Tag Archives: Blackcomb Mountain

Before Personal Locator Beacons and Cell Phones: SPOT the Difference

Personal locator beacons and cell phones have completely changed the face of adventure in only 20 years. If you are prepared and have the right equipment it is possible to be rescued in a matter hours, sometimes less, in an emergency situation. Before satellite technology and cell phones it was a different story.

Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR) formed in 1972 after the tragic avalanche that killed four people on Whistler’s Back Bowl. The subsequent search highlighted the need for search coordination and WSAR was born.

Whistler Search and Rescue on Blackcomb Glacier in 1983. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jennings.

Brad Sills joined shortly after WSAR formed and is now in his 47th year volunteering. He recalled the process of responding to search and rescue calls in the 1970s, which would come via the RCMP in Squamish or Pemberton before Whistler had local dispatch. “The call would come to Dave [Cathers] and he would tear his hair out because almost all of his capacity for mountain rescue were hippies living in the woods without telephones. I remember him getting really mad one night going, ‘What the hell do you think I’m supposed to do? Send you losers smoke signals or something?’ We were all laughing. We taunted him a lot about being uptight and responsible.”

Despite much of the team squatting off-grid, the community was small and the ‘jungle telephone’ quite effective. It helped that everyone could usually be found in the Boot Pub each afternoon.

It also took far longer to get messages out from those in need. When someone was injured others in the party would have to get to the nearest town or house before help could be called. Typically this meant that those missing or injured spent more time in the elements, unfortunately leading to more body recovery than rescue.

In July 1979, one person of a two person climbing group fell down a crevasse on Wedge Mountain. The safe party had to mark the spot and hike to Creekside to alert the RCMP. The Local Search and Rescue who relied on personal equipment at the time, alerted Comox Search and Rescue who sent a helicopter to assist with the rescue. Whistler Question Collection.

Arriving in Whistler as the first lifts were being built, Cliff Jennings went on to become one of the first heli-ski guides in Whistler with Pacific Ski Air when it started the winter of 1967/68. Helicopters did not have the same power that they do today. After picking guests up, Pacific Ski Air would have to slowly make their way up the mountain using the available thermals.

Knowing that they had no way to send for help and that rescue could take a very long time, Cliff Jennings and Glenn Creelman tried walking out from Decker Glacier like they would have to if the helicopter broke down. (This is long before Blackcomb was developed.) Cliff is a lifetime member of WSAR, and, using the same unreliable headlamps that search and rescue used, they traversed for 13 hours, skiing the whole time until they crossed the frozen Green Lake and reached houses to make a phone call.

Pacific Ski Air at the base of Decker Glacier. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jennings.

“We said, ‘Well, if we break down we are in trouble!’ Because we’d never get regular clients out that way. They would have to say, ‘Oh I wonder where they are?’ and go looking for us, for which they would have to get another helicopter because there wasn’t another helicopter in the Valley.”

Cliff Jennings during the traverse out from Decker Glacier. Photo courtesy of Cliff Jennings.

Even the first radios that WSAR had were huge, heavy and basically line of sight. Discussing change, Vincent Massey, also a lifetime member of WSAR said, “Everyone has a cell phone now and if they have reception it is pretty easy to either call or we can ping their phone to find out. And then the people who are going way out there, who are really qualified, have a SAT phone or a SPOT beacon and they can call for help. So things have changed, and now we know what to bring and we know what the scenario is because we can either text them or call them.”

Of course, it is still imperative that everyone travels prepared and knows how to use their equipment.

Dining on the Mile High Mountain

The smell of fresh doughnuts, french fries made from scratch, and fine dining on the mountain top. Baked goods, including those giant cookies, sandwiches and hot food worth freezing for; Blackcomb Mountain took on-mountain dining in the 1980s and stepped it up a notch.

When they opened in 1980, Blackcomb had a real focus on hospitality, making guests comfortable to encourage return visits. Before Merlin’s or Crystal or Glacier Lodge, you may remember dining at the cafeteria at Base 2, the original base of Blackcomb, or the Rendezvous Lodge.

The original daylodge on Blackcomb was located in the area now known as Base 2. Whistler Question Collection.

The Parsons family were the first concessionaires on Blackcomb, opening these venues with the opening of the new mountain. Chris Leighton (née Parsons), her brother Steve, and their mum Lee were the brains and brawn behind the impressive operation. The Parsons family had the food business in their blood. In 1929, Chris’ grandfather had opened Jimmy’s Lunch at the PNE, which is still run by the family to this day. Christine’s father, Bob Parsons, also had a food stall that travelled the carnival circuit every year from May to October. He would be on the road all summer, then could spend the winter in the mountains, skiing with family and volunteering with Whistler Mountain Ski Club. Sadly Bob passed away in 1979, one year before his family opened the food services on Blackcomb.

The top of Blackcomb looked a little different when Rendezvous Lodge first opened. Whistler Question Collection.

When the cafeteria and Rendezvous opened, the cafeteria had a large preparation space and much of the food was made at the base and then transported up the mountain either by snowcat or by foot based on the amount of snow at the base. Unfortunately for Blackcomb, the first year of operation was a terrible snow year. There were three lifts to get up the mountain and they did not line up exactly, so food and supplies had to be skied from one lift to the next until they reached the snowcat. Inevitably, food would spill along the way.

Blackcomb hospitality staff. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Once there was enough snow, success was still not a given. Visitor numbers would come in at 11am and when there was not a single guest on the mountain they closed for the day.

According to Chris, the direction from Aspen Ski Company and Huge Smythe were, “’We don’t want to be like Whistler. We want to be better.’ Hugh would come through everyday and make sure the music wasn’t too loud and that it was expected that we were going to be bigger and better.”

Customer service training for Blackcomb staff. Whistler Question Collection.

When Blackcomb opened there were caretakers that lived at the top who were responsible for starting the doughnuts and fresh baking so wonderful smells welcomed the guests. The caretakers also put soups and chilli on to heat because regular staff could only upload 30 minutes before the mountain opened to the public.

While it is common to find vegetarian options on most menus today, in the 1980s it was quite unusual to have the choice of vegetarian or beef chilli which Blackcomb offered. Food was served on real crockery with real cutlery. They even flew a ‘fry guy’ over from England to train everyone in how to make french fries from scratch using a chipper.

Blackcomb food service staff, May 1983. Whistler Question Collection.

The food up Blackcomb during the Parsons’ reign is still raved about today. They went on to open Christine’s Restaurant, fine dining on top of the mountain named after Chris herself (much to her chagrin; Chris thought Wildflower or Lupin were better names but Hugh Smythe was adamant). Horstman Hut, Crystal Hut and Merlin’s were also opened during their time as concessionaires. After 10 years, and growing the staff from a daily requirement of around 10 to 100, the Parsons decided it was time for the next adventure and Blackcomb took over.

Some local faces enjoying Christine’s in the 1980s. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Images of Blackcomb

If you follow the Whistler Museum on social media, you will probably have noticed more images of Blackcomb Mountain appearing over the past year or so as we’ve been working to digitize the Blackcomb Mountain Collection. We’ve been sharing some of the more eye-catching and informative images that we’ve come across while digitizing. Next week we’ll be sharing even more of the Blackcomb Mountain Collection images in the hope of adding more information to the images.

The Blackcomb Mountain Collection includes over 22,000 promotional and candid images taken by over 30 photographers between 1980s and 1998. This period covers the mountain’s opening and its years in competition with neighbouring Whistler Mountain up until the two merged under Intrawest. Some of the photographers are well known for their photography work in the area, including Greg Griffith, Chris Speedie (of Toad Hall fame), and Paul Morrison, while others are perhaps better known for their work on Blackcomb Mountain, such as Hugh Smythe (then the President of Blackcomb Mountain Ski Enterprise) and David Perry (then in Blackcomb Mountain’s marketing department).

The Suitcase Race of 1988 is just one event pictured in the collection. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Greg Griffith.

The content included in the Blackcomb Mountain Collection varies widely. There are, of course, a lot of images of people skiing and, in the later years, snowboarding. There are also many images that were created to promote Blackcomb Mountain and so show people (often hired models) happily wearing ski gear in the sun, sharing a meal at one of Blackcomb’s restaurants, or eating giant cookies outside in the snow. There are also images of mountain facilities, retail stores, and a lot of Blackcomb branded clothing.

While we do not yet have a name for the woman pictured, many people shared their fond memories of the giant cookies when this photo was posted online. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, David Stoecklein, 1988.

Not all of the images, however, are quite so obviously stages and instead seem to be promoting Blackcomb Mountain simply by capturing what was happening on and around the mountain. These images include many events that were hosted on Blackcomb Mountain, such as Freestyle World Cups, Kids Kamp events, Can Am bike races, and the well-remembered celebrity Suitcase Races. There are also images of people paragliding with Parawest Paragliding, the company that Janet and Joris Moschard operated off of Blackcomb Mountain in the early 1990s, and street entertainers organized by the Whistler Resort Association drawing crowds both at the base of Blackcomb Mountain and throughout the Whistler Village.

Amongst all of these images, there are also a few series of images of Blackcomb staff and staff events from the early 1990s. These are the images to which we are hoping to add more information (specifically names and possibly job titles) at our next Naming Night at the Museum.

Just one of the photographs whose subjects got named at our first Naming Night back in 2018. Photo: Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

If you haven’t been to a Naming Night before, the format is pretty simply. At 6 pm on Thursday, September 22, we’ll be posting about 100 images around the museum that we need more information about, including the series of Blackcomb staff. Everyone is welcome to come help us fill in the blanks, whether you recognize a face, a place, or an event, by writing the information on a post-it and sticking it to the image (paper and pens will be provided). This information will then be added to the image’s entry in our database, making it much more likely that the image will be included when someone searches for a specific person, place or event in our database or online galleries. We’ve also had hundreds of names added to our images by people across the world since moving Names Night online in 2020, so, if you’re not able to make it the museum, we will also be posting the images on our Facebook page on Friday, September 23. Whether in person or virtually, we hope to see you there!

Whistler at 22% Interest – Part 2

Find Part 1 here.

When the financial crisis of the 1980s hit Whistler even the prime real estate at the base of both mountains did not make it through unscathed. Dick Gibbons and Jack Cram were partners in Fitzsimmons Condominiums and Stoney’s Restaurant, where La Bocca is today. With a completed Whistler development under their belts, they were approached by Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) about potentially purchasing the unfinished project where the Carleton Lodge now stands.

The base of Whistler Mountain in 1981 showing the Carleton Lodge under construction. The Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside Hotel can be seen on the right. The base of the mountain looks a bit different today! Arv Pellegrin Collection.

At the time the foundation was partially complete and it was anticipated that this building would be a day lodge and gateway for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, however WVLC’s finances were dire and there was not enough money to finish the project. Dick recalls a conversation with Neil Griggs, President of the WVLC “I don’t want to exaggerate this, he literally begged us to finish the Carleton Lodge. I seem to recall he had tears in his eyes.”

Together with additional partners, they negotiated a deal wherein they agreed to finish the project on the condition that if they were unable to sell the 32 condominium units for a certain price the development permit charges would be refunded. Throughout the build the architect, building contractor, and many partners felt the financial strain. By the end of the project, Dick Gibbons and Ken Mahon were the only two left to finance and run the show.

Dick Gibbons and Gilbert Konqui in 1981. It was all hands on deck to get the Carleton Lodge and The Longhorn completed. Whistler Question Collection.

When the Carleton Lodge was finally completed in November 1982, few residential units sold and Dick Gibbons ended up running The Longhorn because nobody else would buy it. The unsold residential units were transferred to the people involved in the development according to their investments, and development permit charges were refunded as initially agreed after the court got involved.

When Dick Gibbons was asked how he was able to balance his finances while many in Whistler could not, he said, “Being a little more risk adverse than some others might be was good for me at times and bad for me at other times because you miss opportunities. I sold quite a bit of real estate when the market had its peak in Vancouver because I thought it pretty much couldn’t go any higher.” Obviously real estate in Vancouver did eventually increase, but selling these real estate investments left Dick in a more comfortable position when interest rates skyrocketed, although it was still a difficult period.

Signs for The Longhorn and Nasty Jack’s can be seen while the Carleton Lodge is still under construction in 1982. Arv Pellegrin Collection.

Interest rates had an impact throughout all of the Whistler community. Bruce Watt, who had been a patroller since 1974, decided his family needed better financial security which led to him getting into real estate, a career he has loved and where you will still find him today. On the other hand, the ugly unfinished Village led realtor Drew Meredith to make “the mistake of running for Mayor in 1986” (his words, not mine) where he served for two terms.

While similar circumstances led to very different decisions, a consistent sentiment when talking to long-time locals about this time is that they would not want to do it again. The Village was started just in time, a year later and it may never have happened.