Tag Archives: Black Chair

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.

A Different Olympic Dream

Since the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) first dreamed of hosting the Olympics on Whistler Mountain, there have been a lot of plans for developments in the Whistler area, both big and small. Some, such as building lifts or creating the Whistler Village, have been fulfilled, but there are many others that never came to fruition. Most of these, including Norm Patterson’s “Whistler Junction” around Green Lake, GODA’s various early plans for an Olympic village, and Ben Wosk’s proposed $10 million development at the Gondola base, remained concept drawings and scale models. Also on the long list of developments that were never fully developed are the plans the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) had for Olympic Meadows on Whistler Mountain.

In January 1987, WMSC ran a nation-wide ad campaign courting developers. The ad included drawings of Whistler Mountain’s existing lifts, plans for mountain and real estate development, and an architect’s drawing of a large hotel at the Gondola base. When WMSC unveiled their development plans to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) in February, however, their plans centred not on the Gondola base but on Olympic Meadows, an area at the base of the Black Chair (today the top of the Olympic Chair).

The top of the Black Chair and base of Olympic Chair, around the area where Whistler 1000 would have been located. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Early ideas for Olympic Meadows included moving the office and maintenance facilities up from the Gondola base and building hotel rooms and parking, serviced by a 4.1 km road which could eventually be lined with residential development. There were a few different options for hotel developments on the site, ranging from a 340-room “lodge-style hotel” with 500 day parking stalls to two terraced hotel blocks up to nine stories high with a total of 1,200 rooms.

Over the next months, WMSC’s plans for Olympic Meadows were refined and WMSC president Lorne Borgal brought in landscape architect Eldon Beck (which is why he was in town to talk with Kevin Murphy about Village North). By the fall, development plans were referred to as “Whistler 1000” and “Whistler 900.” Whistler 1000 featured lodges, townhouses, some commercial services, tennis courts, and 1,000 stalls of day skier parking at the top of the Village Chair (today’s Olympic Station), which was set to be replaced by a high-speed gondola in the next couple of years. Whistler 900 would be located nearby above Brio with future plans for a chairlift from Whistler 900 to the base of the Orange Chair. Both Whistler 1000 and 900 would be accessed by a winding road off of Panorama Ridge.

The view to the valley that the hotels of Whistler 1000 would have featured. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

WMSC’s plans depended on development rights recognized by the ski area agreement with the province but not included in the RMOW’s official community plan (OCP). The RMOW was in the process of reviewing the OCP but timing was tight. WMSC needed the development rights in place before placing their order for new lifts and ski-related development, which needed to go in by February 1988. The earliest date for possible amendments to the OCP was that January. At one time, there was even talk of Whistler Mountain trying to legally separate from the RMOW, though it was not thought likely.

While WMSC was developing its plans for Olympic Meadows and waiting to hear about amendments to the OCP, their competition Intrawest was presenting big plans for the Benchlands and Blackcomb Mountain.

WMSC came close to getting the amendments they needed in January 1988, when Council began drafting bylaws to amend the OCP, but community concerns about the scale and elevation of the proposed development, as well as the pace of development in Whistler more broadly, meant these amendments were not ultimately approved and the WMSC plans were stalled.

Blackcomb Mountain and the Benchlands experienced massive development that year, but Whistler 1000 and Whistler 900 never did break ground. However, at least one of the WMSC’s plans did materialize: the Village Chair was replaced in 1988 by the Village Express gondola.

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.

This Week in Photos: February 22

1979

The crowds begin to arrive – the Olive Chair loading area on Thursday.

Blizzard! The scene looking down the Green Chair during the snowstorm on Tuesday.

The shed at Mons the day after firefighters were on the scene attempting to put out the blaze.

1980

Election day in the Myrtle Philip School gym.

Two of the many Japanese ski writers who have been visiting Whistler lately – From Skier Magazine in Tokyo (l to r) Photographer ‘Dragon’, Writer ‘Ando’, and Toshi Hamazaki of Whistler.

The new “guard rails” installed to protect the Lift Company office windows from skis.

No diplomatic immunity here – Mons prepares to tow away the Question truck from the lift base.

1981

Students at Myrtle Philip School take a look at cameras through the ages.

Nancy Green, Prime Minister Trudeau and Hugh Smythe spend the day taking in Blackcomb.

The Prime Minister was also taken on a tour of the construction sites of Whistler Village.

An unusually bright and empty view of the bar at Tapley’s.

Whistler Mountain’s Franz Wilhelmsen and Peter Alder watch proudly as Whistler’s Black Chair carries passengers for the first time this season on February 21.

1982

Search and Rescue Squadron 422 from Comox dropped into Whistler last week for a mountain rescue training session.

Stretching, an essential when preparing for a race.

A few Crazy Canucks share a laugh at Dave Murray’s retirement part at Myrtle Philip School.

The first test run of the fire department’s latest addition proved it could be instrumental in putting out high level fires such as the one at Whistler Village Inn January 13.

Long before they started making snow at Olympic Plaza snow piles have provided endless amusement.

A parking attendant’s dream… This giant tow truck pulled into town the other day – and quickly pulled out again, much to the relief of nearby parking violators.

1983

Soaking up the sun (l to r) Rosilyn and Marlin Arneson and Bill Bode of Washington State relax before calling it a day Monday, February 21 after the first really warm one on Whistler Mountain.

Sjaan DiLalla tries out one of the ranges in one of the 29 “studio lofts” in the recently opened Crystal Lodge.

First place team members in the Team Supreme competition. The event, held at Blackcomb February 20, raised $2,400 for the BC Disabled Skiers Association.

Seppo Makinen and Sam Alexander discuss Whistler’s proposed new Zoning Bylaw No. 303 with Assistant Municipal Planner Cress Walker.

Cross-country skiers set off on the Whistler Cross-Country Marathon which was held over a 20km route Sunday, February 20.

1985

Art ’85 was hosted in the gym of Myrtle Philip School this past weekend.

During an introductory press conference Sunday at Crystal Lodge, Todd Brooker (far left) introduces members of the Canadian Men’s Alpine Team: (l to r) Felix Belcyzk, Chris Kent, Paul Boivin, Chris McIver and Jim Kirby.

Canadian blues man Long John Baldry and crew crank it out at The Longhorn Sunday.

Jan Seger, Ski instructor, White Gold resident.