Tag Archives: Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises

Reaching 7th Heaven

When Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, it had four triple lifts and one two-person chair that carried eager skiers up to the top of today’s Catskinner lift. In 1982, the Jersey Cream Chair expanded the lift-accessed terrain available on Blackcomb, but the mountain still needed something more to compete with Whistler Mountain. They found it with the 7th Heaven T-Bar.

Avalanche forecaster Peter Xhignesse came into the office of Hugh Smythe in the spring of 1985 and told him he wanted to show Smythe some skiing on the south side of Blackcomb. According to Smythe, he hadn’t done much hiking or skiing in the area and thought that it was unlikely there would be much promise in the south facing area known to be windy with lots of rocks. After being shown the area by Xhignesse, however, he was convinced that the area had potential.

Peter Xhignesse is credited by many with realizing the skiing potential of the 7th Heaven area. Photo courtesy of the Xhignesse family.

At the time, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises was owned by the Aspen Skiing Company and the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB), who also co-owned Fortress Mountain Resort in Alberta. Smythe knew that there was a relatively new T-bar on Fortress that wasn’t being run due to the drop in business after Nakiska Ski Area opened. Over the space of two days and a night, the T-bar on Fortress was quietly taken down and transported across the provincial border. With the T-bar in the Blackcomb parking loot, Smythe approached Aspen and the FBDB about funding its installation. Though at first they refused, pointing out that they were trying to sell Blackcomb, Smythe convinced them that he could fund the lift by selling incremental season passes.

On August 18, 1985, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises officially announced the start of construction on their new “High Alpine T-Bar,” which would provide access to the area identified by Xhignesse, with a catered luncheon, heli-skiing, and a rendition of the 1983 Parachute Club song “Rise Up” encouraging skiers to “Rise up, rise up to the Mile High Mountain.” The addition of the T-bar promised to expand Blackcomb’s skiable terrain from 420 acres to 1,160 acres with 22 new runs and increased its vertical reach to 5,280 feet (1,609 m) or one mile (according to Smythe, there may have been a “little bit of license” taken on that number), the highest in North America.

Despite the summer start, wet and cold weather in October and November delayed the completion of the lift. In mid-October, with about half of the towers installed, Operations Manager Rich Morten reported that they needed only two and half days of clear weather in order to pour the rest of the footings and erect the towers. By the beginning of November, they were still waiting for a break in the weather to allow helicopters to complete the work.

Skiing the T-bar bowl on 7th Heaven, some of the terrain opened up by the new lift. Greg Griffith Collection

The High Alpine T-Bar was finally completed in mid-November but it would be another month before it opened to the public. Because of the rougher terrain (described as “boulders the size of cars and buses” by Blackcomb’s Dennis Hansen), more snow was needed before the new runs would be ready for skiing. Once the T-bar did open, however, it gathered rave reviews.

The new terrain was described by Trail Manager Garry Davies as “fabulous” and according tp Nancy Greene, “The enormous variety of slopes and spectacular views are really unequalled in North America.” Even the competition were impressed, with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain claiming that the opening of the T-bar opened up the “big alpine world” and put an end to Blackcomb’s uniformly designed character. The T-bar was the first destination of sixteen year old Mike Douglas on his very first ski trip to Whistler, who described arriving at the top of the lift as being “dropped off at the edge of the world” and the trip down as “the coolest adventure ever.” For Smythe, the T-bar was a turning point for Blackcomb and he credits it with both inspiring Whistler’s Peak Chair the next year and with attracting Intrawest to purchase Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises.

Though it was a huge development for Blackcomb Mountain, the T-bar didn’t remain in place for very long. In 1987, the T-bar was replaced by the four-person 7th Heaven Express, with continues to transport skiers and snowboarders to the windy and rocky terrain pointed out by Peter Xhignesse.

Blackcomb’s DIY Wiring

Today we take the ability to receive or make a call for granted, but for those preparing to open Blackcomb Mountain in 1980 it would not have been as easy as picking up the phone.

It appears that months before the mountain was set to begin operations their phone system was already under quite a bit of stress.  In the first week of March, the Whistler Question reported that “Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises were growling a lot on Saturday, when their only overworked telephone was out of action for the eighth time this year!”  For the small team working out of the Blackcomb offices in construction trailers on the Town Centre site, the phone system was operational for the summer, though Blackcomb was still having some telephone woes.

Big office… small desk! Blackcomb’s accountant Larry Osborne sits behind his temporary desk in a deserted Blackcomb trailer before moving to permanent offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

On July 17, 1980, all union work on the Town Centre site (including the operation of the liquor store) stopped as the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) set up picket lines for two days.  The dispute was over telephone lines and a power line being installed from the valley to the buildings at the top of the first lift by Blackcomb workers.  Blackcomb wanted the lines installed on a weekend, as they had to cross eleven different road crossings on their way up the mountain, which would have stalled or stopped other construction work happening during the week.  BC Tel claimed that they couldn’t supply workers to install the lines on the weekend due to a ban on overtime by the union, while the TWU claimed they were willing but that BC Tel refused to schedule overtime.  Relations between BC Tel and the TWU had remained tense since a lockout and labour dispute a few years earlier.

In 1979 BC Tel and the TWU had failed to reach an agreement on the 1980 contract and by July the TWU had begun a “Super Service” campaign where they provided customer service while working to every rule and regulation, including ones that were usually deemed non-essential, and thereby slowing down productivity.  On September 22 the TWU began selective strikes, where construction and other workers would report to work but refuse all assignments except emergency repairs.  This included the pre-wiring of communication lines in new buildings, creating a backlog of construction jobs.

Technicians at work inside the new BC Telephone Whistler office earlier in the year – the wiring looks far neater than what transpired at the Blackcomb offices.  Whistler Question Collection.

For Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises, who were meant to move to their permanent offices at the top of Lift 1 in December, this presented a problem.  They had managed to get lines laid to the building, but the ongoing labour dispute meant that they could not get TWU workers in to set up the individual office lines.  Instead, Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s Administrative Manager, got to take a crash course in phone installation.

According to Borgal, the TWU was able to install phone blocks, but they could not do the wiring.  A local phone company employee showed Borgal how it worked and he was left to wire phones for each of the offices, most of which had three separate lines.  The building had a room where all of the cables came up from the main line and then split up to the various offices and, by the time he was done, Borgal described the contents of the room as a “big mass of wire” coming out from the wall by almost a metre.  Protection was built around the mass to prevent anyone from accidentally touching it and shutting down all the phones, as the wire were thought to be liable to falling out.  Despite his inexperience (as Borgal put it, he was “not a phone guy, at all”) the phones were operational for Blackcomb Mountain’s opening.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Eventually the TWU workers were able to return to the building and install the phone lines properly, putting an end to Blackcomb’s phone problems.  When shown the room of wires, their reaction was to howl with laughter and, according to Borgal, he was laughing right along with them.