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Tag Archives: Franz Wilhelmsen
These photos from the Whistler Question show a much smaller Whistler, where everything from a visit by the Governor General, to a snowblower surviving an encounter with a train, to a visiting Rotary exchange student, to a mysterious explosion in a Longhorn toilet are recorded together in the paper.
The community of Alta Lake, which attracted visitors and families with cabins in the summer for hiking, hunting and fishing along the lakefront, was forever changed in 1960.
That year, the Garibaldi Olympic Development Agency, led by Franz Wilhelmsen, chose the valley as the site to bring the 1968 Winter Olympics to Canada and British Columbia. The failure of this first Olympic bid, while discouraging, did not dissuade the group from deciding to build a world-class ski resort.
The Garibladi Lift Company installed the first gondola-accessed ski area in North America and opened the ski resort in January 1966.
With the ski resort in operation, the newly formed Chamber of Commerce operated as the local government overseeing the sporadic development surrounding the gondola base. The Garibaldi Lift Company did not have the financial resources to purchase the property around the gondola base allowing others to purchase the land.
With the lack of an official community plan or recognized local government, development went unchecked. Ski cabins were scattered around the base along with a gas station/grocery store and a telephone exchange. The Garibaldi Lift Company built an interdenominational skier’s chapel, complete with bells and a memorial stain glass window.
The Cheakamus Inn, the Highland Lodge, Rainbow Lodge and other Alta Lake lodges housed visitors in what had normally been the off-season for the Alta Lake community. A large development was planned near the shores of Nita and Alpha Lakes. The development would have included residential and commercial properties as well as more recreational areas such as a curling/skating rink, swimming pool and tennis courts. A condominium development called Alpine Village sat above the gondola area on the slopes of Whistler Mountain. The UBC Varsity Outdoor Club began constructing their new club cabin near the gondola base.
The popularity of skiing also brought long waits to ride the gondola up to the mid-station. The wait times would sometimes exceed three hours just to get on the gondola, prompting the Garibaldi Lift Company to offer free skiing to those willing to hike to the mid-station.
The parking lots at the base of the gondola were consistently full. Highway 99 was finally blacktopped between Squamish and Whistler, but the drive was still full of hairpin turns and single lane bridges. This didn’t stop skiers from driving up from the city.
The popularity of the ski resort also attracted another group of people to the valley: “hippies” and those involved in the counterculture movement. Those unable to afford to purchase land or build their own ski cabin would squat on Crown land.
With the RMOW established on September 6, 1975 the chaotic nature of development in Whistler’s early years was over the focus on bringing about the well-planned Whistler Village began.
With the wet weather, frigid temperatures and winds that have come in the last two months, many of us out on the mountains have appreciated the temporary respite offered by the enclosed gondolas. To show our appreciation, we’re offering some information on the man who designed the first lifts installed on Whistler Mountain, including the original four-person gondola.
Gerhard Mueller was an early pioneer in the ski lift industry. In the late 1920s, as mountain resorts in the Alps were still beginning to redefine themselves as winter resorts, Mueller was a 17-year-old mechanical engineering student who had grown tired of having to continuously climb up the slope in order to practice his skiing on the way down.
To address this issue Mueller built his (and Switzerland’s) first ski tow at St. Moritz using 1″ hemp rope and the engine from an old motorcycle. This first rope tow was patented in 1932 and was later improved to address complaints of tired hands and arms.
After the end of World War II Mueller founded his own company, GMD Mueller, in 1947 and continued to design innovative lift systems, including the modern detachable chairlift.
In their 1965 catalogue GMD Mueller advertised their ski lift options, claiming that “The roomy 4-seater gondolas, the elegant double-chairs or the smooth springbox-type T-bars will make every ride, both short or long, comfortable and safe, and the good appearance of Mueller Lifts will make you a proud owner.” In less than two decades they had come a long way from Mueller’s first rope tow.
In the early 1960s when Franz Wilhelmsen and Eric Beardmore, another Garibaldi Lift Ltd. director, visited Europe to study lift systems prior to choosing the systems to be used at Whistler, many chairlifts still had to be stopped both to load and to unload passengers. The double chairlift designed by Mueller had patented detachable cable grips that detached the chairgrip from the hauling rope at both stations, allowing the hauling rope to continue to run while the chair was slowed for loading and unloading before being reattached to the hauling rope and launched. This allowed for the creation of a four-person gondola.
When approached, Mueller confirmed that his designs could be adapted to fit the proposed locations on Whistler Mountain. For the lower stage from the base at Creekside to Midstation, where warmer spring temperatures and wet weather prompted worries of wet clothing before skiers even reached their first run, Mueller proposed a 65-car four-person gondola carrying approximately 500 passengers per hour for a 13-minute ride. This was to be followed by a double chairlift of 175 chairs carrying approximately 1200 passengers per hour.
In 1965 four Mueller-designed ski lifts were installed on Whistler Mountain: the four-person gondola, the double chairlift that would become known as the Red Chair and two T-bars. Mueller travelled to Whistler to oversee the construction and testing of the lifts and to conduct training sessions with lift staff. GLC workers were also sent to Switzerland to be trained on the operation and maintenance of the lifts at the GMD Mueller factory. Mueller was present for for the official opening of the lifts on January 15, 1966.
Whistler Mountain was equipped exclusively with Mueller lifts for only two years. In 1967 the Blue Chair was designed and installed by Murray-Latta Machine Co. Ltd., a Vancouver-based company. The original gondola and Red Chair were retired in 1992, but both can still be found here at the museum, a lasting legacy of the designs of Gerhard Mueller.
The Eighties are often remembered, fairly or unfairly, for questionable fashion and pop culture aesthetics, but here in Whistler it was a transformative era that saw the resort reach brand new heights. One of the key figures in Whistler’s rise during this period is Lorne Borgal, and we were lucky enough to have him participate in our recent Speaker Series soiree, plus he recorded an oral history interview with us, which help us outline some of his many contributions to Whistler.
Lorne arrived in Whistler in June 1980 with a fresh MBA from Stanford University, driving up from California within days of graduating. He had been hired by Hugh Smythe to help manage a nascent Blackcomb Mountain. As he recalls, “from accounting, marketing, sales, to any of the operating entities, ski patrol, lift operations or anything to be ready for opening day, on the operating side fell to me.” Needless to say, the days were long and the learning curve was steep.
All the business school in the world couldn’t have prepared him for having to wire the telephone lines himself when BC-Tel was on strike, or having to play traffic cop to help skiers get home to Vancouver after a busy day on the slopes. As is the case with so many of our resort’s leaders over the years, Lorne had an ingrained determination to get the job done by whatever means necessary.
As the following audio clip demonstrates, recorded during our December 2015 Speaker Series event, there was no shortage of challenges during Blackcomb Mountain’s early days:
After three seasons Lorne was ready to move on, but fate had other plans. While on vacation in Europe (his first vacation in three years), he received a phone call from Whistler Mountain marketing executive Mike Hurst (who, coincidentally, sat beside Lorne at the Speaker Series), informing Lorne that Franz Wilhelmsen was retiring and Lorne was being considered as his replacement as Whistler Mountain President. Lorne happily accepted the new job, but not before completing his Mediterranean tour.
Here he is at the the December 10,1983 ceremony dedicating the newly named Franz’s Run in honour of outgoing President Franz Wilhelmsen.
For the next six years Lorne oversaw the mountain during a period of intense competition with the upstart Blackcomb. He was at the helm of major projects such as the construction of Pika’s Restaurant – Whistler’s first proper on-mountain eatery, the visionary installatios of the original Peak Chair and the Village Gondola, leading international trade missions to expand the resort’s global reach, and updating Whistler Mountain’s management and customer service to keep up with a rapidly changing world.
Since leaving Whistler Mountain Lorne has served as an executive for a global software company, President of two other resorts, and continues to consult globally for upstart ski resorts around the world. His contributions to Whistler are most notably recognized up in the Whistler alpine, where Bagel Bowl refers to a playful nickname of his, “the Lone Bagel.”
On Friday June 13th the Multicultural Festival will be held in the Florence Petersen Park between the Whistler Library and the Whistler Museum. This event is a delightful way to learn about the many corners of the world the people of Whistler have originated.
The festival is free and open to the public. There will be performances, food, music, games, and arts and crafts all happening between 4 and 8pm.
Whistler has always been a place for people from all over the world. It has developed into what we see today through the multicultural influences of not only its first settlers – such as Myrtle and Alex Philip, who were Americans from Maine, and Polish John Millar – but also everyone who has followed in their footsteps.
This includes individuals such as Billy Bailiff a trapper from Cumberland, England who wrote about the importance of preserving Whistler’s environment in the local newsletter.
And then in later years, skiing was brought to the valley by a variety of people, many of which came from European countries where skiing was a popular sport – such as Switzerland and Austria. A great example of this is Franz Wilhelmsen, a Norwegian who became the first President of Whistler Mountain.
The Whistler Museum will be open by donation for the duration of the Multicultural Festival.
Following up on our post from a few weeks ago, where we looked at Whistler Mountain as A Clean Slate, with the photos from Franz Wilhelmsen & Willy Schaeffler’s initial inspections from 1962, today we will look a little deeper into their first impressions of the undeveloped mountain .
Schaeffler’s report following their July 1962 survey was short, for as Franz Wilhelmsen noted, “a report covering all possible variations and reasons would be very long.” Instead, they worked under the assumption that the team would be able to purchase and develop the Jordan’s Lodge property, today’s Creekside, due to its large flat area for parking lots, and proximity to the railway. Remember, there was still no proper road access to the valley, so this last point was crucial.
Schaeffler was wholly unimpressed with the “logging chaos” that spanned the lower half of the mountain, which he estimated would require would “make skiing in this area with less than feet of snow almost impossible.” Thankfully, there was plenty of mountain above.
Reading Schaeffler’s report, it’s remarkable to find so many elements of today’s ski resort already conceived at such an early stage. On their second helicopter ride into the alpine, Schaeffler notes how they were dropped off at “the saddle east of Whistler Mountain at 6,800 feet altitude,” a spot known today simply as “The Saddle” one of Whistler’s signature intermediate alpine ski runs.
From there they descended into “the major bowl with the most ideal north exposure.” Known today as Glacier Bowl, this was the first true alpine terrain to be included in the ski area, serviced by Whistler’s alpine t-bars.
Looking across the bowl, they also identified a wide-open, gentle sub-alpine slope they thought was perfect for an upper-mountain beginner area. Your might recognize this as the slope above Roundhouse Lodge and surrounding the top of the Red Chair.
Beyond terrain analysis, Schaeffler’s report also included his preliminary thoughts on infrastructure. Based on the sheer scale of the mountain, Schaeffler concluded that
“we must realize we are speaking here of a major European type ski area. In order to open up this mountain and use its full potential from the beginning, a different type of uphill equipment that has been used in normal North American ski areas must be built here.”
He was talking about a gondola of course, and a few year’s later Whistler Mountain indeed opened with British Columbia’s first gondola. Schaeffler’s initial lifts plan included a gondola, 3 chairs, and a t-bar, to service a predicted 2,000 skiers on peak days. Today Whistler-Blackcomb can see more than 25,000.
All these people would need to eat, so he also called for several hundred hotel rooms in the base area, and a cafeteria for those 2,000 skiers. Because the ski area was so large, and its focus was really the high alpine area, Schaeffler also anticipated an on-mountain restaurant.
His report includes a call for a “building which allows a 360 degree view from one room, perhaps with a fireplace in the middle” plus a cafeteria servicing 1,000 skiers, plus first aid and other amenities. He called this prospective building, simply, “The Roundhouse.”
Looking back through these photos and reports, it’s evident that Schaeffler had a huge, and largely under-appreciated impact. Not only time affirm the clarity of his vision, but having such a respected figure involved in the planning and backing the development with such enthusiasm certainly contributed to the growing buzz around the new ski resort.
Obviously several other key figures were instrumental in Whistler and Blackcomb’s continued growth over the next five decades. As this winter progresses, we’ll highlight some more of these figures and stories.