Tag Archives: Glen McPherson

Pacific Ski Air – Whistler’s First Heli-ski Operation

With our upcoming Speaker Series about the origins of heli-skiing in Whistler, we thought we’d delve a little deeper into the Pacific Ski Air story.

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Among the many ski industry-altering innovations that have occurred here in Whistler, it is often under-appreciated that, as far as we can tell, Whistler was the first ski resort to offer heli-skiing. When Hans Gmoser’s Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the first commercial heli-ski operator, began their operations in April 1965 they were based out of an abandoned logging camp south of Golden, BC. They opened their first purpose-built backcountry lodge, Bugaboo Lodge, in 1968 in the same vicinity as the logging camp.

Pacific Ski Air, meanwhile, began shuttling skiers up from Whistler’s original Creekside base directly to exhilarating ski descents on the massive north-facing glaciers of the Spearhead Range during the winter of 1967-68.

The fledgling company had the huge advantage of working in partnership with Okanagan Helicopters. Originally formed in Penticton, BC with the intent of using helicopters to spray pesticides for large-scale agriculture, Okanagan Helicopters quickly grew into the largest helicopter operator in the world by supporting a variety of resource industries and industrial construction projects in the mountains of British Columbia. By the end of the 1950s,  OK Helicopters, as they were known, owned more than 60 aircraft and had relocated to Vancouver.

Glenn McPherson, President of Okanagan Helicopters, was also on the original board of directors of Garibaldi Lifts Limited, the company that built Whistler Mountain ski resort, so it’s no coincidence that OK feature prominently in early photos of the resort:

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Not surprisingly, OK was also heavily involved in Pacific Ski Air from the start as well, as a partial owner, in partnership with Joe Csizmazia, Al Raine, Jamie Pike, and Peter Vajda. Brian Rowley and Cliff Jennings were the original ski guides.

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The bread and butter of the operation was a 2 or 3 run package in the Spearhead Range, primarily on the Blackcomb, Decker, Trorey, and Tremor Glaciers, before finishing up with a drop on Whistler Peak where the guides and clients skied down Whistler Bowl and Shale Slope back down to the Red Chair. Special trips were also made to Overlord Mountain, Rainbow Mountain, the Brandywine area, and north of Blackcomb around Wedge and Weart Mountains.

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Pacific Ski Air only lasted a few short seasons, stifled by a number of factors including an inability to secure an operating tenure. Still, the pioneering folks at Pacific Ski Air were among the first to truly appreciate the Coast Mountains’ potential as an unparalleled destination for adventure-skiing.

Join us Wednesday January 20th at 6pm as Pacific Ski Air veterans Cliff Jennings and Jamie Pike share more photos and stories from this groundbreaking era.

When: Wednesday January 20th; Doors at 6pm, show 7pm-9pm
Where: Whistler Museum (4333 Main Street, beside the Library)
Who: Everyone!
Cost: $10 regular price, $5 for museum members

We expect this event to sell out, so make sure to get your tickets early. To purchase tickets stop by the museum or call us at 604.932.2019.

 

Helicopters, Hats & Hummingbirds

By Jaimie Fedorak, Summer Collections Assistant

While looking through our artifact collection this summer we stumbled upon a familiar item: an Okanagan Helicopters baseball cap in the trademark orange and blue. We recognized the cap’s distinctive hummingbird logo because a helicopter enthusiast we know [Editor’s note: Jaimie’s father] has the exact same hat, but we were unsure why this hat would be part of our artifact collection.

The hat in all its orange glory.

The hat in all its orange glory.

Heli-skiing in the Whistler area has long been a popular activity, since the choppers provide access to the glaciers and backcountry areas for skiers looking for prime powder skiing. Pamphlets from the museum’s research files reveal that a bevy of helicopter companies were involved in providing heli-skiing tours, including Canadian Helicopters Ltd (one of the companies which Okanagan Helicopters became when it was restructured in later years, who also had a hummingbird logo).

Franz Wilhelmsen and unidentified man with an OK Heli, 1960s.

Franz Wilhelmsen and Willy Shaeffler with an OK Heli, 1960s.

Issues of the Garibaldi Whistler News going back as far as 1970 also prove that Okanagan Helicopters was the one of, if not the, first company offering heli-skiing services in the Whistler area. The company was allied with skiing superstar Jim McConkey, who was the Director of the Garibaldi Ski School at the time and acted as the guide on heli-skiing trips.

Early heli-skiers, near Whistler. Yes, winter is coming.

Early heli-skiers, near Whistler. Yes, winter is coming.

But the connection between Okanagan Helicopters and the resort goes back even further. Photos in the Museum’s collection show many Okanagan Helicopters machines, and the earliest photos from the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation collection reveal that Okanagan Helicopters was the company that took Franz Wilhelmsen and company on tours of the area during the early 1960s to scope out the viability of developing a ski resort.

Touring around the Whistler Mountain alpine, early 1960s.

Touring around the Whistler Mountain alpine, early 1960s.

Once the decision was made to make the resort a reality, Okanagan Helicopters was called upon again. Construction of the lift towers was done before ground transportation up the mountain was feasible, and helicopters were thus  chosen the construction vehicle of choice. When the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA for short) was formed to promote Whistler Mountain as a potential host for the 1966 Olympics Glen McPherson, the president of Okanagan Helicopters, was on the committee due to the company’s important role in the construction of the resort.

The hat itself is most likely from the late 1970s or early 1980s – before Okanagan Helicopters became Canadian Helicopters Ltd and CHC in 1987- but the legacy of how it came to be in the collection goes back almost 20 years to the very beginning of the Whistler-Blackcomb resort.