bike is worth more than their car.” In many cases this still rings true today.

You wouldn’t want to crash in these outfits. Part of the Whistler Question Collection from 1992 this photo was captioned ‘All the nudes that’s fit to print: Whistler’s newest acapella group bares their wares.’ We’ve seen enough, but we want to know more. Whistler Question Collection.

Making Mountain Bikes and a Mountain Town

From the 1960s to the 1980s Whistler really was a one season resort. Outside of the peak winter season many businesses were shuttered because there were not enough people to turn a profit throughout the summer months. During the 1980s investments went into golf courses, tennis courts and lakeside parks to increase summer visitation. Certainly forty years ago, as Whistler village was being constructed, nobody thought the turning point for Whistler becoming a four-season destination resort would come from running the lifts in the summer so people could ride down the mountain at astonishing speeds.

In the 1980s, technical displays of riding were held in Whistler village to help advertise the fledgling sport. This event was part of Labatt’s Can Am Challenge in 1989 which also included Cross-country, Dual Slalom, Uphill Climb, and Downhill Kamikaze race events, and the World Mountain Bike Polo Championship. Compare the bike in the photo to those commonly seen in the bike park today. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

That started to change in the late 1980s. According to a letter to village information in the summer of 1987, Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures was in their third season of running commercial mountain bike tours in Whistler. The language clearly shows that the understanding of mountain biking was still limited for many people. “A couple of hours on a bike tour will open your eyes to the sport of mountain biking and show you the hidden beauty of this 4-season resort. Unlike conventional 12-speed road bikes, 15-speed all-terrain mountain bikes have knobby tires, upright handle bars, and a strong sturdy frame. This allows one to travel with power and finesse through forested trails and groomed gravel paths, typically found on Whistler’s backroads.” At this time, the daily rental rate for a mountain bike was $14.

The Uphill Climb during Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge. Many athletes participated in all events.

Riding the hundreds of kilometres of incredible bike trails around Whistler today on my 1998 Rocky Mountain Spice I can’t help but notice that mountain bike design has also changed. When my bike was released it dominated the trails. Now the tires that seemed wide at the time feel very small compared to those around me. When I was over-eager a month ago and hit Lost Lake trails in the snow, those with tires nearly twice the width of mine managed many of the uphill sections as I slid every direction but forward even on the flats.

Dual Slalom during Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge in 1989.

Bikes have certainly changed over the years. While you could get custom-built mountain bikes earlier, in 1981 the Specialized Stumpjumper was one of the first mass-produced and mass-marketed mountain bikes. With no suspension and cantilever brakes, an early Stumpjumper can be seen in the Whistler Museum. Much of the progression of technology can be highlighted in this one bike. Still manufactured today, but with 40 additional years of competition and innovation the current Stumpjumper comes with full suspension, disc brakes so you can stop when wet, and the tires are larger in width and diameter. The frame is popular in both carbon fibre and alloy. Similar progression can be seen in mountain bikes generally.

Today in Whistler we are spoilt for choice when shopping for mountain bikes, with many of the best quality and innovative bikes designed and constructed in our own backyard. This month the Whistler Museum Speaker Series brings you conversations with Mike Truelove, the mastermind who constructed the OG bike for Chromag and has gone on make thousands of frames. Join us on Friday the 27th of May at 7pm, tickets are available now for $10 or $5 for museum members.

The Downhill Kamikaze followed Blackcomb’s 15km service road. This race was saved for the end of the Can-Am Challenge, but it was so foggy that spectators could only see the racers right in front of them.

The Canada Jay: Good company for men in lonely places

While it is easy to point out the changes to Whistler throughout time, one thing that has remained constant on the mountains is the friendly birds up the top. It is common to hear exclamations of delight in the lift lines of Harmony, Symphony or 7th Heaven as Canada Jays fly from ski pole to helmet, looking for an easy lunch.

The Canada Jay, seen here on Whistler Mountain around 1969, has captured hearts throughout time. Many would agree with the Canadian Wildlife Service, “Without the Gray Jay with its soft wingbeats, its sudden appearances out of the dark green backdrop, the austere northern forests would lose much enchantment and character.” Cliff Fenner Collection.

The Hinterland Who’s Who published by the Canadian Wildlife Service in 1973 phrases it beautifully, “Among birds, the Gray Jay has intelligence and graces that set it apart. We, who are not accustomed to being approached by any wild creature without fear and anger, are charmed by its easy audacity and prompt to forgive its sins.”

Before lift lines and backcountry campgrounds were the places to be, the Canada Jay would join lumber camps, hunters and farmers waiting to “gorge upon warm entrails” of whatever meat was being prepared for dinner. When humans are not butchering the food, Canada Jays can do it themselves, catching small mammals, birds, amphibians and insects, and chasing birds from their nests to get the eggs. They are omnivorous and will also feed on berries, needles and buds from trees.

To survive alpine winters the Canada Jay caches food when it is abundant. The food is covered in saliva in the mouth and then the sticky saliva balls are stored in trees for later. One study found that a single Canada Jay can store and retrieve thousands of pieces of food annually. However, it is suggested that a warming climate especially during fall may cause these perishable food stores to spoil, threatening the reproduction of the Canada Jay. One study specifically found that a higher number of freeze-thaw events in fall correlated to fewer and weaker offspring as there was not enough food to both survive and reproduce.

The Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) was officially recognised as the Gray Jay between 1957 and 2018, and is also commonly called the Whisky Jack. Depending on ones affection for the sneaky birds they may be known as ‘camp robber’, ‘venison hawk’ or ‘grease bird’, alluding to the jay’s fondness for meat and petty thievery. To prevent confusion stemming from multiple common names, scientific binomial names assign each species a unique two word identifier so they can be recognised globally. The first word being the genus name (Perisoreus) and the second is the species name (canadensis).

The Canada Jay, still capturing hearts in 2022.

Until recently it was thought that birds could only change their feather colour when they moult. Adding to confusion while classifying and identifying this species, the Canada Jay appears to be an exception to this rule, becoming browner throughout the year until they moult back to a fresh grey coat in May/June. It also appears that preserved specimens may continue to lose their grey colour, becoming browner throughout time in museum collections. This colour change tricked taxonomists into originally identifying Canada Jays as multiple species.

The 1941 Field Guide to Western Birds in the museum library contains separate descriptions of the Canada Jay (Perisoreus canadensis) and Oregon Jay (Perisoreus obscurus). With advances in identification and classification, including DNA technology, we now know they are a single species. Luckily Margaret Mackenzie, the owner of the field guide, had ticked them both off as identified anyway.

Regardless of what you call them, the love for these birds is widespread. “Trusting and easily tamed, the Gray Jay is good company for men in lonely places.” They just do not write governmental scientific publications like they used to.

Whistler Mountain’s First Ski Patrol

We all know that ski patrol is vital to a safe and functioning ski resort. The first people on the mountain and the last to leave, ski patrollers ensure the terrain is safe before anyone else can access the runs and regularly take risks to save lives. Originally run entirely by volunteers, First Aid Ski Patrol on Whistler started with 12 people in 1965, before construction of the lifts had even been completed. There were over 80 active volunteers at its peak. With Whistler Mountain growing rapidly professional ski patrollers were brought in, and First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers continued to support professional patrol until Blackcomb opened in 1980.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during chairlift evacuation practice in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Tony Lyttle was the head of the First Aid Ski Patrol from 1965 to 1971. According to Lyttle, “In 1965, when the Mountain opened, we were all staying in trailers along with the rest of the staff of Whistler. As Whistler got more and more paid staff, there was less and less room for the patrol to stay. So that’s when we eventually got moved to the floor of the cafeteria, and that wasn’t very good because they started cooking at about 3 am or earlier. So people would never get any sleep.”

On top of sleeping in the cafeteria, everything that a patroller needed was self-funded, relying on donations, fundraising and the generosity of the patrollers themselves, including the construction of the patrol clubhouse. In 1972, there was a raffle to raise money for portable two-way radios which revolutionised ski patrol practices. Before this they used the ‘bump system’ where patrollers would rotate between skiing a lap and waiting at the top of a lift so someone could always be found in an emergency. It also meant waiting long periods out in the elements, and could be bitterly cold in the days before Gore-Tex.

Along with the volunteer patrollers, there was a rotation of ten doctors who could administer pain relief and assist with diagnosis, sutures and dislocated shoulders. Flags were raised to get a doctors attention when additional medical support was required. There was no medical centre, only a small First Aid Room. Without ambulances people mostly went home injured or travelled to Squamish or Vancouver via private vehicle. There was a helicopter landing pad by the gravel parking lot, but only the most serious head or back injuries were flown out via helicopter for further treatment.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during training in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Washouts and rockslides regularly closed the road to Whistler. Lyttle remembers once loading dozens of injured skiers onto the train to Vancouver on Sunday night after the road was closed all weekend. “There were people loaded in that train on every seat, on the floor, down the aisles, all their luggage was piled high in the racks and then we had two freight-type cabins where we piled all the patients. All the stretchers were one on top of each other on racks. It was unbelievable and people were being sick and we were trying to give hypodermic needles, painkillers in the semi-dark with flashlights. It was like a movie. Then when we arrived in Vancouver, every ambulance in the city was at the North Vancouver station with all these red lights flashing and police cars.”

Recognised as some of the most capable patrollers in North America while paid not a dime, volunteer First Aid Ski Patrol was responsible for risk management, marking runs, trail maintenance, lift evacuations, finding lost skiers and First Aid, and they regularly had to help dig out the lifts after a big snow. However, as many fondly remember, the parties were legendary and the powder never got skied out!