Tag Archives: Hugh Smythe

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.

Blackcomb’s 40

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations.  Last Thursday (December 4) marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift Two using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.

The opening ceremonies at Lift Two on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith Collection.

This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain.  The day before, on December 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems.  The previous winter Blackcomb had offered Snowcat tours for twelve skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain.  December 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.

Jerry Blan and Hugh Smythe from Fortress Mountain Resorts present the Blackcomb development to the public.  Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

In 1978 the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination.  Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR).  As Smythe recalls, it was on October 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.

Opening day, when it arrived, was accompanied by 18 feet of cake from Gourmet Bakery.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager.  In 1974 he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) (today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada) after going into bankruptcy in 1971.  When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co.  Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain.  According to him, his pitch was “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.”  Luckily, they did.

The Blackcomb snowcat tours promised skiers fresh snow and a hot lunch. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978/79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails.  Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front year.  The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979/80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours.  The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains.  In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

The original target date set in 1978 was December 1, 1980.  Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days later, a feat described by the management as “not bad.”  Lift One from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.

Mayor Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe load the first chair to head up Blackcomb. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Happy 40th Blackcomb!

Blackcomb’s First Season

Back in September the museum posted a series of photos on social media picturing some of the activity taking place on Blackcomb Mountain as they prepared to open for their first season in December 1980.  One comment made on the photos made clear that their first season wasn’t necessarily all that Blackcomb had hoped it would be, point out “except it didn’t snow.”  Unfortunately for Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, this was true for most of the early winter season.

The 1980/81 season didn’t start out too badly.  On December 4th, when Pat Carleton cut the ribbon on Lift 2 with a chainsaw, there was snow in the valley and the weather looked promising.  The new triple chairs to reach the top of Blackcomb were operating and skiers were able to end their day with a piece of the 5 m cake and draw prizes.  According to Hugh Smythe, the mountain enjoyed “phenomenal skiing for three weeks” and then it started to rain.

The opening ceremonies on Blackcomb Mountain had promising snow and skiers lined up to ride the new lifts. Greg Griffith Collection.

The Whistler Question reported that it began raining in the region on December 24, 1980, and it was still raining towards the end of January 1981.  Sections of the highway between Whistler and Squamish were washed on by heavy rains twice in that period, first on December 26 and again on January 21, cutting Whistler and Pemberton off from the Lower Mainland except by train or helicopter.  Within Whistler, Alpine Meadows was cut off from the rest of the town when 19 Mile Creek flooded its banks.  All this rain might not have been too terrible for the ski season, except that the rain was accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures (at one point in January the temperature in Whistler was recorded as 5°C).  On January 8, 1981 the Question editorial stated, “As you look out of the window on January 6 it looks more like May 6 with little or no snow in the valley and only a minimum coverage above 4,500 ft.”

The rains did damage to more than just the snow – bridges, including this rail bridge over Rutherford Creek, were washed away. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The holiday season, usually one of the busiest times of year in Whistler, saw only 20% of its usual volume.  Blackcomb employees delivered newsletters throughout the subdivisions in the valley to let people know that Blackcomb Mountain was open for skiing but bad press coverage of the weather did not encourage skiers to visit.

Whistler Mountain was able to continue operating (or, some might say “limped along”) through January, but Blackcomb shut down operations and laid off staff temporarily because there was not enough snow to get skiers up to Lift 4 and Lift 3 was not designed for downloading.  Blackcomb tried grooming the runs on Lift 4 and moving snow onto the road that led to the top of Lift 2, enabling skiers to ski down to the bottom of Lift 3 before downloading.  They even borrowed snow making equipment from Grouse Mountain, who reportedly did not open at all that season, but the warm temperatures made it impossible to keep or make enough snow.

After the highway washed out a second time, BCR saw an increased demand for passenger cars. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Blackcomb Mountain was able to reopen later in the season and by March there was consistently snow on the mountains.  Blackcomb has gone on to operate for 39 successful seasons and, this December, will celebrate their 40th anniversary (fingers crossed without the rain).

Getting Ready for Blackcomb’s First Season

This December Blackcomb Mountain will mark an impressive milestone as they open for their 40th winter of operations.  Before the mountain could welcome guests on December 4, 1980, there was a lot of work to be done, from hiring and training staff to constructing restaurants, installing lifts, and building runs.

In June 1980, the Whistler Question announced the addition of two new members to Blackcomb Skiing Enterprise.  Boyd Stuwe, who had previously worked in Squaw Valley, CA and Soda Spring, CO, joined Blackcomb Mountain as the Operations Manager while Lorne Borgal joined as its Administrative Manager fresh out of Stanford.

Lorne Borgal poses outside the Blackcomb “offices” soon after his arrival in Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Borgal spent his teenage years in North Vancouver.  On weekends he volunteered as part of the Whistler Mountain volunteer ski patrol and through his years at university he taught skiing under Ornulf Johnsen at Grouse Mountain.  He spend five years in Ontario working in marketing and sales for a computer-based accounting system before deciding to pursue his MBA at Stanford.

In 1980, Borgal reached out to Aspen Ski Company, then the owners of Blackcomb, and told them who he was and that he would love to come to Whistler.  This led to a meeting that spring with Hugh Smythe, whom he had met previously through the ski patrol on Whistler Mountain.  The day after his graduation, Borgal drove up from California and started working at Blackcomb.

The Town Centre as it was in last week of October, 1980, from the north looking south. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The Whistler Village was still under construction, as were the facilities on Blackcomb Mountain, so the small Blackcomb team worked out of offices housed in construction trailers on the village site.  According to an oral history interview with Borgal from 2015, eighteen hour days, seven days a week were normal leading up to the first season.  As he put it, “it was just a crushing, overwhelming amount of stuff to do.”

This work was not made easier in September when Aspen supplied them with a brand new IBM computer and custom accounting system.  The first challenge was to find a space for the new hardware, which Borgal described as “just giant,” as the Blackcomb team was still working out of construction trailers.  They found a space to rent above the pharmacy in Village Square but then discovered some issues with the software.  The accounting system had been designed specially for Aspen Ski Company by a person living in Denver, CO.  This meant that, according to Borgal, “payroll taxes, sales taxes, you name it, anything that was unique to Canada, they’d never heard of before.”  For a company operating in Canada, the system was not very helpful.  Borgal even claimed that, “A pencil on paper would have been better.”

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Despite some setbacks (there are also stories about telephone wires and a delivery of rental skis that drove into a ditch by Brohm Lake) the hard work of the Blackcomb team paid off.  Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing on Thursday, December 4, 1980.  We will be sharing more tales from the 1980s, the Whistler Village, and Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains over the next while and we would love to hear your own stories from this time of dramatic change in the valley.

Legends of Whistler… tell the stories

We are incredibly excited to announce a three part speaker series cohosted with the Whistler Public Library and the RMOW!

Over three days, twelve very special guests will be sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history, including the development of the mountains and the creation of Whistler Village.  Each event is free to attend.

Building Glacier Park

Earlier this month, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) began a rezoning process with the goal of constructing a new six-storey building with 60 units of employee housing to join the seven existing staff housing buildings on the Glacier Lane site.  Consisting of two-bedroom units, each about 40 square metres in size, this proposed housing will be very similar, if a bit newer than, the first four buildings originally built by Blackcomb Ski Enterprise and Canadian Pacific (CP) Hotels in 1988.

The first hint of the project came at the beginning of January 1988, when Blackcomb received permission to convert the administration offices of its old daylodge into temporary employee housing.  To assuage concerns from council that the housing might not remain temporary, Gary Raymond, Blackcomb’s vice-president of finance, mentioned that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, the owners of the then-under-construction Chateau Whistler Resort, would be bringing a joint proposal for permanent employee housing to council in the next few weeks.

References to the “Financial Wizard” in the Blackcomb newsletter usually included a drawing of said wizard. Blabcomb

The proposal was for four buildings, each with 48 two-bedroom units, to be built over two years.  When finished the buildings would house almost 400 people; at the time, Blackcomb had roughly 500 employees and the Chateau was expected to employ about 350.  Due to a severe shortage of housing, the plan changed, and all four buildings were to be constructed over the summer of 1988 in time for employees to arrive in October.

The Blackcomb/CP Hotels Glacier Lane project was not the only employee housing project underway.  That summer projects with the Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS) were also being constructed or proposed at Nordic Court and Eva Lake Road.

An architect’s drawing of the proposed housing. Look familiar? Blabcomb

All of these projects hit some snags over the summer, though the Glacier Lane project may have been the most visible.  The buildings were higher and more visible than expected and Letters to the Editor were published in The Whistler Question referring to the construction as a “massive box” that could be seen from any point in the valley north of the Village.  In July, Mayor Drew Meredith even called the visibility of the project “a worthwhile mistake,” while pointing out that the developers were trying to mitigate the visibility of the buildings through landscaping.

Before the buildings could officially open on September 19, 1988, they first had to be named.  A contest was announced in the Blabcomb newsletter and employees were invited to name both the development as a whole and the individual buildings.  The contest was won by David Small, who proposed to call the development Glacier Park, with each building named for a glacier: Horstman, Overlord, Spearhead and Decker.

The early blueprints for the building. Blabcomb

At the grand opening, Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe recalled his own years spent living in employee housing while working for Whistler Mountain, saying “I remember sleeping on the floor, on tables and in trailers,” including one trailer, known by many as “the ghetto.”  According to Smythe, the new units compared quite favourably to his own experiences, and certainly had a better view.

The first residents began moving in October 1.  They were reportedly a mix of Blackcomb employees, including employees of Alta Lake Foods who provided food services for the mountain, and CP Hotel construction workers.  Most of the CP Hotel employees would not move in until the Chateau Whistler Resort opened in late 1989.

By the end of November, the Blabcomb reported that all units had been filled, with people either already moved in or with rooms committed to incoming employees, and a waiting list had already been started.  They were also able to report that, partly due to his work managing the housing project, Gary Raymond had been awarded one of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce’s first “Business Person of the Year” awards, along with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain.  According to the Blabcomb, the project had been a great success.

This Week In Photos: December 13

Before you got a parking spot or parking pass for being Citizen of the Year, the lucky winner received the Citizen of the Year plaque.  Can you spot which year they rearranged the names to fit more on?

1978

The centre display of pottery at the Craft Fair.

Suzanne Wilson decorates a smiling face at the Community Club Craft Fair.

Const. Thompson engraves a pair of skis under the RCMP/Rotary Ski Watch Programme while Rotarian Norm Minns assists.

1979

Flooding in Alta Vista – Ann and Dave Ricardo stand in front of their home…

… while Bill Wallace attempts to clear a culvert on Archibald Way.

Dave Cathers proudly holds the “Citizen of the Year” plaque awarded to him during the Chamber of Commerce Dinner/Dance.

Mayor Carleton reads oaths of office to incoming Chamber officers (l – r) Vice-President Michael D’Artois, President Drew Meredith, Secretary Jenny Busdon.

A smiling couple! Cathy & Bob Ainsworth at the dance.

President Drew Meredith makes presentations to Information Centre staff (l – r) Evelyn Cullen, Linda Satre and Laura McGuffin.

25 visiting Rotary students who came to Whistler for the weekend.

1980

The first chair up Blackcomb – President Hugh Smythe loads the first skiers up the lift on December 4 while others wait to get up into the untracked snow.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

A powder hound enjoys the deep under Lift 4 on Blackcomb last week.

1980 Citizen of the Year, Chamber of Commerce President Drew Meredith.

Ron Hyde stands proudly in front of the sandblasted cedar sign he had created as project manager for the Whistler store.

Managers Dennis Lamarche and Glen Holdner stock shelves at the new Whistler Liquor Store.

Al Davis makes a toast with Francine Lessard at the MDC banquet.

1981

Laurier LaPierre gets a hand buckling up his boots from Jim McConkey. LaPierre was in town taping a CKU special on beginning skiing.

Hanging in Suspense. This workman tightens the cable for Whistler Cable TV’s new line running up the east face of Sproat. Photo by Peter Chrzanowski.

Citizen of the Year Trev Roote shows off his plaque to wife Susan outside his Whistler chalet.

Its owner Peter Skoros (left) under the new sign announcing his new restaurant in the Town Centre which will be opening next week.

Rosemary Dell gets a waving salute at her going away party Friday, December 10. Rosemary, the school bus driver, is leaving Whistler for wilder times at Kitwanga in northern BC.

A peaceful moment for two best friends crossing the fresh powder of Sproat Mountain.

1982

Whistler’s post office is bursting at the seams with loads of presents sent to locals from points all over.

Connie Kutyn tops off the latest decoration to be added to Village Square… a Christmas tree to help get Whistlerites in the spirit.

Viv Jennings accepts the Citizen of the Year Award from last year’s honoured residents Trev Roote at a Whistler Chamber of Commerce meeting held December 11 at the Delta Mountain Inn.

Three proud artists… (L to R) John McNeill, Ken Wesman and Isobel MacLaurin.

O sing ye of good cheer! As did the Whistler Choir in perfect harmony. The choir, led by Sue Worden, brought a lovely tone to Village Square Sunday in the true spirit of Christmas.

1984

Molly Boyd receives the plaque honouring her as the Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year Saturday. Brian Walhovd, last year’s winner, announced to the crowd that Boyd was the 1984 winner for her involvement and extra commitment to the community.

The Chamber also announced its new slate of executives for 1985, which includes, from left to right, Roger Stacey and Nancy Trieber as vice-presidents and Dave Kirk as president. Mayor Terry Rodgers inducted the new executive, which resulted in laughter among the crowd when the three members attempted to read their chamber pledge in unison.

Club 10 was the host to West Coast Sports Mountain Shadows Saturday night, a fashion show featuring more than 29 different outfits all available at the ski outlet. All the models got together for one final display wearing moon boots by Diadora.

Pierre Couture opens a bottle of O’Keefe High Test in the Brass Rail, which boasts the most brass of any bar in Whistler.

Bartender Michael Branlon pours another pint of draft in the Longhorn, which has recently undergone substantial renovations.

Mischa Redmond shows some of the money he’s collected on his door-to-door African famine relief campaign.