Tag Archives: Cliff Fenner

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

Olympic (pre)Vision

One of the most difficult, but fascinating aspects of history is trying to look back on past events without your view being completely skewed by hindsight. An obvious example, “Of course Whistler developed into an internationally renowned mega resort, look how amazing the [insert mountains/snow/forests/your preferred factor here] are!”

Nothing builds itself (except cranes, of course). So discerning those characters who foresaw the future and then helped make it happen is always rewarding. One such discovery was made while digging through our Cliff Fenner files.

Fenner climbing in Garibaldi Park.

Fenner climbing in Garibaldi Park.

In March of 1960, Fenner, along with interested “press, radio and board of trade representatives” participated in a helicopter survey of Garibaldi Park in search of potential Olympic venues. Based out of Diamond Head Chalet (near today’s Elfin Lakes Hut), they even had skiers sampling specific runs to test their suitability.

Although the ski terrain was fantastic, it was during these reconnaissance flights that Sidney Dawes, Canadian representative with the International Olympic Committee, decided that it was not suitable as an Olympic venue because access was complex and the terrain even moreso.  A valley bottom development was preferred. Famously, Dawes selected London Mountain as the site for Olympic and ski area development.

Dawes rightfully deserves credit for the decision to develop Whistler rather than Diamond Head, but it is clear from Fenner’s reports that he shared Dawes sentiments. As the person on these flights with the most first-hand knowledge of Garibaldi Park’s extensive terrain, it is not unlikely that he helped inform Dawes’ decision.

A few weeks after the initial helicopter flights Fenner embarked on more ground- level observations of the Cheakamus Lake and London Mountain area. His snow measurements indicated similar depths to the Diamond Head region—more than two meters deep at 4800 feet (1460 meters) on March 19, a poor snow year according to Fenner—but with a more favourable climate that was slightly colder and drier than areas closer to the coast.

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Fenner taking a rest from one of his many mountain explorations.

Moreover, he suggested that just west of Cheakamus Lake (that is, the Cheakamus Crossing and Function Junction area) would make an ideal base area development that provided great access to both the mountain and any potential highway linking Alta Lake to Vancouver. With the expected ski lifts Fenner described “immediate access to high level ski touring and summer hiking areas of tremendous potential, [especially] London Mountain to Singing Pass.” Clearly, there was some profound foresight at work here, no doubt the product of Cliff’s keen analytic mind and intimate knowledge of the south Coast Mountains environment.

Mountain Man Redux

Last summer we introduced you to Cliff Fenner, Mountain Man. Quick recap: Cliff was an Englishman who moved to Vancouver after World War 2 and soon after became Supervisor of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Naturally, Cliff was already an avid outdoorsman and spent much of his professional and personal time exploring the southern Coast Mountains.

Cliff in front of the Taylor Meadows Cabin. He was also a very capable photographer, and after retiring from BC Parks he actually made his living as a writer and photographer, mainly working for travel publications.

Well, we recently digitized 2 full albums of his personal photographs and there’s some real gems. Most photos depict summer hiking and climbing excursions, but to be seasonally appropriate, we figured we’d share some shots from a ski trip up to Black Tusk. Unfortunately we don’t have much background info for these images, beyond a probable year of 1955. Snow levels seem typical of May.

Every ski mountaineer knows the ridiculous feeling of sweating uphill in your hikers with a full ski it strapped to your back.

Every ski mountaineer knows the ridiculous feeling of sweating uphill below the snow line, with a full ski set strapped to your back.

The crew taking a pause, probably at the base of the Tusk proper.

The crew taking a pause, probably at the base of the Tusk proper.

The rewarding view across Garibaldi Lake.

The rewarding view across Garibaldi Lake.

And the view north across the Cheakamus Valley.

And the view north across the Cheakamus Valley.

On the way down we get to see how it was done on the rudimentary gear of the day.

Making their way up Black Tusk's infamous south chimney, still snow-filled at this time of year,

Making their way down Black Tusk’s infamous south chimney, still snow-filled at this time of year.

More descending...

More descending…

After descending from Black Tusk, the party put their skis back on and headed towards Mount Garibaldi.

Gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi.

Gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi.

Unfortunately, without a written account we don’t know if they summited, or even attempted to climb the great volcano.

Skiing across a still-frozen Garibaldi Lake.

Skiing back across a still-frozen Garibaldi Lake.

Thus we encounter some of the limitations of incomplete archival records. All we know about this trip is what we can gather from the raw, uncaptioned images. Still, they are more than enough to set the mind wandering and the heart racing as we dream of the many mountain adventures that await us this upcoming winter. Have fun and play safe!

Cliff Fenner: Mountain Man.

While our events and exhibitions garner most of the attention, there is a third, equally important component of the Museum’s activities: managing our archives. This might not sound that exciting, but an archive is essentially a community’s collective memory, at least on paper. If you considers the sharpness of some people’s memories around here you begin to realize how crucial our archives are.

Anyone interested in the history of our local mountains will be excited by one of Sarah and Brad‘s latest projects: accessioning the Cliff Fenner fonds. (“Fond” is archive-speak for a distinct collection of documents, usually an organization’s documents or someone’s personal files.)

Cliff Fenner was born in 1909 in England where he built a solid career in the timber industry. After helping manage and maintain the crucial  flow of commodities for the Allied war effort, in 1947 he moved to Vancouver. Here he bounced around a few more logging camps, then helped run Mount Seymour Park for a few years, before accepting the position of Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Provincial Park in 1953.

A Vancouver Province article on Fenner.

For the next few decades Fenner’s job mainly consisted of hiking around Garibaldi’s vast mountainscapes observing wildlife, leading trail crews, and advising on the park’s development. Dream job, anyone?

A year into his warden career Fenner described this twist in his life’s path in a way that’s easy to relate to today:

“I have always loved the outdoors. I’ve had city jobs, of course. Even thought about building up my own business, but I’d been exposed to too much good, fresh air.”

Lucky for us, Fenner was more than capable behind the lens; after retiring from the park service he made his living as a travel photographer and writer. Today our archives hold an extensive collection of his photos taken over more than two decades amongst the Coast Mountains.

Other interesting documents in the Fenner Fonds also include:

  • Fenner’s March 1960 report to BC Parks about a helicopter survey of Garibaldi Park to locate potential Winter Olympics sites. His preferred location for the Olympics base area was the west end of Cheakamus Lake, with ski runs on Whistler’s south-western slopes (Khyber’s, Cakehole, etc).
  • Several old magazines (Reader’s Digest, B.C. Motorist, etc.)  in which Fenner’s photos and articles were published.
  • Personal files like his official certificate of Canadian citizenship, correspondence related to his photography, writing and travel, even a tourist visa for Columbia from 1980.

Another Fenner photo from the same issue of BC Motorist, showing Creekside in its infancy.

We’ve just started to browse the documents and photos, so surely there’s still some goodies yet to be found in there.

An unidentified climbing partner on one of Cliff’s mountaineering trips near Bralorne.