Tag Archives: Mountaineering

Crevasses & Crags: Tales from the Coast Mountains

Join Glenn Woodsworth and Arnold Shives at the Whistler Museum for a discussion of mountaineering in the Coastal Mountains in the 1960s and 70s and the career of Dick Culbert.  Some of Arnold Shives’ paintings will also be on display at the Audain Art Museum as part of their upcoming exhibit Stone and Sky, opening November 11.

Doors open at 6 pm and the talk begins at 7 pm.  Tickets are $10 ($5 for Museum Members and Club Shred) and are available at the Whistler Museum.

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Announcing “Coast Mountain Gothic”

Last fall we published a post about a volunteer work day at the Wendy Thompson Hut, and another about Building the Himmelsbach Hut, and at the end of the latter story included the vague sentence “we will also be producing more content about the rest of the gothic arch huts in the coming months both on this blog and elsewhere…”

Building the Himmelsbach Hut, October 1967.

Building the Himmelsbach Hut, October 1967. WMAS, Dick Chambers Photo.

At the time we were working on an application to the Virtual Museum of Canada‘s (VMC) Community Memories program for funding to help produce a virtual exhibit about gothic arch mountain huts in the Coast Mountains, and we are extremely excited to now formally announce that our application was accepted! Preliminary work on the project has already begun.

During these preliminary stages we have frequently been asked “What’s a virtual exhibit?” No, it does not involve virtual reality, teleportation, or time travel (it’s way cooler than that). Essentially, a virtual exhibit is a website that uses text, photos, audio recordings, video clips, and other digital media to tell a historical story. You know, like a museum exhibit, but online.

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The Himmelsbach Hut, last summer. Jeff Slack Photo.

Our exhibit, tentatively titled “Coast Mountain Gothic: A History of the Gothic Arch Mountain Hut” will tell the story of how this specific style of alpine shelter was designed by members of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club in the mid-1960s and then proliferated throughout the Coast Range and beyond over the next half-century.

We will explore the aesthetic, practical, and environmental characteristics of this deceptively simple design, describe some of the challenges encountered and overcome while hut-building in harsh and remote mountain settings, and recount some of the myriad mountain adventures that these huts have supported over the years.

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The idyllic Wedgemount Hut, with Wedge Mountain looming beyond. Jeff Slack Photo.

It’s a big project, and the research and writing are only a small portion of what goes into the whole production. The virtual exhibit’s anticipated launch is autumn 2017.

Needless to say, we are looking forward to collecting the stories, images, and other artifacts that are going to go into the exhibit. We are also very pleased about the expanded reach and new audience that this exhibit will hopefully attain.

Inevitably, we will compile more content than can make the final cut, so look forward to sneak peeks and other related posts on this blog in the coming months.

In addition to the Virtual Museum of Canada, we would like to acknowledge and thank several other organizations who will be partnering with us and contributing to this exciting project: The British Columbia Mountaineering Club, The Alpine Club of Canada (Whistler Section), The UBC Varsity Outdoors Club, The Federation of BC Mountain Clubs, The North Vancouver Museum & Archives Society, and Denali National Park & Preserve.

About the Virtual Museum of Canada:

The Virtual Museum of Canada, managed by the Canadian Museum of History, with the financial support of the Government of Canada, is the largest digital source of stories and experiences shared by Canada’s museums and heritage organizations. The VMC’s Community Memories investment program helps smaller Canadian museums and heritage organizations work with their communities to develop virtual exhibits that engage online audiences in the stories, past and present, of Canada’s communities.

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Celebrating Tyrol Lodge’s 50th

Travelling along Whistler’s westside, properly known as the Alta Lake Road, is a bit like travelling back in time.

The arrival of downhill skiing in the 1960s caused the pace of life in our valley to shift gears completely. While gondolas and condos, followed by full neighbourhoods and villages grew around the flanks of Whistler Mountain, across the valley the sliver of railway-accessed waterfront that formed the backbone of the community of Alta Lake was left to develop at a gentler pace. As such, despite the glitz, hustle and bustle of our modern resort, much of the Westside’s nostalgic charm has persisted to this day.

Tucked away on the west shore of Nita Lake, Tyrol Lodge has managed to survive through these eras as well as any other property.  When members of the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club first chose the site for their cabin in 1963, the gorgeous view across Nita Lake to Whistler Mountain (still officially named London Mountain at the time) didn’t include any ski lifts.

The lodge under construction

The lodge under construction. Frank Grundig Photo.

The Tyrol Club envisioned their cabin according to the traditional ski lodges of their Alpine motherland. It was simply to provide a comfortable if modest base from which club members and their guests could explore the surrounding mountains on foot and on skis.

While outdoor play was an obvious draw, maintaining a vibrant social life was just as important. Long-term Whistlerite Trudy Alder worked as the Lodge’s caretaker, along with her first husband Helmut, from 1968 to 1970. At the time, she considered entertaining lodge guests with spirited après-ski full to be as important a duty as clean linens and stacked firewood. What the lodge lacked in luxury, it made up with rustic charm and a sense of community.

The festive Tyrolean spirit was, and remains today, a defining characteristic of the Tyrol Club.

The festive Tyrolean spirit was, and remains today, a defining characteristic of the Tyrol Club. Frank Grundig Photo.

To this day there is no television in the lodge to distract from socialization. In fact, once on the Tyrol Lodge grounds, there is very little to indicate that you haven’t been warped back to the 1960s. Strategic upgrades like energy-efficient windows were deemed higher priority upgrades than video games and trendy décor. Perhaps counter-intuitively, bucking the trends of the modern ski industry seems to have been a winning strategy.

The Games Room, today. Very little has changed over the years. Jeff Slack photo.

The Games Room, today. Very little has changed over the years. Jeff Slack photo.

Today, the Tyrol Club continues to boast a sizeable and cohesive membership, with many young families joining who sought a departure from the typical ski-in, ski-out experience. Those involved with Tyrol Lodge all cite the club’s strong camaraderie and its devotion to its founding values as reasons why it has survived, even thrived for so long, as most other ski clubs and cabins have long-since ceased.

This Saturday, August 3rd, from 1-4pm, the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club will be welcoming the community to Tyrol Lodge to celebrate the property’s 50th anniversary. There will be a bbq, historical displays, and other fun activities for all ages. The event offers the perfect opportunity to tour the beautiful grounds, experience the Tyrol Club’s renowned hospitality, and experience firsthand some of our community’s living heritage, no time machine required.

The Lodge, today. Jeff Slack photo.

Tyrol Lodge, today. Jeff Slack photo.

Blending Old With New, part 2 – A Virtual Tour of the First Ascent of Mount James Turner

This week we resume our virtual recreation of Neal Carter & Charles Townsend’s 1923 exploratory mountaineering expedition. This video, the second of three, depicts the first ascent of Mount James Turner. (Check last week’s clip here).

Though lower and less well-known than its neighbour Wedge Mountain, Mount James Turner is still a formidable peak, revered for its remoteness and technical challenges by hardcore climbers and ski-mountaineers. For a more recent episode of James Turner lore, check this account of the mountain’s first ski descent by local ski builder and steep-ski pioneer Johnny “Foon” Chilton. Note that Foon and friends skied Turner’s massive north face, while Carter and Townsend approached from the south.

Our story will conclude next week as Carter and Townsend head up the Fitzsimmons Creek Valley to spend a week based out of a now-gone prospector’s cabin in Singing Pass. Watch for some striking photos from the undeveloped summit of Whistler Mountain, and their gripping attempt on the aptly named Mount Diavolo.

Virtual Mountaineering? The First Ascent of Wedge Mountain, 1923

This week we’ve got something a little different for you.

We’ve written before about the beautiful Neal Carter photo collection, which documents a two-week exploratory mountaineering expedition into the mountains surrounding Alta Lake by Neal and his friend Charles Townsend  in September 1923.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Approaching the summit of Wedge Mountain.

Well, since we also have the written account that Charles wrote for the British Columbia Mountaineering Cub’s journal, we plugged some of their photos and words together into Google Earth, and have recreated their encounter with these mysterious, unexplored peaks as a sort of virtual tour that you can follow from the comforts of your home:

This first video revisits the first two days of their trip, during which the pair managed the first ascent of Wedge Mountain – the highest peak around. Instead of contently heading back to Rainbow Lodge, Neal and Charles continued deeper into the Coast Mountain wilderness towards the lesser-known but equally formidable Mount James Turner, which they named after a popular Vancouver reverend.  Check back next week for this episode, as well as their subsequent climb of Whistler Mountain and more first ascents deeper in the Fitzsimmons Range.

Of course, watching this little video doesn’t provide quite the same experience as actually climbing  these peaks.  Since we’re currently enjoying a wonderful window of late  summer weather similar to 1923, hopefully the virtual tour inspires you to get up into the alpine for some fresh air, exercise, and inspiring views!

Trick Question: Ever been to Red Mountain?

Most would agree that the physical landscape has played as much a role in our region’s history as the people, so we figured we’d give Mother Nature her due by profiling some of the amazing natural features and landmarks surrounding Whistler.

As with any history, it’s easiest to start at the beginning, so it only makes sense to go way back and profile the oldest thing in Whistler, Fissile Mountain.

Beginning over 200 million years ago sediment deposited in a large basin that was forming between the west coast of North America and smaller tectonic plates incoming from the Pacific. The ensuing tectonic clash created the Coast Mountains and left much of the ancient sediment basin covered with younger rock.

Fissile Mountain is our region’s notable exception, as it’s steep slopes of rotten shale and sandstone are actually a persistent exposure of this ancient sedimentary rock. For tens of millions of years now, Fissile has weathered stoically all the while witnessing the creation and growth of surrounding, much younger peaks.

Fissile Mountain is full of character. This rock face can be found between the Banana Couloir and the Northwest Face.

Undoubtedly local First Nations have their own set of stories from millennia of hunting goats, climbing around, or simply admiring the striking peak from a distance. Fissile’s first modern ascent is unrecorded, and was likely achieved by prospectors around the turn of the twentieth century. The Singing Pass area between Fissile and Whistler saw a fair bit of mining activity at the time, and for decades an old prospecting hut doubled as a popular hiking destination for residents and visitors to Alta Lake. Back then, however, there was no Fissile, it being known instead as “Red Mountain.”

Myrtle Philip takes in the sublime setting at “Red Mountain,” 1928. William “Mac” MacDermott photo.

For a long time we weren’t sure whether “Red Mountain” was today’s Fissile or it’s neighbour Overlord, both are in the same general area and composed of rotten, rust-coloured rock, but one of Neal Carter’s old climbing photos fully convinced us it was Fissile.

Shown below, the annotations on the backside of this 1923 Neal Carter photograph, which looks south from the near the summit of Wedge Mountain, clearly identified Fissile (only the top of which is visible) as “Red Mountain” while identifying Overlord as well. Note how the foreground peaks and glaciers (the Blackcomb backcountry, including Mount Pattison, Mount Trorey, and Mount Decker) are unidentified because at this time they were still unclimbed and unnamed.

Neal Carter’s 1923 photograph. The digital scan of the backside of the print has been reversed. Carter actually wrote the mountain annotations backwards. If you hold the original print up to a light, they can be seen through the image, appearing the right way around, pointing to their respective peaks. All the other writing (that which appears backwards here) doesn’t really show through the darker parts of the image.  “C.T.T.” (backwards) refers to Charles T. Townsend, Carter’s climbing partner who is visible in the right-hand foreground.

Red Mountain received its current name in 1965, based on a suggestion from the Fitzsimmons Names Committee, which consisted of local mountain-lover Karl Ricker, and interestingly enough, Neal Carter. “Fissile” is an adjective used by geologists for rocks that split easily, which will make sense to anyone who has ever slipped and skidded up (or down!) the loose, sharp rocks which cover Fissile’s flanks.

In 1968, the British Columbia Mountaineering Club, led by local climbing veteran Werner Himmelsbach, built a small backcountry hut at the base of Fissile beside Russett Lake. Now known as the Himmelsbach Hut and administered by BC Parks, the compact, sturdy, and easy-assembly Gothic Arch design has been replicated with several other backcountry huts throughout the Coast Mountains. In ensuing years the area grew in renown as a summer hiking and climbing area (the rotten rock isn’t pleasant to climb, but the north-facing snow and ice routes stay in great shape all summer long).

With the rapid growth of Whistler Mountain, and major advancements in ski technique and equipment, it wasn’t long before skiers followed suit. Many pioneers have been forgotten with the passage of time, but John Baldwin’s “Whistler Backcountry” map credits Jim Vaillancourt with the Saddle Chute’s first descent way back in 1980, and the imposing Northeast Face route was first skied by the prolific skiing/climbing duo of Jia Condon and Rich Prohaska in 1990.

As a result the entire north side of Fissile Mountain has become an absolute classic among steep-ski enthusiasts, with close to a dozen named runs. These days it’s a genuine race across the Musical Bumps to get there first when in prime condition. (Don’t be fooled though, folks. This is serious mountain terrain that deserves caution and respect.)

This is why Fissile is such a favourite among backcountry skiers.

Fissile is undoubtedly one of Whistler’s most iconic peaks. Even if you’ve never skied or climbed its flanks it has probably left an impression on you, as the jagged pyramid is plainly visible from all over the ski resort.

Fissile dominates the view from many points within Whistler-Blackcomb, including here at the top of the old Orange Chair. George Benjamin photo.

It’s visual impact is so strong that when Eldon Beck first began conceiving the layout for Whistler Village in the late 1970s, his starting point was the Village Gate entrance, which he designed specifically so that Fissile would be visible to greet incoming tourists. On one of Beck’s original drawings held in our archives, he even labelled “an entrance of importance with a view of Mt. Fissel [sic].” (For more on the design of Whistler Village, check this post.) Inspired viewscapes such as this have shaped the experiences of countless visitors to Whistler over the years, and convinced more than a few of us to stay.

How about you? Do you have any interesting Fissile stories? What is your favourite local peak?

Pip Brock part 1

Beyond its success as a tourist destination, Rainbow Lodge’s success also attracted a growing number of year-round and seasonal residents, planting the seeds of the community that eventually became Whistler.

The Vancouver family of Reginald and Mildred Brock was just one family among the growing number of city-dwellers who began building vacation homes in this beautiful valley. The Brock’s first discovered the valley when Mrs. Brock came to visit a friend’s cottage in 1927 and instantly fell in love with the lakeside community, as so many others have since. Two years later the Brock’s purchased two lots on the southwest corner of Alta Lake and hired Bert Harrop to build their cottage, which they named Primrose.

The Brock's Primrose Cabin near the south end of Alta Lake.

Every summer thereafter, the Brock’s visited Primrose along with their five sons– Patrick Willet, Byron Briton, David Hamilton, Thomas Leith and Philip (Pip) Gilbert. For Mr. and Mrs. Brock, Alta Lake was a peaceful summer retreat from their busy city lives. For their youngest child Pip, it became the jumping off point into a vast mountain wilderness just waiting to be explored.

Pip  had an especially strong draw to Whistler and would often come up on his own. Of course there was no Greyhound for a teenaged boy to ride—there wasn’t even a road—but that was no obstacle for Pip. After riding a steamship, most people hopped on the PGE railway to complete the day-long voyage from Vancouver to Alta Lake.

The boat would get there at about 2 o’clock and if we felt like spending 50¢ we could take a taxi as far as Cheakeye, but sometimes we didn’t even want to do that. Believe it or not, 50¢ seemed like a lot of money! So we walked the whole 38 miles quite often.

Even if folks were tougher back then, Pip Brock still stands out as exceptionally hardy—a trait that would serve him well in the mountains. As Brock plainly stated of the frequent 10-hour treks, “nobody else wanted to do the walking” so he usually went alone.

Despite the lengthy hike, upon arrival, Pip didn’t rest up one bit.  Instead he usually kept hiking right up into the surrounding mountains. He climbed some of the closer peaks as a teenager and began to gain notoriety among the locals for his mountain jaunts.

Pip was able to parlay his love for the mountains into paid work up high. In the 1920s and 30s the City of Vancouver had substantial interest in developing the hydro-electric potential of Garibaldi Park’s many glacial lakes and streams to power the rapidly growing metropolis. For several summers Pip worked for the Vancouver Water Board hydro surveys, measuring water storage and hydro-electric potential in the mountains he loved so much.

Pip atop Whistler Mountain, early 1930s

At the age of nineteen Pip made his first newsworthy ascent. It was Easter 1933, and with a new set of skis which he had purchased from Woodward’s department store (he later described them as “terrible”), he climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain and then proceeded to ski back down. Locals and visitors to Rainbow Lodge’ had been hiking to nearby summits like Whistler for some time, but this was the first ski ascent and descent of Whistler Mountain—thirty-two years before the arrival of lift-accessed skiing to the mountain. Locals didn’t believe the brash teenager’s claim until Pip pointed out his ski tracks through a set of binoculars.

At the time serious mountain folk remained sceptical of skis’ utility as a means of travel. Once, when he dropped in on Harry Horstman’s Sproatt Mountain cabin on a set of skis, the indignant prospector retorted ‘What the hell you got them planks fur? I can get around twice as fast on my snowshoes as you can on them slitherin boards!” Even most recreational mountaineers, accustomed to the North Shore’s steep wooded slopes, thought skis’ potential as a mountaineering tool were dubious at best. One Vancouver climber went as far as to publicize a mock award for the first person to ski-climb the Camel, a vertical climbing crag that never holds any snow.

Brock was among a small group of mountain-lovers who saw the great potential that skis held among the Coast Mountains’ vast glacial expanses. As Brock recalled in a 1992 interview with the Whistler Museum, “most mountaineers thought that skiing was impure and indecent. But a few of us being frivolous, realized the fun and value of skis for winter touring.” Brock soon befriended these other early converts, most notably the renowned climbers Don and Phyllis Munday. In 1930 the Mundays had begun their own (successful) experiments with ski-mountaineering in their widely publicized expeditions to Mount Waddington, the incredibly rugged and isolated highest peak in the Coast Mountains.

Thanks to his own ski-mountaineering experience, the Mundays invited Pip along as a packer on their 1934 expedition, which also featured high profile American climbers Henry Hall and Hans Fuhrer (who eventually scored the prestigious first ascent of Waddington in 1936). Their party made an epic attempt on the highly technical, dangerous, and still-unclimbed peak—after eight years this was to be the Mundays’ last attempt on Waddington—and they also made several ascents during their four-week-long expedition.

The following summer Pip would return with the Mundays to a new, largely unexplored set of mountains just to the north of Waddington. Their goal was to pursue more pioneer ascents in this superlative landscape, but this climbing trip would be cut short by an unexpected tragedy.

To learn about the tramautic loss of Pip’s parents, and his further ski-mountaineering adventures in the mountains surrounding Whistler, read part two here