Tag Archives: Franz Wilhelmsen

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.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part Two)

There is an often told story of the first meeting of Stefan Ples and Franz Wilhelmsen of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. on Whistler Mountain.  Apparently Franz arrived at the top of the mountain by helicopter to find Stefan there on skis.  Franz asked, “What are you doing on my mountain?”, to which Stefan replied, “What are you doing on mine?”  Though we do not know exactly how their first meeting occurred, the story certainly demonstrates Stefan’s love of the mountain and his preferred way to navigate it.  (For more information on Stefan’s life before coming to Alta Lake, check out last week’s article here.)

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

Although Stefan didn’t understand why people would prefer going up on lifts and skiing only a short distance down, he became greatly involved in the development of Whistler Mountain.  By the mid 1960s he had been exploring the mountain on his skis for years and knew the are perhaps better than anyone at the time.  Stefan began working for the lift company in 1963, going up to Alta Lake every weekend for over a year to climb up to a meadow at the bottom of the T-bar, where he would record the temperature and snowfall and other information (his handwritten reports were donated to the Whistler Museum & Archives by his daughter Renate Bareham in 2013).

When construction of the runs and lifts began Stefan moved up to Alta Lake full time to work.  Part of his responsibilities was to bring the horses up the mountain with supplies to a work camp that was set up in what may have been the same meadows he gathered his reports from.  Renate accompanied him on one of his trips up with the horses and told the museum, “It was just magical, because we went up through the forest and everything and we ended up in this meadow.  Oh, it was so beautiful up there.”

During one particularly bad snow year, Stefan also introduced the sport of Ice Stock Sliding to the valley.  “The old master, Stefan Ples, who introduced ice stock sliding to the Whistler area, sending one of the “rocks” down the recently blacktopped course next to the school at Whistler.” (Garibaldi Whistler News Fall 1977)

Though Gerda had continued to run their rooming house in Vancouver when Stefan first started working for the lift company, the rest of the family moved to Alta Lake in 1966.  According to Renate, not many people lived in the area at the time, and those who did either worked for the lift company or worked construction around the gondola base.  Renate attended high school in Squamish and worked for the lift company on the weekends and breaks.  At fourteen she began by stapling lift tickets and then handing out boarding passes, moving on to teach skiing for Jim McConkey when she turned sixteen.  She also babysat, caring for the Bright and Mathews children whose parents worked for the mountain.

Stefan continued working for the lift company and led ski tours to areas the lifts didn’t access.  One summer Renate even remembered helping him paint the top of the Red Chair.  Despite working for the lift company and receiving a lifetime pass in 1980, Stefan continued to prefer walking up, occasionally taking a lift as far as midstation before beginning his climb.

According to Renate, the only person who could go up the mountain on skis faster than her father was Seppo Makinen: “It took my dad three hours, probably, to get to the peak.  Seppo made it in an hour and a half.  I think he actually ran, you know, on his cross country skis, and my dad walked on his cross country skis, but Seppo ran.  He was also considerably younger than my father.”

Stefan Ples, long-time resident of Whistler, receives a lifetime pass from Garibaldi Lifts President Franz Wilhelmsen in recognition of his long involvement with Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Parts of Stefan’s legacy can be seen throughout the area though many may not know of his role in creating it, from the Tyrol Lodge to the two runs off Whistler Peak that bear his name (Stefan’s Chute and Stefan’s Salute).  He was a founding member of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s and helped start Whistler’s first Search and Rescue Team in 1973.  His name can also be found on the Stefan Ples trophy, the prize for the overall winners of the Peak to Valley Race, as he like to climb to the peak and then ski all the way down.

Though some people may come to Whistler to build a career or make it rich, Renate said of her father that, “All he wanted to do was be in the mountains,” a goal it would appear he certainly accomplished.

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.