Tag Archives: GLC

Gerhard Mueller: Designer of Whistler’s First Lifts

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.

Skiers load the original four-person gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

Skiers load the original gondola at the base of Whistler Mountain in the late 1960s.

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.

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

A page from a 1965 GMD Mueller catalogue. Photo: chairlift.org/mueller.html

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 Company 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.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

The original Red Chair brought riders up to the Roundhouse from 1965 to 1992.

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.

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A seat from the original Red Chair sits in Florence Petersen Park.

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.

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Icon Gone: blow-by-blow

After weeks of steady preparations by Museum staff and intense training by the competitors, this past Sunday’s Icon Gone confirmed that Whistler’s greatest historical icon is none other than the beloved Boot Pub. Angie Nolan, assisted by Cathie Coyle, took home the glory after defending the Boot’s honour against Jamie Bond and Gaper Day, in an epic final showdown between an “Icon Gone” and an upstart icon-in-the-making.

Angie showing off her Icon Gone Championship belt while Jessica "Pika" Turner dons the crown (Angie felt the honours should be shared since Rabbit and the Boot Pub were inseparable in their day). A well-dressed Cathie Coyle looks on. (Belt designed "with love and angst" by the Whistler Arts Council's Andrea Mueller)

As promised, the competition was fierce. The new head-to-head format proved ruthlessly efficient, perhaps no more so than during the final first-round match-up when odds-on favourite Jessica “Pika” Turner’s heartwarming presentation about her father John “Rabbit” Hare was defeated by the eventual champions. The audience called for a tie, but Stephen Vogler and Jennifer Miller, who as judges were forced to pick just one, were swayed by Angie and Cathie’s theatrics.

Icon Gone ensures that community pillars like "the locals' living room" are gone but not forgotten.

The evening’s presentations were consistently compelling, but of widely divergent styles. Few dry eyes remained after Chris Quinlan’s touching tribute to late restauranteur Joel Thibeault or Hi Brooks’ case for an on-mountain memorial to fallen mountaineers, while Jamie Bond’s elaborate Gaper Day schtick and Jackson Crompton’s Broadway-style ode to Jeanie the Bear had the crowd crying with laughter (as did Jamie’s wry remark that Jack’s “bear” costume was actually a gorilla suit better-suited to Gaper Day during their semi-final showdown).

Unable to withstand Jamie's punishing verbal blows in the semis, Jackson/Jeanie secured the final podium spot with a little Aerosmith and aerobatics.

Kevin Damaskie delivered a deadpan recollection of The Whistler Answer that reinforced Whistler’s proud tradition of satire, while realtor and freestyle-ski queen Stephanie Sloan’s biography of Guiseppe Garibaldi was highly informative, but her narrow first-round elimination denied us the chance to learn of Whistler’s own “three wars.” Here are the final results:

Keeping the event running smoothly and the audience in stitches, Maureen Douglas returned to host the event for the fifth straight year. No one’s ego was safe from her razor-sharp wit. The GLC, a Whistler icon in its own right but a newcomer to the Icon Gone scene, proved the perfect venue for the informal community celebration.

Big thanks to everyone who came out, as well as the Province of BC, the GLC, Whistler Foto Source, Araxi, and Sushi Village for supporting what may have been the best Icon Gone yet. Tons of well-deserved credit goes to all of our competitors, judges, and MC for taking time out of their busy lives to take part in the event simply for the fun of it all (and perhaps some bragging rights). That’s what Icon Gone is all about!

Jamie wins over the evening's MC and judges with his Gaper Day gospel.

Power Up!

Throughout BC we are blessed with an abundance of mighty rivers from which we get almost 90% of our electricity. Here in Whistler we’re surrounded by hydro-generating stations of all sizes, notably the IPP on Fitzsimmons Creek which provides for all of Whistler-Blackcomb’s electricity needs. [Correction – it produces the equivalent of all W-B’s electricity needs, but the power is sent to the province’s main power grid.]

A helpful little diagram of W-B’s Fitzsimmons Creek hydro-electricity plant.

Considering this natural bounty, it’s hard to believe that a mere 50 years ago Alta Lake residents had still not entered the modern electric era.

As Whistlerites have always been wont to do, a few residents took matters into their own hands. Bob Williamson installed a small wind-powered turbine at the south end of Alta Lake but it could only power a few lights when the wind picked up. Dick Fairhurst was more successful with the water-wheel and generator he installed on Scotia Creek in 1954, providing steady, reliable power for his Cypress Lodge (the old hostel building next to Rainbow Park). In later years the Philips had also purchased a gas-powered generator for Rainbow Lodge. But aside from these few enterprising DIY-ers, Alta Lake residents continued on with pre-electric living.

Alta Lake resident Bob Williamson working on a power line, circa 1940s.

Heating was mostly from firewood (some residents had oil or coal-burning furnaces) and bed-time reading was done by candlelight or gas lantern. Refrigeration was accomplished in sheds full of thick ice blocks cut from Alta Lake in winter and insulated through the summer with sawdust from local mills.

This lack of hydro service must have been especially frustrating since high-voltage transmission lines ran through the valley as early as the 1930s, linking the Bridge River Hydro dam to Vancouver. At the same time there were plenty of plans for more hydro-development closer to home, including dams at Garibaldi Lake, Cheakamus Lake, on the Soo River and elsewhere, but that’s another story altogether.

Then in the late 1950s, BC Hydro built the Cheakamus Dam at Daisy Lake and another set of transmission lines linking Seton Portage to Squamish was constructed. Ironically, work crews for the power lines (which included a young Peter Alder, the influential ski area manager/developer who continues to call Whistler home) were even housed at the still-unserviced Rainbow Lodge for some time. Still, no infrastructure was provided to convert the 230,000 volts running through the valley into something a little more manageable for the residents of Alta Lake.

It wasn’t until November 1965, a few months before ski operations on Whistler Mountain began, that the Rainbow Substation was finally completed. It was only fitting that Alex and Myrtle Philip were the honourary guests at the opening ceremonies. In typically stylish fashion the Philips were a little late for the event, but as Alex noted, “after 54 years without hydro, what’s five minutes?”

The Philips attend the Rainbow Substation opening ceremony in typically stylish fashion, 18 November, 1965. Left to right: unidentified, Alex Philip, long-time Whistler resident and BC Hydro employe Rolley Horsey, Myrtle Philip.

Alex was granted the honour of actually flipping the switch that finally energized the valley. Unable to conceal the thrill of the moment, Alex let out an excited “I did it!” and a new era dawned upon the Whistler Valley. For the now-retired Philips this meant they could spend the winter at Alta Lake, instead of with friends in the city as they had in previous years.

The Philips tour the new Rainbow substation with an unidentified BC Hydro employee, November 18, 1965.

And so a new era dawned for the Whistler Valley, albeit a little late. According to Wladek “Walter” Zebrowski‘s biography In Search of Freedom, the arrival of electricity almost prevented Whistler’s development into the massive resort it is today. While clearing his land near what would soon become Creekside in July 1964, Zebrowski was suddenly drawn from his work by the deafening roar of a helicopter setting down nearby:

A man got out–it was Bob Brown, a surveyor for the B.C. Hydro Corporation–and he informed Wladek that a power line was going to be put through his land.The forty meter wide line with transmission towers… was to cut through the whole valley (today the centre of town with the town and and four large residential areas). The plans had been already made, the land had been prepared and many tress had been cut out. He was here just to take the last measurements as the construction was to start very soon.

The book continues to recount how Zebrowski immediately halted working and drove to Vancouver to inform Franz Wilhelmson at the GLC offices. The next day they met with B.C. Hydro Chairman Dr. Gordon Shrum and convinced them to relocate the transmission line so as not to interfere with the planned ski area and adjoining residential developments. Instead, the high transmission lines run along the west side of the valley–the more populated side during the Alta Lake era–leaving room for Whistler to develop into its current state.