Tag Archives: Backroads Whistler

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.

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.

Talking Shop: Whistler’s Early Mountain Bike Shops

Not only do we have a trail-rich valley to call home in Whistler, but we are also spoiled with choice when it comes to bike shops.  This wasn’t always the case.

When mountain bikes first hit the logging roads in the valley in the early 1980s, most riders had to head to Vancouver for any mountain-bike-specific parts and maintenance, according to one or our oral history interviews with local mountain bike pioneer Steve Anderson.

Mountain biking steadily became more popular in Whistler from the 1980s but at the beginning there were few shops dedicated to the sport.  Whistler Question Collection.

A couple of shops were starting to pop up around the Whistler Village at that time.  In 1983 Dores Burma and her partner Bruce Randall operated a small bike shop, Summit Cycles, out of a trailer-looking building right above the commercial loading zone at the Delta Mountain Inn (today known as the Hilton), the same space that operated as Sigge’s Sports in the winter.  Dores was passionate about mountain bikes and famed for her Cheakamus Challenge precursor race called “See Colours & Puke,” a wild mountain bike race reportedly meant to be completed on mushrooms.  At some point in the 1980s Jim McConkey’s ski shop also began selling bikes in the summer months.

In the autumn of 1985 Backroads Whistler owner Eric Wight opened a bike shop  in the basement of Creekside’s Southside Diner.  A short time later, the shop moved to the first floor of a house in Mons.

The new location was in the centre of the local mountain bike scene at the time, not far from new trails in Emerald and Lost Lake.  The shop sold, fixed, and rented mountain bikes, even building a small trials track outside their door.  Eric admits the shops didn’t make much money in the early days, as most of the clientele were locals who could only afford parts using “local deals.”  Big things were to come, however.

Whistler began hosting bike races in the early 1980s, creating even more demand for maintenance and shops.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 1989 Eric’s shop moved to Whistler Village, finding a spot in the base of the Delta.  The location was off the radar for visitors, however, and the clientele was still all locals.  The shop finally surfaced on the Village Stroll in the spot where Jim McConkey had sold bikes (currently Showcase Snowboards) around the time Backroads began working with Whistler Mountain to begin mountain bike tours down the mountain.  According to Eric, the new shop had a Santa Fe theme, a mechanic shop in the back, rentals and tours, and plenty of snazzy lycra on sale out front.

As mountain biking continued gaining traction the 1990s saw bike shops that are still kicking it today start up shop.

In 1994 John Inglis and Peter Colapinto opened the Whistler Bike Co., also in the underground portion of the Delta, for the summer months.  In 1995 they brought onboard Giant Bicycles and they eventually expanded to Pemberton, the Village Gate location, and, most recently, their Marketplace location to accommodate a growing population of bikers in town.

Molson’s Whistler Bike Race passes through the Whistler Village, where some of the earlier bike shops in town can still be found today.  Whistler Question Collection.

Bike Co. is currently the oldest independent bike shop in town, followed closely by Evolution, which was opened by Jenine Bourbonnais in 1995.  Many more mountain bike shops have opened up as Whistler has become the mountain bike mecca it is today: Summit Sports, Fanatyk Co., Garbanzo Bike & Bean, Coastal Culture Sports, Arbutus Routes, Whistler Village Sports, The Fix, Comor Sports, Fineline, Gateway Bikes – the list is long and continues to grow.  Needless to say, Whistler’s mountain bikers (and their bikes) are now very well serviced.

This week we’ve been celebrating Whistler’s mountain biking history with the museum’s 4th annual Mountain Bike Heritage Week.  You can find a full list of events here and join us for our final event on Wednesday featuring Chris Allen of North Shore Billet and Steve Mathews of Vorsprung.