Tag Archives: Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.

W is for Whistler

For some visitors to the museum, the most recognizable images of Whistler’s past are not photographs or objects, but logos and company branding. Just seeing Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.’s green and blue “G” can instantly remind a former lift operator of their company-issued jacket and the months they spend loading the Red Chair sometime between 1965 and 1980. Some logos and branding initiatives have lasted for decades while others were only in use for a few years and then forgotten, though traces of them can still be found around the Whistler valley long after they were first introduced.

Jim McConkey is his Ski School uniform, including a small blue and green G on the label. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) introduced their “W” logo in their newsletter in December 1978. It was designed by Robert McIlhargey, an architectural illustrator who, with his wife Lori Brown, created much of the concept rendering work for Expo 86. McIlhargey was hired by the WVLC along with David Clifford as design consultants, helping plan elements of the Whistler Village like the logo and even directional signs. According to McIlhargey, the “W” logo and uniform branding and signage throughout the resort were meant to “reinforce the image of Whistler.”

The “W” logo consisted of a circle of Ws, often with the words Whistler Village written underneath. It was designed to be easily adapted to different settings through the use of different text and background colours (the logo was first introduced in green). Shortly after its introduction, the Ws were visible on signs at the entrance to the Whistler Village site and into the 1980s the Ws could be found on wooden signs, pamphlets, advertisements, and even turtlenecks. In 1979, Don Willoughby and Geoff Power of Willpower Enterprises were given permission to use the “W’ logo to produce 1,000 t-shirts as souvenirs of the World Cup race that was meant to have run on Whistler Mountain.

New signs recently put up in the area of the new Whistler Village by the Whistler Village Land Company. Whistler Question Collection.

Not all marketing and branding initiatives in Whistler have been as seemingly well received as WVLC’s “W” logo. The reception to the memorable Big Old Softie initiative wasn’t exactly what the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) had hoped for.

According to WMSC’s then Vice-President of Marketing Mike Hurst, Whistler Mountain began to be perceived as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back” after Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, while Blackcomb built a reputation as a beginner-friendly mountain. Hurst described Blackcomb’s reputation as “this big, friendly family mountain, nice and soft, everything’s good.” Whistler Mountain did not yet have the same on-mountain amenities of family-focused programs that Blackcomb did, but after fifteen years without local competition Whistler Mountain was working to change its image.

The Big Old Softie sticker, showing a friendly image of Whistler Mountain.

Hurst and his team began trying to show that Whistler Mountain was “every bit as friendly and family oriented” as Blackcomb with lots of easy beginner terrain. Working with Ron Woodall (the person behind the A&W Root Bear and the creative director of Expo 86), the Big Old Softie initiative was created. Featuring a rounded, smiling mountain, the Big Old Softie was not a universal hit. On rainy days, some changed the name to the “Big Old Soggy” and, according to Hurst, he and the Whistler Mountain team “got raked over the coals pretty good by pretty much everybody” about the campaign. Despite this, the Big Old Softie has proven memorable, and Hurst thought that it did bring attention to Whistler Mountain’s softer side and developing programs.

While you are unlikely to come across an image of the Big Old Softie walking through Whistler today, there are still circles of Ws and even some Garibaldi Lifts Gs that can be spotted around town.

Early Freestyle on Whistler

When the first Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp was held on Whistler Mountain during the summer of 1966, the camp focused mainly on racing and was motivated partly by the need for competitive skiers to stay in shape and improve their technique between competition seasons.  This focus changed as more recreational skiers began participating in the camps with an interest in improving their own skills under the guidance of skiers such as Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene and Alan White.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1973, however, that freestyle was included in the Ski Camp programming and the legendary Wayne Wong began coaching on Whistler, reflecting a change in the sport of skiing.

The staff of the 1969 Summer Ski Camp, including another freestyle skiing legend, Dag Aabye. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

At the time, freestyle skiing was still a relatively young sport.  The first recorded freestyle skiing competitions in the United States were not held until the mid-1960s and it was not until 1969 that the first instructional program began at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.  In 1971 Waterville Valley hosted the first Professional Freestyle Skiing Competition, drawing together competitive skiers from across North America.  These skiers included Wayne Wong, George Askevold and Floyd Wilkie, all of whom decided to stay at Waterville Valley as coaches of the first Freestyle Ski Team.

We don’t know when exactly the first freestyle skiing competition was held on Whistler Mountain but by the spring of 1971 there was enough demand that Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. hosted the first annual Aerial Ski Acrobatic Championship and Hot Shot Contest.  In 1973 freestyle skiing became part of the Toni Sailer Summer Ski Camp programming under the direction of Wong, Askevold and Wilkie, providing more formal training for skiers interested in the growing sport and “teaching youngsters to ski the ‘Wong Way’.”

Three well-known hot dog skiers show off their style in 1973 at the Tony Sailer Summer Ski Camp. Left to right: George Askevold, Wayne Wong and Floyd Wilkie.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

In the spring of 1974, Whistler Mountain expanded its freestyle offerings with a spring Freestyle Skiing Camp for “youngsters who can ski parallel, but who want to master some of the popular new maneuvers of freestyle under competent coaching.”  According to Garibaldi’s Whistler News, the “newest tricks” such as skiing sideways, backwards or upside down were becoming more common on Whistler, but were also risky, especially without training or instruction.  They decided to provide an opportunity to explore techniques and tricks under the tutelage of Michel Daigle, Tetsuo Fuji, and Bob Dufour.

Michel Daigle demonstrates his synchronized skills during a competition on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

While freestyle skiing was becoming increasingly popular through the 1970s, it was not officially recognized as a sport by the FIS until 1979, when international regulations and certifications were introduced.  The next year saw the first FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup with event in moguls, aerials, and “acroski,” also known as ski ballet.  To win the overall title, skiers had to compete in all three disciplines.

In 1986 the first FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships were held in Tignes, France, and then demonstration events were held at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  Over the next two decades, more and more freestyle skiing events joined the Olympic line up, beginning with moguls in 1992, aerials in 1994, ski cross in 2010 and, most recently, halfpipe and slopestyle in 2014.  Unfortunately, ski ballet, though part of competitions and tours in the 1970s and 1980s, did not continue to grow with freestyle skiing in the same way and has not been recognized as an official freestyle discipline since 2000.

Today freestyle skiing looks a little different than it did in the early competition of the 1970s, but it can often be seen on Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains and around the world.

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.

Bringing the First Television to Whistler

Bringing television access to Whistler was no easy feat before cable and satellite, but Walter Zebrowski can be credited with bringing it to the valley.

The Chamber of Commerce apparently began discussing television at its first meeting in 1966, and members wrote letters to the provincial government in Victoria asking for the installation of antennas or a TV cable.  But they heard nothing back from their queries.

Walter feeding the fish at Eva Lake Park.

Zebrowski eventually asked the Chamber members to give him free rein to attempt to bring television to the Whistler valley.  He was determined and eager, and the members approved.  In 1970, Zebrowski took a trip to Vancouver and with his own money purchased a TV antenna and a small battery-operated television set.

Next came the challenge of finding a location for the antenna where it would receive a TV signal.  Zebrowski spent months exploring the surrounding mountains be snowmobile and helicopter for the right location.  Between the two peaks of Mount Sproatt he found a signal.

Zebrowski ordered the rest of the equipment that was needed to put up the antenna and it was erected with the help of Jon Anderson.  Next to the antenna, Zebrowski proudly hung a flag of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.

A few days later, however, when a storm passed over the mountain, the masts were all destroyed.  Zebrowski described the main antenna as looking like “a swan with a broken neck,” so they started all over again with smaller masts that were more resistant to the wind.

At the annual December Ball of the Chamber of Commerce, Zebrowski put a TV set in the corner of the hall and covered it.  After the usual complaining about the lack of TV, he turned the set on and embraced the astonishment and joy of the other Chamber members.

The Sproatt antenna required regular snow clearing during the winters. George Benjamin Collection.

The antenna originally received three different stations.

Along with the TV antenna, Zebrowski also founded the Whistler Television Society, which helped maintain the site and collected a fee from members to help fund the service.

In the late 1990s, the antenna was struck by lightning and one of the devices stopped working.  From then, there were only two channels available.  By the time this happened, most people in the valley were using cable or satellite TV and no one was around who knew how to, or was willing to, repair the primitive technology.

Zebrowski passed away in 1996, leaving a lasting legacy in Whistler.

Whistler T.V. Society members Floyd Eclair, Richard Heine and Albert Bryjack went up to adjust the society’s channel 6 antenna atop Sproat Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

The television signal captured by Zebrowski eventually became redundant and by 1999, it was unknown if there was anyone still using the Sproatt signal.  The municipality decided to stop collecting taxes to fund the Whistler Television Society and when the CRTC licence expired in 2000, the signal was no longer usable.

The site of the Sproatt antenna was an ideal location, as it was later proposed, to build an internet connection structure.  Paul Burrows, who had acted as a caretaker for the society and helped shovel snow off of the repeater in the winter, claimed that “You can see clear all of Whistler from that site.”