Tag Archives: flooding

A Rainy End to the Holidays

Discussions of weather in Whistler have been going on for decades, as is apparent from past editions of the Whistler Question.  In the early months of winter the conversations usually focus on snow.  Reports from January 1981, however, show that rain, rather than snow, was the topic of discussion in town that year.

While there had been snow in early December 1980, it began to rain in earnest in Whistler and the surrounding areas on December 24.  The rain had not stopped by noon on December 26 and flooding was occurring in places from Squamish to D’Arcy, as well as in the Fraser Valley and other areas of British Columbia.

One of two destroyed power lines when flood waters washed out footings south of the Tisdale Hydro Station.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler and Pemberton were cut off from the rest of the Sea to Sky by both road and rail, as Highway 99 was washed out around Culliton Creek (today the site of the Culliton Creek Bridge, also known as the Big Orange Bridge) and north of the Rutherford Creek junction.  A rail bridge over Rutherford Creek was left handing by the rails when its supports were washed away and other sections of rail were obstructed by small slides and washouts.

BCR Rutherford Creek crossing hangs by its rails after the December 26 flood washed away all supports and girders.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

19 Mile Creek overflowed at the entrance to Alpine Meadows, cutting it off from the rest of town.  The bridge on Valley Drive was also washed out, taking with it part of the main water supply.  In other parts of Whistler sewer lines, water systems, bridges, road and parking lots were damaged, though employees of Whistler Mountain worked quickly to divert water at its gondola base as Whistler Creek rose.  Helicopters were used to ferry residents and visitors in and out of the valley, including Mayor Pat Carleton who was in Vancouver at the time of the flood.

A creative approach to entering Alpine Meadows. George Benjamin Collection.

At the Garibaldi townsite south of Whistler, rising waters caused one house to be swept into the Cheakamus River and another to tip precariously while others were left unaccessible.

The flooding was partly caused by the unseasonable rise in temperature and freezing levels, meaning most of the early snow melted and added to the rain, as well as washing gravel, logs and debris down to the valley.

By the beginning of 1981, the roads to Whistler and Pemberton had reopened and repairs were underway.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still warm and the rain was not over.  On January 21 the detour built around the previous wash out at Culliton Creek was washed out, again cutting off access on Highway 99.  At first it was believed that the closure would be quite brief, but Highway 99 remained closed until January 26.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Luckily, at the time there was still passenger rail service to Whistler.  The two-car passenger train from Prince George to North Vancouver was already full by the time it reached Whistler that day, but skiers trying to get back to the Lower Mainland were able to fill the baggage car and stand in the aisles.  While helicopters and float planes were also used, trains became the most popular means of transport for five days, introducing many travellers to an option they had not considered before.

Rail was also used to transport goods, including delivering the Whistler Question on January 21 and supplying restaurants and food stores.  Due to the limited freight space available, Whistler was limited to ten cases of milk per day and, by the time the road reopened, the stores were out of milk and fresh produce while the gas tanks at the gas station were running low.  The Whistler Grocery Store, which was set to open on January 22, considered delaying but ultimately decided to proceed with its opening as planned when it became apparent that many families in the cut off communities were in danger of running out of certain food stuffs.

On January 26, as the road reopened, snow finally reached the valley again in Whistler.  By January 31 sunshine and new snow had brought crowds of skiers back to Whistler Mountain.  Further Questions continued to report on the weather and snow, but it would appear that after a dramatic start to the winter the 1981 season ended without further mishap.

Blackcomb’s First Season

Back in September the museum posted a series of photos on social media picturing some of the activity taking place on Blackcomb Mountain as they prepared to open for their first season in December 1980.  One comment made on the photos made clear that their first season wasn’t necessarily all that Blackcomb had hoped it would be, point out “except it didn’t snow.”  Unfortunately for Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, this was true for most of the early winter season.

The 1980/81 season didn’t start out too badly.  On December 4th, when Pat Carleton cut the ribbon on Lift 2 with a chainsaw, there was snow in the valley and the weather looked promising.  The new triple chairs to reach the top of Blackcomb were operating and skiers were able to end their day with a piece of the 5 m cake and draw prizes.  According to Hugh Smythe, the mountain enjoyed “phenomenal skiing for three weeks” and then it started to rain.

The opening ceremonies on Blackcomb Mountain had promising snow and skiers lined up to ride the new lifts. Greg Griffith Collection.

The Whistler Question reported that it began raining in the region on December 24, 1980, and it was still raining towards the end of January 1981.  Sections of the highway between Whistler and Squamish were washed on by heavy rains twice in that period, first on December 26 and again on January 21, cutting Whistler and Pemberton off from the Lower Mainland except by train or helicopter.  Within Whistler, Alpine Meadows was cut off from the rest of the town when 19 Mile Creek flooded its banks.  All this rain might not have been too terrible for the ski season, except that the rain was accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures (at one point in January the temperature in Whistler was recorded as 5°C).  On January 8, 1981 the Question editorial stated, “As you look out of the window on January 6 it looks more like May 6 with little or no snow in the valley and only a minimum coverage above 4,500 ft.”

The rains did damage to more than just the snow – bridges, including this rail bridge over Rutherford Creek, were washed away. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The holiday season, usually one of the busiest times of year in Whistler, saw only 20% of its usual volume.  Blackcomb employees delivered newsletters throughout the subdivisions in the valley to let people know that Blackcomb Mountain was open for skiing but bad press coverage of the weather did not encourage skiers to visit.

Whistler Mountain was able to continue operating (or, some might say “limped along”) through January, but Blackcomb shut down operations and laid off staff temporarily because there was not enough snow to get skiers up to Lift 4 and Lift 3 was not designed for downloading.  Blackcomb tried grooming the runs on Lift 4 and moving snow onto the road that led to the top of Lift 2, enabling skiers to ski down to the bottom of Lift 3 before downloading.  They even borrowed snow making equipment from Grouse Mountain, who reportedly did not open at all that season, but the warm temperatures made it impossible to keep or make enough snow.

After the highway washed out a second time, BCR saw an increased demand for passenger cars. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Blackcomb Mountain was able to reopen later in the season and by March there was consistently snow on the mountains.  Blackcomb has gone on to operate for 39 successful seasons and, this December, will celebrate their 40th anniversary (fingers crossed without the rain).

A Wet End to August, 1991

Recently, we were tasked with finding more information about a flood that washed out and damaged several bridges over Fitzsimmons Creek in the 1990s.  As it turned out, the flooding had happened exactly 28 years before we looked into it, with the bulk of information found in the September 5, 1991 edition of The Whistler Question.

The first mention of an unusually wet end to August appeared in the previous week’s editorial section, where editor Bob Barnett opened a piece on government money granted in the area with the thought, “The old adage it never rains, it pours, has applied to the weather this week, but also to government handouts.”  Between August 16 and 31, 155 mm of rain were reported to have fallen in Whistler, with the bulk of the rain falling between August 29 and 30.  The average rainfall for the entire month of August was historically under 50 mm; this unusually large quantity of water caused destruction throughout the Sea to Sky corridor.

An excavator removes rock and gravel carried down Fitzsimmons Creek during Labour Day weekend’s floods. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

During the five days of intense rain, water levels at the Pemberton Airport and the Golf and Country Club were recorded at over two metres and BC Rail recorded at least twelve places between Britannia Beach and Lillooet where the crushed rock that supported the rails was washed away, leaving sections suspended over the ground.

In Britannia Beach severe flooding caused Britannia Creek to change course through the lower townsite and the highway around Squamish was blocked for 36 hours.  According to the Ministry of Forests, three quarters of the forest service roads in the Squamish Forest District were closed from washouts, flooding or slides, with multiple bridges destroyed.  North of Pemberton, some residents around Skookumchuck were evacuated to Pemberton by helicopter.

Within the Pemberton Valley, a Friday afternoon community effort to shore p a dike behind the Van Loon property attempted to mitigate the damage caused by the flood.  Approximately 100 people were reported to have come out to fill sandbags.  Their success was limited as the dike was breached a few kilometres north of their work, flooding fields and homes and ruining potato crops.

An aerial view of the flood at the airport. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

Compared to other areas of the Sea to Sky, the flooding would appear to have caused relatively little destruction in Whistler, mainly due to the community effort to keep Fitzsimmons Creek in its channel.

Through the evening of Thursday and Friday, local contractors, excavators and heavy equipment crews worked to shore up the banks of Fitzsimmons Creek and keep the waters out of the village and White Gold.  According to Tony Evans, public safety director, “If we hadn’t had that we could have made Britannia Beach look like a walk in the park.”

The footbridge over Fitzsimmons Creek, 1991. Photo courtesy of Jan Jansen

As it was, the high waters and debris in the creek took out two supports of the Nancy Greene Drive bridge, partially washed out two footbridges linking the village and benchlands, and destroyed Fitzsimmons Creek Park.  The flooding also damaged sewer pipes and interrupted water supplies to White Gold.

At this time 28 years ago, Whistler and the surrounding communities were still in the midst of their clean up efforts as the water receded.  It would take weeks to clear debris, assess damages, rebuild bridges, and construct measures to prevent future flooding, such as deepening Fitzsimmons Creek.  Some of these measures can still be seen while walking across Fitzsimmons Creek today.