Tag Archives: Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.

Whistler Mountain’s 20th Birthday

On February 9, 1985, Whistler Mountain decided to celebrate its 20th birthday with events and contests held on the mountain and at the Gondola Base (today known as Creekside). The Whistler Question stated that the goal of the celebrations was to “make everyone remember the good old days of ’65,” with food prices in Pika’s from 1965 and an Apres Ski party featuring music and styles from the 1960s. There was just one problem with this plan: in February 1965, no lifts had been built on Whistler Mountain yet. Whistler Mountain officially opened to the public on January 15, 1966, nineteen years before. This did not stop the lift company from throwing itself a 20th birthday party and inviting everyone to join in the festivities.

On the mountain, the lift company organized a scavenger hunt, a special Ski Scamps and Parents race on Ego Bowl, and a Celebrity Masters Classic on the Lower Gondola Run (today part of Dave Murray Downhill). This last competition pitted celebrities of the ski industry against Whistler Mountain skiers, as well as allowing in “selected members of the media who can wear skis – and think at the same time.” For those who wanted to watch a spectacle rather than compete, the ski school performed a synchronized ski demonstration and on the Saturday evening 175 skiers participated in a torchlight parade down the mountain.

Some participants in the adult portion of the Gondola Stuffing Contest. Whistler Question Collection, 1985

At the Gondola Base, the Gondola Stuffing Contest saw 27 kids stuffed into one four-person gondola and at Dusty’s the 1960s themed air band contest was won by Cate Webster’s group The Exciters. Outside, people danced to live music and the lift company cut into a giant 12 m birthday cake.

Just part of the 12 m birthday cake. Whistler Question Collection, 1985

The day before Whistler Mountain’s “birthday,” VIP meals had gathered together executives and staff from both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains to cut a much smaller cake. Though some invitees couldn’t make it (Seppo Makinen, whose crews cut the first runs on Whistler Mountain, was detained in Vancouver and missed “the first time in 20 years the lift company was going to pay for a meal”), President of Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises Hugh Smythe, himself a former Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. employee, was spotted wearing a Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain t-shirt for the occasion.

Blackcomb President Hugh Smythe (left) sports a Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain shirt next to Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation executives Peter Alder (middle) and Lorne Borgal (right). Whistler Question Collection, 1985

Whistler Mountain’s 20th birthday was also a chance for the company and the community to reflect on the past twenty (or nineteen) years and the changes they had seen in such a short time. Three founding members of the lift company were asked how they felt about the milestone for the Question’s “Whistler Answers” column. Makinen said it felt “really good. It’s nice to see,” and Franz Wilhelmsen, the founding president of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., told the paper “I think it’s fantastic. It has fulfilled everyone’s wildest dreams I think.” Stefan Ples, however, believed that at twenty years the ski operation was still young compared to European resorts and had plenty of potential. Ples told the paper, “It’s hardly started.”

The Exciters perform as the winners of the lift company’s 1960s-themed air band contest. Whistler Question Collection, 1985

According to a member of the lift company’s marketing team, the fact that Whistler Mountain hadn’t been operating for quite twenty years yet was not important. The economy was coming out the other side of a major recession that had hit tourism and the town of Whistler quite hard, and hosting a birthday party seemed like a great way to celebrate. The community seemed to agree, with over 1,500 people joining in some part of the festivities and showing that age really is just a number.

Highway to (Powder) Heaven

The towering mountains and lush valleys that inspire people to fall in love with the Sea to Sky also create challenges for access. When Myrtle and Alex Philip arrived at John Millar’s cabin in 1911, they had taken a steamer to Squamish, and then walked the rest of the way to Millar’s cabin at present-day Function Junction. With the introduction of the railway to Alta Lake in 1914, the region was opened to more tourism and industry.

Prior to 1965, the road to Whistler was notoriously unreliable. Regular creek crossings were required and the single lane gravel road suffered extreme washouts, as seen in this photo of Cheakamus Canyon in the 50s. Janet Love Morrison collection.

It was not until 1956, however, that a road connected Vancouver to Squamish, and there was not a reliable road to Whistler until the 1960s. To ensure the highway was completed in time for the opening of the lifts in 1965, rumour has it that the Garibaldi Lifts Company gave a single ski to the then-Minister of Highways Phil Gaglardi. He kept this ski in his office as an incentive to complete the road, and was presented with the matching ski upon the completion of the highway.

Crossing creek on the road to Alta Lake (now known as Whistler), south of Pinecrest. Before the highway, numerous creek crossings meant access via car was not possible at many times during the year. Janet Love Morrison collection.

Even once the highway went in, it was still a hair-raising journey. While driving the Sea to Sky in certain conditions today requires confident and experienced winter drivers, imagine if the roads were only plowed once a week. This is what visitors and residents had to contend with for the inaugural season of Whistler Mountain. Only ski fanatics would brave the journey, and you had to be a special type of enthusiast to make the trip on Friday evening before the roads were plowed on Saturday morning.

When you met another car along the single-lane plowed gravel road, there was no room to pass. Both cars were required to stop and snow was dug out of the snow banks to let the smaller car squeeze by. Revellers would spend Friday night at the Cheakamus Inn, watching to see whose cars had survived the rough trip. As Paul Burrows remembers, “Eventually most people ended up at the Inn because after driving that road you needed a drink.”

Even the good sections of road were rough and hard on vehicles. This photo was taken prior to the highway near Pinecrest. Janet Love Morrison collection.

In 1966, one year after construction, Highway 99 was paved from Squamish to Mons and kept clear of snow as much as possible. As we know, that did not eliminate all transport problems. The Squamish Citizen reported in 1987, “Poor visibility, the near eradication of lines along the edge of the highway and the dinginess of the centre line coupled with the spottiness of the cat’s eyes (road reflectors) in many places makes it almost impossible to distinguish the centre line or edge of the road.” Does that sound familiar? The article goes on to recommend imbedding the cat’s eyes in the centre of the road, and suggesting that someone invent fluorescent paint for the road lines.

These solutions (including the invention of fluorescent paint), along with the widening of the road for the 2010 Olympics, have no doubt helped with access and we have seen incredible growth in visitors and residents alike, resulting in far more people using the Sea to Sky Highway. However, where you have mountainous geography and weather that brings amazing snowfalls, road and access continue to be topics of great debate. At least it does not take five hours to get to Costco every visit, unless you make the mistake of leaving on Sunday afternoon!

Narrow road through Cheakamus Canyon. Janet Love Morrison collection.

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.