Tag Archives: Cheakamus Lake

The Snow (or not) of 1976-77

by John Hetherington, WMAS President

November 1976 was dry, with a cold north wind blowing into December. From the time that Whistler Mountain opened for skiing in 1966 through the 1975-76 season, there had always been plenty of snow, with extraordinary snowfall amounts in the 1966-67, 1968-69, 1971-72, and 1973-74 seasons (1973-74 is still stated as the record year).

Despite the stories of Dick Fairhurst, who moved to the Alta Lake area in 1944, most of us living here in the 1970s thought that the big snow years would never end, and so snowmaking had never been considered. Fairhurst claimed that there had been a couple of no-snow winters in the 1950s and that he had built the foundation for Cypress Lodge during a snowless February. 1976-77 came as a severe shock to the rest of us.

Dick Fairhurst also opened the first ski lift in the Whistler valley, a tow rope on Sproatt Mountain, and knew a bit about the area’s winters. Fairhurst Collection.

Very early in the 1976-77 season, there was some snow in the alpine and just enough that skiers had been able to ski to the bottom of the Green Chair. Then it rained and skiers had to hike down the last 100 metres or so in the gravel and mud.

In mid-December, Lift Operations managed to borrow a snow gun from Grouse Mountain and transport it to the bottom of the Green Chair. There used to be a small creek that ran down on skiers’ right of the old Green Chair. The ski patrol put a full case of Submagel, a very potent explosive designed for underwater uses, into the creek near the base of the Green Chair. Everyone was evacuated from the area due to the obvious hazard of raining debris and the explosion created a reservoir in the creek. After a dam was built at the low end, the reservoir could impound enough water to permit snowmaking for 2 to 3 hours each day.

The two Green Chairs can be seen heading up towards the Roundhouse. In early winter 1976-77, this slope would have been almost entirely bare. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

With this limited capability, the packer drivers were able to spread a narrow ribbon of snow that allowed skiers to ski to the base of the Green Chair. Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays. Those who came could ski on the Green Chair and in the T-bar bowl, but had to download on the Red Chair and the gondola. After the holidays, however, there was a warm rain that wiped out the snow on the lower slopes of the Green and Whistler was forced to close for three weeks in January 1977.

While most of the staff on Whistler Mountain had been laid off, a few of us were kept on so the ski area would at least have some core staff when the mountain was able to re-open. Those of us still employed referred to it as Garibaldi Lifts welfare. The lift company opened a soup kitchen so that its laid-off employees wouldn’t starve.

Myrtle Philip and Agnes Harrop ice-boating on a frozen Alta Lake. Philip Collection.

During this time, the weather was mostly clear with a strong temperature inversion. The local lakes were frozen, allowing a perpetual hockey game on Alta Lake, and, after running out of useful things to do, Jamie Tattersfield, the head packer driver, and I built a rather crude iceboat in the maintenance shop. We put it on Alta Lake in front of Tokum Corners and spread the word that anyone could use it as long as they brought it back.

Cheakamus Lake was frozen and clear of snow, so many locals hiked in with their skates on the snowless trail to skate the entire length of Cheakamus Lake. There were a couple of pressure ridges to jump over and the ice was incredibly noisy, constantly pinging and boinging and echoing in the narrow valley.

A small amount of snow came in late January, allowing the mountain to re-open on a limited basis. More snow came later in February, and then the real snow finally came in March. Given the shallow snow pack and early cold temperatures, there was a thick layer of well-developed basal facets, which helped produce some stupendous avalanches later in March.

Verner Lundstrom

We are incredibly lucky at the museum to have stories from a myriad of different people who lived, worked or visited the valley over the past 100 years.  Most of the narratives from the era of Alta Lake tend to belong in one of two categories: summer resort life or logging and railroad work.  The same names are often mentioned in both, as would be expected in such a small community, but very few people really lived in both categories.

One exception is Verner Lundstrom.  In the late 1920s, at the age of 18, Verner left Sweden to join his brother Charlie at Alta Lake.  Charlie had arrived in 1927 and made his living as a logger and pole cutter, finding the tall, straight cedars that could be used as telephone poles.  The brothers lived in a cabin close tot he railway and near Fitzsimmons Creek, about a mile away from Lost Lake.  Together they logged cedar poles around the northeast area of Alta Lake.

Verner Lundstrom hard at work. Photo: Lundstrom Collection.

As Verner recalled in an oral history done in 1992, all of their work was done by hand.  With no power saw, trees were usually felled using a two-person saw.  The brothers used horses to help move the poles to the eastern shore of the lake by what Verner described as “skid roads”.  From there the poles were floated across Alta Lake to the railway station at the south end and loaded onto flatcars.

Verner and Charlie worked together for 8 to 10 years before Charlie moved on.  During that time there were various logging operations within the area and Verner knew many of the people we’ve written about before, including the Jardine-Neiland family, the Barrs, Denis DeBeck, B.C. Keeley, the Gebharts and the Woods family.

Life in Alta Lake wasn’t all work – here Alf Gebhart poses with Ben Dyke and an unknown woman in front of his house at Parkhurst. Photo: Debeck Collection.

In his first few years at Alta Lake, Verner also worked at Rainbow Lodge as a seasonal handyman and experienced life centred on summer tourism as well.  Verner recalled that, at the time, Rainbow Lodge would have up to 120 guests and he and some others spent a lot of time swimming during the day and dancing at night.  For Verner, who enjoyed swimming and hiking, his job at Rainbow Lodge sounds ideal.

With the mountains and lake nearby, working at Rainbow Lodge was ideal in the summers.  Photo: Philip Collection.

When Verner wasn’t working at Rainbow Lodge or cutting poles with Charlie, he and his brother would often head up the surround mountains.  Verner thinks they must have gone up Whistler Mountain “hundreds of times,” either to hunt or “just to walk up to the lake.”  The lake in questions, Cheakamus Lake, had an old cabin that had been used by trappers and many weekends Verner would hike up, with or without Charlie.  Though Verner didn’t recall hiking up Blackcomb or Wedge, he did remember time spent hiking up Sproat and Red Mountain, known today as Fissile.

Verner stayed in the area even after Charlie had moved on.  In 1942, when he married Lauretta Arnold, Verner was living further up the rail line at Mile 43 between Alta Lake and Pemberton.  The couple then moved up to Mile 48 where Vern did the logging for the sawmill of John Brunzen and Denis DeBeck.

After their first child, Verner and Laurette moved to Birken, then later to Pemberton where their daughters could attend school.  In 1950 the family left the Sea to Sky and moved to Chilliwack where Verner continued to work in logging camps.  Even after he retired, Verner continued to fell trees for his friends until the age of 85.

Like Verner’s story, each oral history, letter or memoir in our collection provides a unique perspective on life in the valley.  Having access to so many different memories allows us to form a more complete picture of Whistler’s past.  Come visit us at the museum if you’re interested in adding your own perspective to the mix.

This Week In Photos: April 12

The photos we share through This Week In Photos are only a very small part of the Whistler Question Collection.  The full collection can be viewed online here.  If you see a photo you love, photos from our collections can be purchased, either online or by contacting our Collections Manager John Alexander, and certain sizes can even be printed for you at the museum!

1980

A bird’s eye view of Creekside.

And a fly-over view of the Whistler Village, or what there is of it so far.

Somebody was spending a lot of time in a helicopter this week – here they flew over Cheakamus Lake amid the mountains of Garibaldi Provincial Park.

BC Tel and BCR towers on the west bluff of the Black Tusk.

WORM’S EYE VIEW of the new drugstore and office building in the town centre. This building should be one of the first to be finished this summer.

Question Editor’s Assistant BJ (Brad) Cooper.

1981

Nancy Greene-Raine takes to the polls April 11 with help from Pat McMillan.

Joe Cannon, with his personality-plus, gave the Question this comment on life during his April 10 show at the Brass Rail. His flexible voice worked its way masterfully around tunes from Bob Dylan to Gordon Lightfoot to Elvis the Pelvis. Cannon has quite a remarkable way with audiences, not to mention photographers.

The Municipal Hall on a snowy, windy day.

Mrs Turner’s class thanks Mr Strathers after their field trip to the drugstore.

A class also took a trip to visit the local RCMP detachment.

1982

Michell Brown and Doug Smith hold up the Price Waterhouse Trophy, which they won in junior skiing competition at Blackcomb Mountain on Sunday.

Some Whistler residents could do with a few lessons in tidiness and cooperation. This scene at the Mons garbage compactor tells a story.

The latest development in the Cheakamus Canyon project is the diversion which carries vehicles through the rock cut rather than around one of the most dangerous corners on Highway 99.

The Mountainside Inn has come a long way from the pouring of its foundations,

A friendly game of charades is played out in someone’s living room.

1983

A gift of two mountains was presented to Washington Governor John Spellman (right) by Mayor Mark Angus (second from right) during his tour of Whistler last week. Washington hopes to develop its Early Winters Resort. Governor Spellman was accompanied by Senator Alan Bluechel (left), Mrs Jeanne Erlichmann Bluechel and Mrs Irene Spellman.

Mountain Square buildings in various stages of construction. Some hotels are missing, giving a clear view through to Sundial Crescent.

First place winners in the Mouton Cadet Spring Festival held April 9, 10, 11 on Whistler Mountain. (l to r) Dave Murray, Nancy Smith, Jim Parsons, Toby Shale. Back row Xavier deEizaguirre of Mountain Rothschild and Werner Schonberger, president of Featherstone & Co.

An innovative storage system for the Mouton Cadet atop the mountain.

George Bury – Whistler’s Least-Known Dreamer

We’re currently in the midst of our 100 Years of Dreams celebrations. The events so far have been a great success and there’s still lots going on this weekend. Check the Museum website for a full rundown.

Since we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alex & Myrtle’s first visit to Alta Lake their story has been getting a lot of coverage of late, but we came up with the “100 Years Of Dreams” tagline because we wanted to celebrate all of the dreamers and icons that have called this valley home over the last century. Far less-known, but nearly just as consequential, is the story of George Bury.

Although the development of the Whistler area for skiing is typically attributed to a group of Vancouver businessmen looking for the next place to host a Winter Olympics in the 1960s, there were earlier attempts at ski development in the area. In May 1939, George Bury and three other skiers found themselves on what they, along with their floatplane pilot, thought was the shore of Alta Lake, laden with eight-foot long skis and 70 pound packs of gear.

On Cheakamus Lake.

They had made the entire journey from Seabird Island in Richmond in the plane and were eager to start skiing. Thus began a ten-day exploratory trip of the area, although in 2007 as Bury looked at maps while recounting his experience, he conceded that it was actually the shores of Cheakamus Lake from which they began their journey.

The crew.

The party included Austrian George Eisenschimel, who had escaped his home country just before Hitler annexed it, and went on to travel through Switzerland, to South America and then British Columbia. Eisenschimel had the idea of developing the area for skiing and took the step of contacting Bury, who at the time was well known for being the four-way champion of Western Canada. This skiing discipline encompassed jumping, cross-country, slalom and downhill. In addition to Eisenschimel, Howard Hamil was a part of the trip. Before hearing from Eisenschimel, Bury had also looked at maps of the region and thought that it had great potential for development.

Their camp near Black Tusk Meadows.

The group was greeted by warm spring conditions, and they spent their time hiking up, heating snow to produce drinking water, and then skiing down to search for another appealing ridge over the ten-day period. Ending their trip with a run down the face of The Barrier, they skied to the edge of the snowline and then hiked to the PGE railroad, where George stood in the middle of the tracks until he was able to flag down the next train and hitch a ride to Squamish.

A timeless tuck.

Not long after this trip, the idea of developing the area for skiing was sidetracked when Bury joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at the beginning of the Second World War. In 1940, a Province Newspaper column entitled, “Athletes in Uniform,” described Bury as “one of the best all-round skiers in the city,” going on to state that, “George joined the Air Force as an air gunner [the previous] April and went to Montreal for training.” After the end of the war, Bury continued his career in radio and communications and never looked back. The group from that 1939 expedition never got back in touch.

In 2007 Bury made his first return to the region since the 1939 ski expedition, aside from his radio, radar and microwave technology training bringing him back to install B.C. Hydro’s microwave system on Black Tusk. Now 98 years old, George and his wife Leona live on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. He still skis, teaching cross-country skiing to First Nations children in the winters, and he is still in possession of his ski instructor’s license- the 38th ever issued in Canada.

Waxing their skis and displaying the height of inter-war era ski fashion.