Tag Archives: Blackcomb Mountain

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 we 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.

Whistler Museum 2019: Year in Review

This was a highly successful year for the Whistler Museum & Archives Society. The museum continues, with the help of the Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers, to preserve, protect, and interpret Whistler’s history.

Over the course of 2019, the museum welcomed 14,410 exhibit visitors. This is an increase of 1,552 people or 12.6% over 2018. In addition to exhibit visits, WMAS attracted a further 905 people to our building through programs and events. WMAS also held a number of events and programs outside the museum, which attracted approximately 9,486 people. In total, the museum provided services to approximately 2,480 individuals. This marks the busiest year in the museum’s history for the fifth year in a row.

The museum expanded many of its programs in 2019, including the ever-popular Discover Nature program. This program, which ran through July and August in Lost Lake Park, offered a chance for locals and visitors to learn about Whistler’s rich biodiversity through the use of touch tables and face-to-face engagements with our knowledgable and dedicated interpreters. This year we were able to expand the program by an additional day to five days a week, Monday to Friday, and our scheduled nature walks were expanded from June to August, seven days a week.

The touch table at Discover Nature in the summer.

We had another strong year for other events and programs as well, including established favourites like our Valley of Dreams historical walking tours, Speaker Series events, numerous children’s crafts such as Crafts in the Park, our annual LEGO Building Competition, and Mountain Bike Heritage Week.

The museum continued to develop special exhibitions throughout the year. In 2019, these included Finding a Place: A History of Housing in Whistler and Construction of Whistler Village: 1978 – 1984. These temporary exhibits give the museum a chance to explore and present aspects of Whistler’s history that are not part of our permanent exhibit, and to use assets from the museum’s ever-expanding archival and artefact collection.

One of the highlights of 2019 was the Legends of Whistler Speaker Series that was hosted in conjunction with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and the Whistler Public Library. This three-part event was moderated by Mayor Jack Crompton and featured special guests sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village.

Speakers included a cross-section of Whistler’s community, including former mayors, Olympians, former Whistler and Blackcomb managers, artists, librarians, musicians, and developers. Subjects ranged from development of Whistler Mountain during the 1960s, the design of Whistler Village, the life of a professional athlete in Whistler, Whistler’s cultural sector, and the Whistler and Blackcomb merger.

Eldon Beck, the architect of Whistler Village, spoke during one of the events and expressed his thoughts on the events in an email to the museum stating, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I felt an attachment to early Whistler never realized before, very special.”

I would like to take a moment to thank our funders and supporters: the RMOW, the Province of British Columbia, the Community Foundation of Whistler, American Friends of Whistler, Canadian Heritage, and our museum members for their continued support over the years.

I would also like to say a special thank you to everyone who has visited our exhibits, attended our events, read our Pique column, followed us on social media, and otherwise helped spread the word about Whistler’s fascinating people and history. We look forward to seeing you in 2020 (maybe at our first Speaker Series on Wedneday, January 29, where we will screen Pro Patrol, Curtis Petersen’s 1980 short documentary on ski patrol on Whistler Mountain, followed by a talk on changes in ski patrol and mountain safety with Roger McCarthy, Brian Leighton, and Bruce Watt.)

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.

Cameras and Museums: How Photographs Help Preserve History

No one can deny that Whistler is an extremely photogenic place.  With the valley’s majestic mountains, clear blue lakes, and abundant wildlife, it has been a beautiful getaway for lovers of the outdoors for over a century.  Many changes have taken place over those years, and the Whistler Museum and Archives Society (WMAS) is fortunate to have an extensive photo collection that documents most of it.  It is amazing how much the valley has changed over the decades, and the ability to actually see the differences through photographs is a great asset for the preservation of Whistler’s history.

A display of 1980s ski fashion, captured by photographer Greg Griffith.

If any of you follow the Whistler Museum on social media, you know that we have some very interesting photos in our archives.  One of our largest photo collections is the Greg Griffith Collection.  Greg Griffith is an Australian-born photographer who moved to Whistler in 1973 to ski.  He went on to have a successful careers in photography, showcasing Whistler’s natural beauty and documenting over 30 years of Whistler’s history.  Donated to the Whistler Museum in 2009, the collection is made up of thousands of Whistler-related photographs, ranging in subject from skiing and snowboarding competitions, to mountain tours and dramatic scenery.

Another of the Museum’s larger photo collections is the George Benjamin Collection, which was donated in 2010.  George Benjamin is a semi-professional photographer, who moved to Whistler in 1970 after staying in Toad Hall for a ski vacation.  He co-owned a well-known cabin called Tokum Corners until the 1980s and opened a photography store called the Photo Cell in Creekside, following after his family members, who owned a photo-finishing business in Ontario.  He lived in Whistler until the 1980s, and took many impressive photographs of the area during his time here.

George Benjamin captures the scene at Jordan’s Lodge on Nita Lake in the 1970s.

The Museum is also proud to house the Philip Collection, which includes photographs taken during the Rainbow Lodge era.  These photos illustrate the beauty of Whistler while it was still an undeveloped fishing retreat, and offer an interesting comparison between the Whistler Valley of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, and the Whistler of today.

Myrtle and Alex Philip stand outside Rainbow Lodge in the 1930s. Philip Collection.

There are so many other aspects of the WMAS photo collection that we won’t be able to cover in this article, but they all play an enormous part in illustrating the valley’s colourful history.  From early horseback riding trips, to present-day Crankworx festivals, the trusty camera is always there to help preserve our history.  The WMAS collection currently includes over 170,000 photographs, which may seem like a lot, but we are always looking for more.  We are especially eager for photographs related to snowboarding and mountain biking in Whistler, photographs documenting life as mountain staff members, as well as photographs from the 1990s to the present.  With the tenth anniversary of the Olympics coming up, we’re hoping to expand our Olympic photographs collection, too.  Any photographs related to Whistler are extremely useful, though, and if you’re interested in donating to the Museum, please get in contact with us!  You can send an email to our archivist, Alyssa Bruijns, at archives @ whistlermuseum.org.  We would love to be able to add your photos and stories to the larger Whistler narrative.

If you’re interested in viewing part of our photo collection, you can go to www.whistlermuseum.smugmug.com, where you can order prints of any archival photo we have digitized.  You can also follow us on Facebook or Instagram, where we often feature photographs from the WMAS collection.

Snow Expectations

Recently Whistler Blackcomb announced the first snowfall of the season on the mountains and it has many thinking about what the winter will look like this season.  Snow is always a major topic of conversation in Whistler, as we can see by looking back on previous years.

In 1972, Garibaldi’s Whistler News noted that the snowfall in the valley was a record high at 943 cm, and according to their Fall 1972 issue “there was snow covering the mountain tops mid-September and it looks like another year for early skiing.”  The average snowfall in the years leading up to 1972 was recorded at 12.8 m.

Unsurprising for a town built on skiing, snowfall has been the talk of the town in Whistler for decades. Benjamin Collection.

This wasn’t the case for every year, however.  In 1976, the winter ski season was off to a sluggish start.  A lot of rainfall and sunny weather in November caused the snow on the mountain to melt, thereby pushing back the opening of the mountain.  The Whistler Question reported in December that employees were let go or not hired due to the lack of snow, leaving about 25 fewer people working for Whistler Mountain.  This also affected the number of tourists that came in to town and had an impact on the economy.  Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays, but all skiers had to download using the gondola.  In February 1977, the first snow gun was obtained for Whistler Mountain to help combat the lack of snow.

Luckily, the next winter, 1977/78, was “marked with the return of good snowfalls and a good season for the ski school,” as reported by the Whistler Question.

Roger McCarthy gets into some deep snow on the side of Dad’s Run.  Whistler Question Collection, December 1979.

Winter came early again in 1981 as Blackcomb Mountain announced it would be opening a week earlier than planned, while Whistler Mountain remained closed until the scheduled opening on November 26.

El Nino was blamed for the warmest winter of record  in 1992 by then Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe, as reported in the Blackcomb Mountain Staff News.

There was a feeling of déjà-vu in 1995/96, as rain affected the beginning of ski season and workers were laid off.  American Thanksgiving usually marks the beginning of skiing but that year Whistler Mountain’s alpine didn’t have a sufficient base of snow, while Blackcomb was pumping water out of its snow guns and hoping the freezing level would drop enough to make snow.  Blackcomb Mountain opened on the US Thanksgiving weekend, but with only a limited number of lifts and trails.

A Whistler wonderland appeared overnight Sunday, October 17 with the season’s first snow in the valley.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Once again, a slow opening was followed the next year by great snowfalls.  Meteorologist Marilyn Manso in December 1996 said, “by mid-December we’ve had more snow on the ground than at any time since records were kept.”  There was 74 cm of snow on the ground in the valley at this time in December, compared with the previous year of 34 cm.

The first week in December 2001 brought about 1.2 m of snow on the mountains, which allowed for half of Whistler Blackcomb terrain to be open.  This was more than any other ski resort in North America at that time, and allowed for the snow guns to be moved lower on the mountain and provide ski-out access.

Last winter also got off to a slow start, so let’s hope that this season brings great snowfalls.

Legends of Whistler… tell the stories

We are incredibly excited to announce a three part speaker series cohosted with the Whistler Public Library and the RMOW!

Over three days, twelve very special guests will be sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history, including the development of the mountains and the creation of Whistler Village.  Each event is free to attend.

Building Glacier Park

Earlier this month, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) began a rezoning process with the goal of constructing a new six-storey building with 60 units of employee housing to join the seven existing staff housing buildings on the Glacier Lane site.  Consisting of two-bedroom units, each about 40 square metres in size, this proposed housing will be very similar, if a bit newer than, the first four buildings originally built by Blackcomb Ski Enterprise and Canadian Pacific (CP) Hotels in 1988.

The first hint of the project came at the beginning of January 1988, when Blackcomb received permission to convert the administration offices of its old daylodge into temporary employee housing.  To assuage concerns from council that the housing might not remain temporary, Gary Raymond, Blackcomb’s vice-president of finance, mentioned that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, the owners of the then-under-construction Chateau Whistler Resort, would be bringing a joint proposal for permanent employee housing to council in the next few weeks.

References to the “Financial Wizard” in the Blackcomb newsletter usually included a drawing of said wizard. Blabcomb

The proposal was for four buildings, each with 48 two-bedroom units, to be built over two years.  When finished the buildings would house almost 400 people; at the time, Blackcomb had roughly 500 employees and the Chateau was expected to employ about 350.  Due to a severe shortage of housing, the plan changed, and all four buildings were to be constructed over the summer of 1988 in time for employees to arrive in October.

The Blackcomb/CP Hotels Glacier Lane project was not the only employee housing project underway.  That summer projects with the Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS) were also being constructed or proposed at Nordic Court and Eva Lake Road.

An architect’s drawing of the proposed housing. Look familiar? Blabcomb

All of these projects hit some snags over the summer, though the Glacier Lane project may have been the most visible.  The buildings were higher and more visible than expected and Letters to the Editor were published in The Whistler Question referring to the construction as a “massive box” that could be seen from any point in the valley north of the Village.  In July, Mayor Drew Meredith even called the visibility of the project “a worthwhile mistake,” while pointing out that the developers were trying to mitigate the visibility of the buildings through landscaping.

Before the buildings could officially open on September 19, 1988, they first had to be named.  A contest was announced in the Blabcomb newsletter and employees were invited to name both the development as a whole and the individual buildings.  The contest was won by David Small, who proposed to call the development Glacier Park, with each building named for a glacier: Horstman, Overlord, Spearhead and Decker.

The early blueprints for the building. Blabcomb

At the grand opening, Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe recalled his own years spent living in employee housing while working for Whistler Mountain, saying “I remember sleeping on the floor, on tables and in trailers,” including one trailer, known by many as “the ghetto.”  According to Smythe, the new units compared quite favourably to his own experiences, and certainly had a better view.

The first residents began moving in October 1.  They were reportedly a mix of Blackcomb employees, including employees of Alta Lake Foods who provided food services for the mountain, and CP Hotel construction workers.  Most of the CP Hotel employees would not move in until the Chateau Whistler Resort opened in late 1989.

By the end of November, the Blabcomb reported that all units had been filled, with people either already moved in or with rooms committed to incoming employees, and a waiting list had already been started.  They were also able to report that, partly due to his work managing the housing project, Gary Raymond had been awarded one of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce’s first “Business Person of the Year” awards, along with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain.  According to the Blabcomb, the project had been a great success.