Tag Archives: Hugh Smythe

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.

Whistler’s Red Chairs

Many people, when asked about their experiences on Whistler Mountain, tell us stories that include the Red Chair. This is not all that surprising; until 1980, the Red Chair was part of the only lift route up from the valley and almost everyone who skied on Whistler Mountain had to ride the lift (apart from a few hardy individuals like Stefan Ples and Seppo Makinen, who preferred to climb up on their own).

The Red Chair on Whistler Mountain. George Benjamin Collection

On his first trip to Whistler during the summer of 1965, Paul Burrows and a group of friends hiked up the mountain with their skis to test out the area and, though they may have gotten stuck on a cliff for a while on their way down, the memories of seeing the Red Chair under construction stuck with him. Renate Bareham recalled a summer when she helped her father paint the top of the Red Chair.

At an event in 2019, Hugh Smythe described one of his experiences skiing on Whistler Mountain. The weekend after Whistler Mountain first opened in January 1966, Smythe drove up from Vancouver through heavy snow to work as part of the first ski patrol team. After a long journey (the drive through the Cheakamus Canyon took and hour and a half), the trailers at the base of the mountain set up as staff accommodation were full. Smythe and his group spent the night on the floor of the lift company cafeteria. Before going to sleep, however, they were told they would need to be back up at 5 am to shovel the top of the Red Chair so skiers could reach the top of the mountain.

Digging out the top of the Red Chair. Coates Collection

It was still dark when the ski patrol made their way up the gondola to the bottom of the Red Chair. There, they were told to take their shovels and ride up on the back of the chair, holding tight to the lift. As Smythe remembered it, “I was holding on so hard with my one arm and hand, and we actually got to Tower 15 and that was about, oh, fifteen, twenty minute ride at that point to get there, then all of a sudden we hit the snow and the chair tilted back like this, and we’re dragging in the dark.” They unloaded at the top and then spent two hours digging out the chair’s path as it continued to snow in order for the skiing to open to the public. In contrast, when describing the challenging winter of 1976/77, John Hetherington remembers how very limited snow meant skiers had to download on the Red Chair, a slow ride down.

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

The Red Chair was the first double chairlift installed on Whistler Mountain by Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. in 1965, along with a gondola and two t-bars. It was later joined by the Little Red Chair, which ran mostly parallel to the Red Chair, another double chairlift that helped ease line ups. Both chairs were removed in 1992, replaced by the Redline Express Quad, which was then also replaced in 1997 by the current Big Red Express. In September 2021, plans were announced to replace the current chair with a new high-speed six-person chair for the 2022/23 season. For anyone wishing to relive their memories of the first Red Chair, however, a red chair can be found in Florence Petersen Park that, if it snows enough, might even require some digging.

Reaching 7th Heaven

When Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, it had four triple lifts and one two-person chair that carried eager skiers up to the top of today’s Catskinner lift. In 1982, the Jersey Cream Chair expanded the lift-accessed terrain available on Blackcomb, but the mountain still needed something more to compete with Whistler Mountain. They found it with the 7th Heaven T-Bar.

Avalanche forecaster Peter Xhignesse came into the office of Hugh Smythe in the spring of 1985 and told him he wanted to show Smythe some skiing on the south side of Blackcomb. According to Smythe, he hadn’t done much hiking or skiing in the area and thought that it was unlikely there would be much promise in the south facing area known to be windy with lots of rocks. After being shown the area by Xhignesse, however, he was convinced that the area had potential.

Peter Xhignesse is credited by many with realizing the skiing potential of the 7th Heaven area. Photo courtesy of the Xhignesse family.

At the time, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises was owned by the Aspen Skiing Company and the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB), who also co-owned Fortress Mountain Resort in Alberta. Smythe knew that there was a relatively new T-bar on Fortress that wasn’t being run due to the drop in business after Nakiska Ski Area opened. Over the space of two days and a night, the T-bar on Fortress was quietly taken down and transported across the provincial border. With the T-bar in the Blackcomb parking loot, Smythe approached Aspen and the FBDB about funding its installation. Though at first they refused, pointing out that they were trying to sell Blackcomb, Smythe convinced them that he could fund the lift by selling incremental season passes.

On August 18, 1985, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises officially announced the start of construction on their new “High Alpine T-Bar,” which would provide access to the area identified by Xhignesse, with a catered luncheon, heli-skiing, and a rendition of the 1983 Parachute Club song “Rise Up” encouraging skiers to “Rise up, rise up to the Mile High Mountain.” The addition of the T-bar promised to expand Blackcomb’s skiable terrain from 420 acres to 1,160 acres with 22 new runs and increased its vertical reach to 5,280 feet (1,609 m) or one mile (according to Smythe, there may have been a “little bit of license” taken on that number), the highest in North America.

Despite the summer start, wet and cold weather in October and November delayed the completion of the lift. In mid-October, with about half of the towers installed, Operations Manager Rich Morten reported that they needed only two and half days of clear weather in order to pour the rest of the footings and erect the towers. By the beginning of November, they were still waiting for a break in the weather to allow helicopters to complete the work.

Skiing the T-bar bowl on 7th Heaven, some of the terrain opened up by the new lift. Greg Griffith Collection

The High Alpine T-Bar was finally completed in mid-November but it would be another month before it opened to the public. Because of the rougher terrain (described as “boulders the size of cars and buses” by Blackcomb’s Dennis Hansen), more snow was needed before the new runs would be ready for skiing. Once the T-bar did open, however, it gathered rave reviews.

The new terrain was described by Trail Manager Garry Davies as “fabulous” and according tp Nancy Greene, “The enormous variety of slopes and spectacular views are really unequalled in North America.” Even the competition were impressed, with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain claiming that the opening of the T-bar opened up the “big alpine world” and put an end to Blackcomb’s uniformly designed character. The T-bar was the first destination of sixteen year old Mike Douglas on his very first ski trip to Whistler, who described arriving at the top of the lift as being “dropped off at the edge of the world” and the trip down as “the coolest adventure ever.” For Smythe, the T-bar was a turning point for Blackcomb and he credits it with both inspiring Whistler’s Peak Chair the next year and with attracting Intrawest to purchase Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises.

Though it was a huge development for Blackcomb Mountain, the T-bar didn’t remain in place for very long. In 1987, the T-bar was replaced by the four-person 7th Heaven Express, with continues to transport skiers and snowboarders to the windy and rocky terrain pointed out by Peter Xhignesse.

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.