Tag Archives: Blackcomb Mountain

Hot Dogging and the Evolution of Freestyle Skiing

People were flying through the air on skis long before the Wright Brothers took to the sky. However, freestyle skiing, or ‘hot dogging’ as it was once known, really took off in the 1970s. With few rules, the aim of hot dogging was to go down the slope in the most spectacular way possible.

A competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. When Whistler hosted a similar championship in 1973 it was called the Labatt’s National Aerial and Hot Dog Championships. Whistler Question Collection.

Looking back at the evolution of freestyle skiing can feel like reading a different language. Even avid freestyle skiers today may not be familiar with the popular tricks from the 1970s such as the Mule Kick, Back Scratcher or the Leg Breaker, however you may be able to visualise the movement from the name. Other tricks were named after the first person to complete or popularise a manoeuvre, such as the Daigle Banger, named after Canadian ski legend Michel Daigle who lived in Whistler and worked as a ski patroller and freestyle ski instructor. The Daigle Banger was a popular ski ballet move that involved a front flip and rotation with one hand planted on the snow.

In the 1960s, skiing followed a rigid structure with specific ideas about how a person ‘should’ ski, and ski racing was the sole competitive focus. Freestyle skiing was born out of rebellion against the ‘rules’ of skiing. While freestyle skiing was not always accepted by the competitive sporting bodies, it quickly became popular with spectators watching as the competitors put on a great show, combining speed, strength and imagination. In early competitions, it could be difficult to tell if a person was somersaulting down the hill on purpose, but initially it did not really matter. The scoring of very early hot dog competitions was largely based off of crowd reaction, and the cheering could be loudest after an entertaining crash.

Freestyle skiing was recognised by the International Ski Federation (FIS) in 1979 and the judges at the Freestyle World Cup were looking for a lot more than audience reaction. Made up of three disciplines, a competitor participated in moguls, aerials and ski ballet (also known as acroski) to become the overall Freestyle World Champion. While you have likely watched aerial and mogul competitions more recently, ski ballet fell out of favour in the early 1990s and never became an official Olympic sport.

A ski ballet competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. As well as dance like steps, ski ballet included jumps, handstands, and balancing on poles (sometimes upside down) requiring strength and balance. Whistler Question Collection.

Ski Canada Magazine from Spring 1980 explained what spectators should expect when watching ski ballet. “The ballet competition is run on a smooth intermediate slope, each competitor performing a run made up of dance-like steps, spins and turns mixed with leaps and stunts. The degree of difficultly of the skier’s run is a major factor in his eventual score. His style, control, innovation as well as the fluidity of the routine count for most of the skier’s total score. Judges look for good choreography and interpretation of the music and well-constructed combinations of the basic manoeuvres. Often, the simplest manoeuvres are also the most difficult to execute well.”

Freestyle skiing has seen dramatic changes since the days of hot dogging thanks to athletes constantly pushing the boundaries of the sport, as well as advances in equipment. Recently the Whistler Museum was lucky to host a Speaker Series with local freestyle ski legends – three time Freestyle World Champion Stephanie Sloan, and ‘Godfather of freeskiing’ Mike Douglas.

Snowboard Park – No Skiers Allowed!

Blackcomb Mountain opened for snowboarders in the 87/88 season. While it would take Whistler another year to start embracing snowboard culture, Blackcomb was generally supportive of the ‘knuckle-draggers’ thanks to the persistence and passion of a few snowboarders on staff and in the community. Additionally, Hugh Smythe could see the strategic benefits of welcoming a new group of riders.

Before terrain parks were a common feature of ski resorts, snowboarders would travel from all around Canada and the world to take advantage of the many natural features of Blackcomb, perfect for sending big air and pushing the boundaries of the new sport. The natural quarterpipe and wind lip on Blackcomb featured in many publications and films, including the cover of Transworld SNOWboarding with Doug Lundgren. Before the official park, groups would also build their own kickers and crude halfpipes on the mountain. This sometimes involved trying to avoid the watchful eye of ski patrol.

The natural features of Blackcomb attracted snowboarders from around Canada and the world. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Sean Sullivan 1991.

Stu Osborne was instrumental to the snowboarding scene on Blackcomb. Stu started as an instructor and went on to become Snowboard Coordinator and then Terrain Park Supervisor, founding the first Blackcomb management-sanctioned halfpipe and snowboard park. While the Kokanee Snowboard Park officially appeared on the Blackcomb trail map in the 94/95 winter season, the first halfpipe and park launched earlier.

There was still a mentality of skiers versus snowboarders at this time and despite receiving approval to create the initial halfpipe, accessing the resources from the Blackcomb Operations team to build the park was a different story. To get around the lack of resources, Snow Ejectors, a private snow removal company, became a sponsor, providing custom-painted shovels for the build. The early halfpipe was created using these shovels and a little cat time.

During a competition featuring many of the world’s best riders, the Snow Ejectors’ hand-painted banner was larger than those of any of the other sponsors, much to the chagrin of Blackcomb management. The next year, more equipment and support was provided by Blackcomb Mountain. Before the opening of the Kokanee Snowboard Park, Blackcomb became one of the first resorts in Canada to get a pipe dragon, specialised grooming equipment that could carve out a uniform halfpipe far more easily than hand-digging.

A snowboarder takes flight near the Kokanee Snowboard Park. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

In the early days, ‘Blackcomb Snowboard Park’ was exactly that, a park for snowboarders. Rules had changed (in this one niche area on the mountain) and there was a big sign that specified ‘no skiers allowed’. Skiers would wait outside the snowboard park in groups, and bomb the park together in a train so they were harder to catch. It wasn’t long, however, until the park evolved to welcome both snowboarders and skiers as the more inclusive ‘terrain park’ that we know today. 

Originally, the park features on Blackcomb and other resorts in the Canada West Ski Area Association were rated like ski runs, with greens, blues, blacks and double blacks. As most people probably understand, riding a beginner feature would require different skills to a typical green run; however the system broke down when a visitor went off a jump that was far beyond their ability and sustained a debilitating injury. The resulting lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and, learning from this experience, the ratings in the terrain park were changed to those that we see today. Burton had just introduced Smart Style, the orange oval to indicate freestyle terrain. Whistler Blackcomb and the Canada West Ski Area Association went one step further adding S, M, L and XL sizing to keep it easy to interpret. Both features and parks are marked so people can easily choose where to ride within their ability.

Licence to Snowboard

Despite skiers and snowboarders charging down the mountain together today, there was a time when single-plankers were strictly not allowed. Skier complaints and safety concerns resulted in both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain remaining closed to snowboarders until the late 80s. Snowboarders were forced to ride smaller undeveloped hills, head to the backcountry, or hike up the mountain while avoiding the watchful eye of mountain staff.

The acceptance of snowboarding was slow because of the perception that snowboarders were dangerous, uncontrolled and uncivilised. The laid-back alternative lifestyle of snowboarders often clashed with that of skiers, and it was not uncommon for skiers to hurl disdain at snowboarders when they were finally allowed on the mountain.

A Greg Stump snowboarding production on Blackcomb in 1989. Even the bright and baggy clothes commonly worn by snowboarders rubbed skiers the wrong way. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Greg Stump Productions.

Early snowboarders to Whistler tell stories about being spat on, chased by snowcats, and getting shovels thrown at them. As Ken Achenbach remarked, “We were called menaces to society, it was wicked man”. All a snowboarder had to do to grind the gears of some skiers was wake up in the morning. Even Hugh Smythe, Blackcomb General Manager, was derided when the decision was made to welcome snowboarders to Blackcomb for the 1987/88 season.

Special rules for snowboarders in resort areas were commonplace at this time. In some resorts, before they were allowed on the lifts, snowboarders had to agree not to use foul language. Similar to many East Coast resorts, Blackcomb went a step further. Unlike skiers, snowboarders were initially required to pass a proficiency test to be licenced to ride Blackcomb. The test cost around the price of a day pass and snowboarders had to prove they could turn both ways and stop safely. A certificate was presented upon passing which allowed the recipient to load the lifts with their board.

Aerials were also originally banned on Blackcomb, with lift tickets confiscated from those who dared leave the ground. Blackcomb was a popular freestyle mountain but riders were required to keep an eye out for patrol when practicing for fear of losing their passes.

It may be hard to believe in the age of triple cork 1440s, but all inverted aerials were initially also banned in snowboard competitions due to concerns over spinal cord injuries. It was not unusual for professional snowboarders to deliberately disqualify themselves in competitions by pulling inverted aerials, including the crippler, in protest of this rule. The rules were eventually changed to prevent medals being awarded only to those who followed the rules and showcased the tamest tricks.

When snowboarders were first allowed on Blackcomb they were required to pass a test before riding the lifts and aerials were banned. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

As a new sport, the snowboarding community in Whistler was small and tight-knit. Being so outnumbered, snowboarders would instantly be best buds with anyone else riding a board. This did not last long however; snowboarding was the fastest growing sport in the 1990s and despite the growth slowing, the community today is so big there is no way anyone could know every snowboarder on the mountain.

For more on the history of snowboarding, join us for our first in-person event for 2022. In this Whistler Museum Speaker Series we will be talking about the history of snowboarding in Whistler with local snowboarding legends Ken Achenbach and Graham Turner.

The event begins at 7 pm on Monday the 28th of March. Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum members) and are available at the Whistler Museum. We look forward to seeing you there!

Helmets on the Hill

Whistler is a hub for adventure sport and, if you have been here long, it is likely you know someone who has been affected by a head injury. With helmet use so standard on the mountain today, I found it surprising to see the following question asked in a 2011 museum oral history “Do you think that sometimes more people get injured when they are wearing safety gear? They suddenly feel empowered and attempt something far beyond their abilities?” Similar sentiments are echoed throughout many publications at this time.

Ski School instructor leading students in Whistler in the 1970s.
Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Unlike today, helmets were initially far less popular on the slopes than while riding a bike (helmets have been mandatory for cycling in BC since 1996 and you can be fined up to $100 for non-compliance). Looking at photos from skiing in the early days of Whistler Mountain, it is unusual to see people wearing helmets on the mountain even into the 80s, and they clearly gained popularity throughout the 90s and early 2000s as designs improved and they became more ingrained in local mountain culture.

Helmets were recommended on the slopes a long time before any mandates were introduced. There are stories from Whistler Blackcomb orientation where employees were asked to put their hand up if they wore a helmet. Those with their hands up were acknowledged as the smartest of the group.

Spot the helmet. Willie Whistler with Ski Scamps on Whistler Mountain, February 1982. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Helmets became compulsory for all people under 18 attending ski or snowboard lessons in the 2009/10 winter season (requirements for children under 13 occurred earlier). Employees and anyone in lessons were also required to wear helmets in the terrain park. At this time, Whistler Blackcomb also began to make a conscious effort to feature skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets in their promotional material.

Easily the most contentious decision around helmets occurred in April 2013, when Whistler Blackcomb was allegedly told by WorkSafe BC that they were not in compliance with Section 8.11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This act mandates that safety headgear is required for any employees where there is a risk of head injury. Until then, this decades-old regulation had never been enforced on ski hills. According to Director of Employee Experience Joel Chevalier “The WorkSafe BC officers told us that at any time during or after the meeting, they could go outside, see one of our employees on skis or a snowboard without a helmet and write us an order, which from our perspective was quite a serious statement to make.”

Whistler Blackcomb took this discussion very seriously and announced that all employees on skis or snowboards were required to wear a helmet at work from May 4, only two weeks after the meeting with WorkSafe BC. To ensure all employees were able to meet this regulation there was a helmet borrowing policy for the rest of the season and staff could get 45% off when purchasing helmets from Whistler Blackcomb-owned stores.

Ski school in 1991. Helmets optional. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Tom Ericson.

Some members of Whistler Blackcomb management and staff were incensed with the swift decision by WorkSafe BC because there were still concerns about the safety of wearing helmets in certain situations, particularly during avalanche control when Ski Patrol are required to listen for hazards. (According to a survey around this time, patrollers were evenly distributed, with one third always wearing helmets, one third sometimes wearing helmets and one third never wearing helmets.) Headings such as “Helmet policy riles workers” and “Ski hills question ‘helmet rule’ for employees” dotted the local and provincial newspapers. Still, the greatest controversy surrounded whether it was appropriate to mandate helmet wear, or whether it should be a personal choice.

Despite helmets remaining a choice for visitors, the tide has turned. A Statistics Canada survey from 2017 found that 78.6% of skiers and 76.3% of snowboarders always wear helmets (and this is likely higher in Whistler), while helmet use amongst cyclists is lower at 45.5% Canada-wide. Today you can often tell approximately how old a photo is based on the number of helmets you see on the hill.