Tag Archives: Hugh Smythe

Whistler’s Answers: April 7, 1983

In the 1980s the Whistler Question began posing a question to three to six people and publishing their responses under “Whistler’s Answers” (not to be confused with the Whistler Answer).  Each week, we’ll be sharing one question and the answers given back in 1983.  Please note, all names/answers/occupations/neighbourhoods represent information given to the Question at the time of publishing and do not necessarily reflect the person today.

Some context for this week’s question: In the 1980s, the provincial government opened the Powder Mountain site to bids for development. By 1983, several ski resort developers had been attracted to the area but none had gone further than talking about it. In April 1983, a company called Powder Mountain Resorts Ltd. joined with French consortium SITAC International SA to develop a master plan for the recreational reserve in the Callaghan recreational reserve area. The plan called for skiing on six mountains and seven townsites. Some people questioned the feasibility of a ski resort in the area, in part because of the challenging terrain and unpredictable weather, while others were concerned such a development would dilute the market and draw business away from Whistler.

Question: How viable do you think the Powder Mountain development will be?

Ross Moore – Village Employee – Alpha Lake Village

I think it will probably take business away from Whistler and Blackcomb just because Powder Mountain is closer to Vancouver. People really don’t seem to be loyal to an area when they’re skiing. This might be a good time for Whistler and Blackcomb to join forces instead of competing with each other for the business.

Mark Angus – Mayor of Whistler – Gondola Area

I think there are still a lot of logistics problems to be solved before we see Powder Mountain take off. Where is their commercial base? Where will their sewage go? In the long run I don’t think it will be detrimental to Whistler. The market is still growing and they’d be dealing with a different clientele. It looks a bit like a pre-election perk to me.

Hugh Smythe – President, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises – White Gold

I don’t think it’s viable at all due to large infrastructure cost. Building and maintaining the access road and putting power and sewage treatment in place will be extremely expensive. Also the skiable area is either too steep or above the tree line which is too high.

Snowboard Park – No Skiers Allowed!

Blackcomb Mountain opened for snowboarders in the 87/88 season. While it would take Whistler another year to start embracing snowboard culture, Blackcomb was generally supportive of the ‘knuckle-draggers’ thanks to the persistence and passion of a few snowboarders on staff and in the community. Additionally, Hugh Smythe could see the strategic benefits of welcoming a new group of riders.

Before terrain parks were a common feature of ski resorts, snowboarders would travel from all around Canada and the world to take advantage of the many natural features of Blackcomb, perfect for sending big air and pushing the boundaries of the new sport. The natural quarterpipe and wind lip on Blackcomb featured in many publications and films, including the cover of Transworld SNOWboarding with Doug Lundgren. Before the official park, groups would also build their own kickers and crude halfpipes on the mountain. This sometimes involved trying to avoid the watchful eye of ski patrol.

The natural features of Blackcomb attracted snowboarders from around Canada and the world. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Sean Sullivan 1991.

Stu Osborne was instrumental to the snowboarding scene on Blackcomb. Stu started as an instructor and went on to become Snowboard Coordinator and then Terrain Park Supervisor, founding the first Blackcomb management-sanctioned halfpipe and snowboard park. While the Kokanee Snowboard Park officially appeared on the Blackcomb trail map in the 94/95 winter season, the first halfpipe and park launched earlier.

There was still a mentality of skiers versus snowboarders at this time and despite receiving approval to create the initial halfpipe, accessing the resources from the Blackcomb Operations team to build the park was a different story. To get around the lack of resources, Snow Ejectors, a private snow removal company, became a sponsor, providing custom-painted shovels for the build. The early halfpipe was created using these shovels and a little cat time.

During a competition featuring many of the world’s best riders, the Snow Ejectors’ hand-painted banner was larger than those of any of the other sponsors, much to the chagrin of Blackcomb management. The next year, more equipment and support was provided by Blackcomb Mountain. Before the opening of the Kokanee Snowboard Park, Blackcomb became one of the first resorts in Canada to get a pipe dragon, specialised grooming equipment that could carve out a uniform halfpipe far more easily than hand-digging.

A snowboarder takes flight near the Kokanee Snowboard Park. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

In the early days, ‘Blackcomb Snowboard Park’ was exactly that, a park for snowboarders. Rules had changed (in this one niche area on the mountain) and there was a big sign that specified ‘no skiers allowed’. Skiers would wait outside the snowboard park in groups, and bomb the park together in a train so they were harder to catch. It wasn’t long, however, until the park evolved to welcome both snowboarders and skiers as the more inclusive ‘terrain park’ that we know today. 

Originally, the park features on Blackcomb and other resorts in the Canada West Ski Area Association were rated like ski runs, with greens, blues, blacks and double blacks. As most people probably understand, riding a beginner feature would require different skills to a typical green run; however the system broke down when a visitor went off a jump that was far beyond their ability and sustained a debilitating injury. The resulting lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and, learning from this experience, the ratings in the terrain park were changed to those that we see today. Burton had just introduced Smart Style, the orange oval to indicate freestyle terrain. Whistler Blackcomb and the Canada West Ski Area Association went one step further adding S, M, L and XL sizing to keep it easy to interpret. Both features and parks are marked so people can easily choose where to ride within their ability.

Licence to Snowboard

Despite skiers and snowboarders charging down the mountain together today, there was a time when single-plankers were strictly not allowed. Skier complaints and safety concerns resulted in both Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Mountain remaining closed to snowboarders until the late 80s. Snowboarders were forced to ride smaller undeveloped hills, head to the backcountry, or hike up the mountain while avoiding the watchful eye of mountain staff.

The acceptance of snowboarding was slow because of the perception that snowboarders were dangerous, uncontrolled and uncivilised. The laid-back alternative lifestyle of snowboarders often clashed with that of skiers, and it was not uncommon for skiers to hurl disdain at snowboarders when they were finally allowed on the mountain.

A Greg Stump snowboarding production on Blackcomb in 1989. Even the bright and baggy clothes commonly worn by snowboarders rubbed skiers the wrong way. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Greg Stump Productions.

Early snowboarders to Whistler tell stories about being spat on, chased by snowcats, and getting shovels thrown at them. As Ken Achenbach remarked, “We were called menaces to society, it was wicked man”. All a snowboarder had to do to grind the gears of some skiers was wake up in the morning. Even Hugh Smythe, Blackcomb General Manager, was derided when the decision was made to welcome snowboarders to Blackcomb for the 1987/88 season.

Special rules for snowboarders in resort areas were commonplace at this time. In some resorts, before they were allowed on the lifts, snowboarders had to agree not to use foul language. Similar to many East Coast resorts, Blackcomb went a step further. Unlike skiers, snowboarders were initially required to pass a proficiency test to be licenced to ride Blackcomb. The test cost around the price of a day pass and snowboarders had to prove they could turn both ways and stop safely. A certificate was presented upon passing which allowed the recipient to load the lifts with their board.

Aerials were also originally banned on Blackcomb, with lift tickets confiscated from those who dared leave the ground. Blackcomb was a popular freestyle mountain but riders were required to keep an eye out for patrol when practicing for fear of losing their passes.

It may be hard to believe in the age of triple cork 1440s, but all inverted aerials were initially also banned in snowboard competitions due to concerns over spinal cord injuries. It was not unusual for professional snowboarders to deliberately disqualify themselves in competitions by pulling inverted aerials, including the crippler, in protest of this rule. The rules were eventually changed to prevent medals being awarded only to those who followed the rules and showcased the tamest tricks.

When snowboarders were first allowed on Blackcomb they were required to pass a test before riding the lifts and aerials were banned. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

As a new sport, the snowboarding community in Whistler was small and tight-knit. Being so outnumbered, snowboarders would instantly be best buds with anyone else riding a board. This did not last long however; snowboarding was the fastest growing sport in the 1990s and despite the growth slowing, the community today is so big there is no way anyone could know every snowboarder on the mountain.

For more on the history of snowboarding, join us for our first in-person event for 2022. In this Whistler Museum Speaker Series we will be talking about the history of snowboarding in Whistler with local snowboarding legends Ken Achenbach and Graham Turner.

The event begins at 7 pm on Monday the 28th of March. Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum members) and are available at the Whistler Museum. We look forward to seeing you there!

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.