Tag Archives: Highway 99

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.

A Harrowing Journey to Whistler

For many people, their first impression of Whistler begins with a trip up Highway 99 from Vancouver. Depending on the time of year and the weather, this can be anything from an inspiring journey with spectacular views to a frustrating slow-moving slog through traffic to a harrowing experience sharing the road with drivers unprepared for snowy conditions. For Lynn Mathew’s mother, her first impressions were closer to the last.

Lynn’s mother had already visited the west coast before her first visit to Whistler; when Lynn and David Mathews first moved out to Vancouver from Quebec in the 1960s, both her parents came out to see their new home. At the time, Lynn’s mother had never been in an airplane and didn’t particularly want to be in one, so she boarded a bus in New York and three days later Lynn’s father boarded a plane. Lynn picked up her father at the airport and then together they drove to Vancouver’s bus station to collect her mother. A year or two later, when Lynn had her first child in November 1967, her mother got on her first plane and ventured out to visit her new grandson in Whistler.

With snow on the road, Highway 99 could easily become a treacherous, one-lane route. Laforce Collection

She arrived the day after her grandson was born and, until that day, there had been no snow in the Whistler valley. David picked her up at the airport and they stopped at the Squamish hospital where Lynn and the baby were staying the night. While they were there, it began to snow in Squamish. David, who had the lift company truck, suggested that they leave before it snowed too much. When they returned to collect Lynn and the baby the next day, she got to hear about their adventures driving up to Whistler.

The highway between Squamish and Whistler today is very different from that of 1967 but, as Lynn put it, “the hill at Daisy Lake is still there.” She described this section at the time as “a very narrow hill with no shoulders, and very steep.” Though there wasn’t a large number of cars traveling up the highway, many of those that were encountered difficulties getting up that hill. By the time David and Lynn’s mother got to the hill, there were cars off the side of the road, some of them leaning towards the cliff. As they told Lynn, it was fortunate that no cars ended up in the lake.

Prior to the development of Whistler Mountain in 1965, the “roads” were in even more questionable condition. MacLaurin Collection.

David and Lynn’s mother came across a couple on their way home to Pemberton whose car was “definitely in the ditch.” Despite the fact that the bench in the lift company truck would only comfortably fit three, David and Lynn’s mother offered the couple a ride as far as Whistler, where they could arrange for friends to pick them up. The four of them squished into the truck and zigzagged up the hill between the cars stuck on the sides.

As it happened, one of the people they had picked up was from Norway, not too far from where Lynn’s mother was from. The two had a great visit as David drove them safely through the snowy conditions to Whistler. The next day, David and Lynn’s mother returned to Squamish to bring Lynn and the baby home to Whistler.

It continued to snow steadily in the area and, according to Lynn, “My mother wasn’t sure just what I had moved to.” This sentiment was echoed by David’s mother when she came out to visit from Quebec in January 1968, a visit that involved a lot of snow, a power outage, and an evacuation by snowcat to the Ski Boot Motel, but that’s a story for another day.

A Rainy End to the Holidays

Discussions of weather in Whistler have been going on for decades, as is apparent from past editions of the Whistler Question.  In the early months of winter the conversations usually focus on snow.  Reports from January 1981, however, show that rain, rather than snow, was the topic of discussion in town that year.

While there had been snow in early December 1980, it began to rain in earnest in Whistler and the surrounding areas on December 24.  The rain had not stopped by noon on December 26 and flooding was occurring in places from Squamish to D’Arcy, as well as in the Fraser Valley and other areas of British Columbia.

One of two destroyed power lines when flood waters washed out footings south of the Tisdale Hydro Station.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler and Pemberton were cut off from the rest of the Sea to Sky by both road and rail, as Highway 99 was washed out around Culliton Creek (today the site of the Culliton Creek Bridge, also known as the Big Orange Bridge) and north of the Rutherford Creek junction.  A rail bridge over Rutherford Creek was left handing by the rails when its supports were washed away and other sections of rail were obstructed by small slides and washouts.

BCR Rutherford Creek crossing hangs by its rails after the December 26 flood washed away all supports and girders.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

19 Mile Creek overflowed at the entrance to Alpine Meadows, cutting it off from the rest of town.  The bridge on Valley Drive was also washed out, taking with it part of the main water supply.  In other parts of Whistler sewer lines, water systems, bridges, road and parking lots were damaged, though employees of Whistler Mountain worked quickly to divert water at its gondola base as Whistler Creek rose.  Helicopters were used to ferry residents and visitors in and out of the valley, including Mayor Pat Carleton who was in Vancouver at the time of the flood.

A creative approach to entering Alpine Meadows. George Benjamin Collection.

At the Garibaldi townsite south of Whistler, rising waters caused one house to be swept into the Cheakamus River and another to tip precariously while others were left unaccessible.

The flooding was partly caused by the unseasonable rise in temperature and freezing levels, meaning most of the early snow melted and added to the rain, as well as washing gravel, logs and debris down to the valley.

By the beginning of 1981, the roads to Whistler and Pemberton had reopened and repairs were underway.  Unfortunately, the temperatures were still warm and the rain was not over.  On January 21 the detour built around the previous wash out at Culliton Creek was washed out, again cutting off access on Highway 99.  At first it was believed that the closure would be quite brief, but Highway 99 remained closed until January 26.

Two of many skiers that made use of BCR (BC Rail) passenger service last week.  Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Luckily, at the time there was still passenger rail service to Whistler.  The two-car passenger train from Prince George to North Vancouver was already full by the time it reached Whistler that day, but skiers trying to get back to the Lower Mainland were able to fill the baggage car and stand in the aisles.  While helicopters and float planes were also used, trains became the most popular means of transport for five days, introducing many travellers to an option they had not considered before.

Rail was also used to transport goods, including delivering the Whistler Question on January 21 and supplying restaurants and food stores.  Due to the limited freight space available, Whistler was limited to ten cases of milk per day and, by the time the road reopened, the stores were out of milk and fresh produce while the gas tanks at the gas station were running low.  The Whistler Grocery Store, which was set to open on January 22, considered delaying but ultimately decided to proceed with its opening as planned when it became apparent that many families in the cut off communities were in danger of running out of certain food stuffs.

On January 26, as the road reopened, snow finally reached the valley again in Whistler.  By January 31 sunshine and new snow had brought crowds of skiers back to Whistler Mountain.  Further Questions continued to report on the weather and snow, but it would appear that after a dramatic start to the winter the 1981 season ended without further mishap.

Directing Ski Traffic

As many people who have worked at small or relatively new organizations (and even some larger, more established ones) know, it is not unusual for one’s job to include many duties that would not necessarily be found in the job description.  Sill, you generally wouldn’t expect to see a company’s president and administrative manage, along with another organization’s general manager, out directing traffic in the dark.  That, however, is exactly what happened in 1980 when Blackcomb Mountain experienced its first traffic jam.

Go-carts and formula cars demonstrate the turns of a freshly paved Blackcomb Way, which experienced solid lines of traffic on Blackcomb’s first busy weekend.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to Lorne Borgal, Blackcomb’s administrative manager, the issue occurred when Blackcomb had one of its first “big weekend days.”  Skiers spent the day on the snow, had a great time, and then all tried to leave.  While in his office at Base II about 4 o’clock, he realized that it had been a while since a car had left the parking lot.  They were all lined up, idling and waiting to go, but traffic was not moving.

Borgal, Blackcomb’s president Hugh Smythe, and Al Raine (then the general manager of the Whistler Resort Association) jumped in a pickup truck and drove the wrong way down Blackcomb Way to find the source of the gridlock.  Unfortunately, some of the cars saw this and followed them down, creating two lines of cars and no way back up the road.

The location of the administrative offices provided a great view of the parking lot and Blackcomb Way. Greg Griffith Collection.

The problem, they discovered, was that the northbound traffic on the highway form the Whistler Mountain gondola base was not allowing any car to leave the Village area.  At the time, there was no traffic light and only one entrance onto the highway, controlled by a stop sign.  It was also dark and snowing.

Smythe, Raine and Borgal began directing traffic.  As Borgal recalled, “We had all the parking lots in the valley merging onto the one little road out… There was no flashing lights or anything, there was just the little glow there, […] and I was the idiot who stood out on the road.  You’re out in the road, in the dark, flashing a little flashlight, trying to get these guys to stop to get some people out of the valley.”  The fact that gondola traffic had never had to stop before didn’t make the situation any easier.

Traffic attempts to merge onto Highway 99 from Village Gate in the snow, still a problem spot at times. Whistler Question Collection.

At one point, the local RCMP did come by, putting on his lights and asking what was going on.  When told about the problem, however, he decided that the Blackcomb staff had it in hand and left.  Directing traffic became another of the many “amazing things to do” that marked the early operations of Blackcomb Mountain.

Though this season has certainly been different, it has not been uncommon in past years to see lines of cars backed up through the Village at the end of a good snow day, much as they would have been forty years ago.  Directing traffic, however, in included in job descriptions now and those who do it get proper lights and signage.  Next week, we’ll be taking another look at mountain employees (temporarily) taking on duties outside their given roles, this time on Whistler Mountain.