Tag Archives: Dave Mathews

A Harrowing Journey to Whistler

For many people, their first impression of Whistler begins with a trip up Highway 99 from Vancouver. Depending on the time of year and the weather, this can be anything from an inspiring journey with spectacular views to a frustrating slow-moving slog through traffic to a harrowing experience sharing the road with drivers unprepared for snowy conditions. For Lynn Mathew’s mother, her first impressions were closer to the last.

Lynn’s mother had already visited the west coast before her first visit to Whistler; when Lynn and David Mathews first moved out to Vancouver from Quebec in the 1960s, both her parents came out to see their new home. At the time, Lynn’s mother had never been in an airplane and didn’t particularly want to be in one, so she boarded a bus in New York and three days later Lynn’s father boarded a plane. Lynn picked up her father at the airport and then together they drove to Vancouver’s bus station to collect her mother. A year or two later, when Lynn had her first child in November 1967, her mother got on her first plane and ventured out to visit her new grandson in Whistler.

With snow on the road, Highway 99 could easily become a treacherous, one-lane route. Laforce Collection

She arrived the day after her grandson was born and, until that day, there had been no snow in the Whistler valley. David picked her up at the airport and they stopped at the Squamish hospital where Lynn and the baby were staying the night. While they were there, it began to snow in Squamish. David, who had the lift company truck, suggested that they leave before it snowed too much. When they returned to collect Lynn and the baby the next day, she got to hear about their adventures driving up to Whistler.

The highway between Squamish and Whistler today is very different from that of 1967 but, as Lynn put it, “the hill at Daisy Lake is still there.” She described this section at the time as “a very narrow hill with no shoulders, and very steep.” Though there wasn’t a large number of cars traveling up the highway, many of those that were encountered difficulties getting up that hill. By the time David and Lynn’s mother got to the hill, there were cars off the side of the road, some of them leaning towards the cliff. As they told Lynn, it was fortunate that no cars ended up in the lake.

Prior to the development of Whistler Mountain in 1965, the “roads” were in even more questionable condition. MacLaurin Collection.

David and Lynn’s mother came across a couple on their way home to Pemberton whose car was “definitely in the ditch.” Despite the fact that the bench in the lift company truck would only comfortably fit three, David and Lynn’s mother offered the couple a ride as far as Whistler, where they could arrange for friends to pick them up. The four of them squished into the truck and zigzagged up the hill between the cars stuck on the sides.

As it happened, one of the people they had picked up was from Norway, not too far from where Lynn’s mother was from. The two had a great visit as David drove them safely through the snowy conditions to Whistler. The next day, David and Lynn’s mother returned to Squamish to bring Lynn and the baby home to Whistler.

It continued to snow steadily in the area and, according to Lynn, “My mother wasn’t sure just what I had moved to.” This sentiment was echoed by David’s mother when she came out to visit from Quebec in January 1968, a visit that involved a lot of snow, a power outage, and an evacuation by snowcat to the Ski Boot Motel, but that’s a story for another day.

How to Lift Some Spirits

Looking through the photographs in the Whistler Museum archives, it is clear that Whistler has thrown a lot of parties. Whether attending a formal dinner at a restaurant, a Halloween costume contest in a bar, or a dance that got moved into an underground parking lot due to rain, residents and visitors alike have found many reasons to celebrate. At times, parties have served not to celebrate an event or person, but to boost morale during difficult periods. During an interview in 2019, Lynn Mathews described such a party held for Whistler Mountain staff, though the reason behind the low morale might today seem backwards: they had too much snow.

During one of the early years of Whistler Mountain’s operations, according to Lynn, it had snowed all through January and well into February and staff were getting tired of moving so much snow. Each day was “day after day after day of shoveling,” first digging out the gondola, then going up to dig out Midstation, and then shoveling out the top of the Red Chair (not unlike Hugh Smythe’s early memories of riding the Red Chair in 1966). It was decided that a party was needed to raise people’s spirits.

The gondola barn (easily identified by the word GONDOLA on its side) had much more space to host staff than the A-frame to its side. Wallace Collection

At the time, there weren’t many venues in which a party could be held. The gondola barn had reportedly hosted a staff party in a previous season, but questions about it were afterwards raised by the insurance company and the lift company’s board of directors. Lynn decided to hold the party in her own home, one of the two A-frames at the base of Whistler Mountain occupied by the lift company managers (Lynn’s husband David was operations manager, while the other A-frame was occupied by area manager Jack Bright and his family). The A-frame structure was quite small, but that didn’t stop Lynn from issuing invitations to all members of the staff, with the mysterious instruction to bring a pillow.

In preparation for the party, the Mathews moved all of their furniture outside. Lynn recalled that David even put an ashtray out on the coffee table that was set up with the sofa on their deck. Various people were organized to make food, silverware and dishes were borrowed from the cafeteria, and two sheets of plywood were covered in aluminum foil. When it came time to eat, the covered plywood was brought out and set on the floor as tables. Those who remembered their pillows were instructed to use them for seating.

A-frames built by the lift company were not very large, though over time some additions were made. Wallace Collection

There were so many people gathered in the house that Lynn remembered thinking at one point during the evening, “It’s a good thing there’s so much snow around here, because I’m afraid otherwise the A-frame might slide down the hill.” At the height of the party, lift company president Franz Wilhelmsen’s nephew and his two friends arrived from Montreal to pick up the keys to the Wilhelmsens’ condo and seemed taken aback by all the people crammed into the building.

According to Lynn, the party did exactly what it was supposed to do. It lifted the spirits of the disheartened employees and, for days afterwards, staff could be heard exclaiming over how many people they managed to fit into the A-frame.

Learning to Ski Whistler

Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lynn Mathews filled various roles for Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. She worked in the office and, in addition to the more typical office work, her responsibilities also included creating ski passes with a polaroid camera and a crank-turned laminator and putting together editions of Garibaldi’s Whistler News to help spread the word of what was going on at Whistler Mountain. As well, every so often, she would teach a ski lesson.

When Lynn and her husband Dave came to Whistler Mountain for the winter of 1966/67, they intended to be there only part-time to teach skiing on the weekends. Instead, Dave was brought on by the lift company as operations manager and Lynn began working in the office. When the mountain was short ski instructors, however, Lynn would sometimes be asked to teach.

Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices were located at the base of the Gondola. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

Lynn had previously taught skiing at Grouse Mountain for a season and before that at Gray Rocks Inn in Quebec, where she met Dave. According to Lynn, those mountains did not prepare her for the amount of snow that Whistler Mountain could get.

Lynn would get called out when all the other instructors were busy or hurt, often with dislocated shoulders. In a series of interviews in 2019, she recalled the first time she was asked to teach on a big powder day with fresh snow that got as high as her hip.

In the 1960s and 70s, Whistler Mountain could get very, very big snowfalls and had very little in the way of grooming equipment, so most runs were ungroomed. George Benjamin Collection

After being called in and getting her boots on and gear together, Lynn discovered a problem. Lynn had been raised an eastern skier and, though very comfortable on ice and hard-packed snow, she didn’t know how to ski in that much powder. Unfortunately, neither did her class of beginners.

After a long trip up the mountain, Lynn took her class into the Roundhouse. According to Lynn, she found her husband Dave, Garibaldi Lifts president Franz Wilhelmsen, and Dave Brewer there. She went up to them and told them, “Ok you guys, help. How do I get off this mountain? I can’t ski this.” Their response was to laugh at her, apparently finding the situation “hysterical.” Dave Brewer did, however, giver her some helpful advice, explaining that she should lean back on her heels, keep her arms forwards, and keep her tips up.

Students in Lynn’s class may have looked a bit like this by the time they arrived at the Roundhouse. George Benjamin Collection

Lynn and her class headed out to make their way down the mountain. She began by doing a demonstration of how they were going to ski down, despite never having done it herself. Preparing herself mentally, Lynn said a prayer and pointed her skis down the hill. Keeping Dave Brewer’s tips in mind, her first few turns worked and she began calling her students down one by one. They did, eventually, make it back to the gondola.

Lynn also filled in to teach weekly school programs and, under special circumstances, was called on to coach at the summer ski camp on Whistler Mountain. One year, Lynn recalled being a private coach for a camp participant who was really a beginner skier. As the young man had come from California, they didn’t want to send him home, but he couldn’t keep up with the other campers. Instead, Lynn taught him and by the end of the camp he was able to go down the slalom course, even if he was much slower than the others.

Lost on Whistler?

In February 1968, The Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN) published an article entitled “Were 107 Skiers Really Lost on Whistler Mt.?”  The article was meant as a (somewhat belated) response to articles published in Lower Mainland newspapers on December 4, 1967 about an incident that occurred at the Blue Chair on Whistler Mountain.

In 1966, the Blue Chair had become the second chairlift to be installed onWhistler Mountain.  In was located in the same general area that the Harmony Express run today, loading in the same area and carrying skiers up to where today’s Emerald Chair offloads.  According to Lynn Mathews, the Blue Chair was part of a popular circular route.  After riding the gondola and Red Chair, skiers could go up the T-bar, hike over to the back bowl, and ski down to the base of the Blue Chair, which they could take back up to start the circle again.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967 the Blue Chair was shut down for part of the day, and skiers who had expected to take the lift back up were led out from the bottom of the chair via the beginner tail, just over 3 km.

The view from the lineup at the Blue Chair, today the location of the Harmony Chair.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the Blue Chair broke down, “stranding scores of skiers,” but the versions of events presented by those who were “stranded” differed greatly from the lift company.  Those who talked to the paper claimed that 117 skiers were led by four ski patrol volunteers on “a gruelling 6 1/2-hour hike through shoulder deep snow,” with skiers needing rescue after falling off of the single-file trail trampled by the patrollers, finishing long after dark (in December, sometime after 4 pm).

The Sun wrote that the lift company’s response to these claims was to “sneer”.  Jack Bright, then the area manager for Whistler Mountain, reported that it took less than four hours for the group to hike out, using a ski run “which happened to have a bit more fresh snow on it.”  The company handed out free passes to those who had been stranded, but claimed that the number of passes handed out did not necessarily reflect the number stranded, as “Everybody claimed to be stranded so they could get a free ticket.”

Thanks to the colour coded nature of the early Whistler Mountain chairlifts, it’s easy to identify chairs in colour photographs! George Benjamin Collection.

Two months after the incident, the lift company used their publication to clear up lingering questions.

According to Jack Bright in the GWN, high winds and extremely heavy snow caused mechanical difficulties for the Blue Chair, causing the engine to overheat and automatically stop the lift.  The operator announced that it would take from an hour to an hour and a half for the engine to cool off before they could restart.  The auxiliary engine was used to evacuate the chair.  The decision was made to send those waiting in line, accompanied by five experienced patrollers and employees, out along the beginner trail.

Due to the snow, it took longer than expected for the group to make it out.  The trail was marked and, according to Bright, “however irritable people were, there was a general gay harmony throughout the safari.”  This agrees with the memory of Lynn Mathews, who remembered her husband Dave, Whistler Mountain’s operations manager, coming home late and announcing that there were over 100 people lost on the mountain, although she said he told her, “They’re not lost, they’re having too much fun at the moment.”  According to Lynn, Dave claimed the skiers in the group were making snow angels, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time.

No matter what truly happened on the mountain that day, this experience is unlikely to be repeated today as over the past five decades both chairlifts and grooming (as well as on-mountain communications) have advanced.