Tag Archives: Red Chair

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.

The Snow (or not) of 1976-77

by John Hetherington, WMAS President

November 1976 was dry, with a cold north wind blowing into December. From the time that Whistler Mountain opened for skiing in 1966 through the 1975-76 season, there had always been plenty of snow, with extraordinary snowfall amounts in the 1966-67, 1968-69, 1971-72, and 1973-74 seasons (1973-74 is still stated as the record year).

Despite the stories of Dick Fairhurst, who moved to the Alta Lake area in 1944, most of us living here in the 1970s thought that the big snow years would never end, and so snowmaking had never been considered. Fairhurst claimed that there had been a couple of no-snow winters in the 1950s and that he had built the foundation for Cypress Lodge during a snowless February. 1976-77 came as a severe shock to the rest of us.

Dick Fairhurst also opened the first ski lift in the Whistler valley, a tow rope on Sproatt Mountain, and knew a bit about the area’s winters. Fairhurst Collection.

Very early in the 1976-77 season, there was some snow in the alpine and just enough that skiers had been able to ski to the bottom of the Green Chair. Then it rained and skiers had to hike down the last 100 metres or so in the gravel and mud.

In mid-December, Lift Operations managed to borrow a snow gun from Grouse Mountain and transport it to the bottom of the Green Chair. There used to be a small creek that ran down on skiers’ right of the old Green Chair. The ski patrol put a full case of Submagel, a very potent explosive designed for underwater uses, into the creek near the base of the Green Chair. Everyone was evacuated from the area due to the obvious hazard of raining debris and the explosion created a reservoir in the creek. After a dam was built at the low end, the reservoir could impound enough water to permit snowmaking for 2 to 3 hours each day.

The two Green Chairs can be seen heading up towards the Roundhouse. In early winter 1976-77, this slope would have been almost entirely bare. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

With this limited capability, the packer drivers were able to spread a narrow ribbon of snow that allowed skiers to ski to the base of the Green Chair. Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays. Those who came could ski on the Green Chair and in the T-bar bowl, but had to download on the Red Chair and the gondola. After the holidays, however, there was a warm rain that wiped out the snow on the lower slopes of the Green and Whistler was forced to close for three weeks in January 1977.

While most of the staff on Whistler Mountain had been laid off, a few of us were kept on so the ski area would at least have some core staff when the mountain was able to re-open. Those of us still employed referred to it as Garibaldi Lifts welfare. The lift company opened a soup kitchen so that its laid-off employees wouldn’t starve.

Myrtle Philip and Agnes Harrop ice-boating on a frozen Alta Lake. Philip Collection.

During this time, the weather was mostly clear with a strong temperature inversion. The local lakes were frozen, allowing a perpetual hockey game on Alta Lake, and, after running out of useful things to do, Jamie Tattersfield, the head packer driver, and I built a rather crude iceboat in the maintenance shop. We put it on Alta Lake in front of Tokum Corners and spread the word that anyone could use it as long as they brought it back.

Cheakamus Lake was frozen and clear of snow, so many locals hiked in with their skates on the snowless trail to skate the entire length of Cheakamus Lake. There were a couple of pressure ridges to jump over and the ice was incredibly noisy, constantly pinging and boinging and echoing in the narrow valley.

A small amount of snow came in late January, allowing the mountain to re-open on a limited basis. More snow came later in February, and then the real snow finally came in March. Given the shallow snow pack and early cold temperatures, there was a thick layer of well-developed basal facets, which helped produce some stupendous avalanches later in March.

Whistler’s coolest snowcat

Alpine caretakers recall their stories from above the tree line

It’s tough to imagine Whistler Mountain without snowcats. The way their eyes flash in the night as they crawl over the dark mountain slopes, hissing every now and then… Hissing? Of course, we are talking about Schoki, the snow-loving feline that lived on top of Whistler Mountain with Janet Love Morrison and Gordy Rox Harder who were the alpine caretakers in the late 1980s – yes, back in those days the mountain actually had caretakers.

Snowcats just being snowcats… Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

Snowcats just being snowcats… Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

The three musketeers had their 600 sq ft home in the Alpine Service Building close to the top of the Red Chair. Shortly after moving up there, Janet and Gordy got the button-eyed “panther” from the SPCA in Squamish. Janet had spent some time in Switzerland. So they named the cat “Schoki,” the Swiss German expression for “chocolate”. The fluffy lap-monster was a welcomed staff member as there were mice in the building that also contained the ski patrol room, staff lunch room and several maintenance offices.

Like her truck-sized, fully tracked “brothers” there was no hill too steep and no snow too deep for Schoki. She loved the snow. Janet and Gordy couldn’t let her out during the day. But after the skiers and the staff had gone for the day, she’d head out. “She used to follow me to Tower 18, the top of the Red Chair, to shut down the lift and back”, recalls Janet. “She was like a dog how she’d follow us around.”

Gordy and Janet’s fellow mountain dweller really was a “queen of the hill”. She was an independent. Her favourite spot was on the windowsill. From there she would enjoy the scenic mountain views, taunt the avalanche dogs, and bewilder unsuspecting skiers. Janet remembers hearing skiers going by the kitchen window on the Little Red Lift calling out in surprise, “There’s a cat up here! I think we should tell someone there’s a cat up here!”

Growing up in the alpine, Schoki was tough and loved the snow. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

Growing up in the alpine, Schoki was tough and loved the snow. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

But the funniest adventure was when Janet and Gordy had to take Schoki to the vet. “Gordy put a blanket in his backpack, and she nestled in there and we skied to the valley. Part way down her little head peeked out of his backpack; it was quite the sight to see a cat peering out of a knapsack cruising down Gondola Run, which is today’s Dave Murray Downhill” laughs Janet.

A dream job you probably didn’t know existed

Alpine caretakers recall their stories from above the tree line.

It’s a stormy January evening in 1987. At the top of the Red Chair (also known as Tower 18), an empty chair swings around the bull wheel, its weight rocking it back and forth before propelling it back down the mountain. It disappears quickly into the blinding snowstorm. 23-year-old Janet Love Morrison picks up the phone, and calls the mid-station: “Last chair arrived, number 62, we’re clear.” She hits the red button and steps out of the shack. It’s 5:30 p.m., pitch dark. Now that the last person has downloaded, she zips up her coat a little higher, steps off the ramp and heads for the Roundhouse. She locks the front doors up for the night, questioning the necessity. By day the restaurants are filled with thousands of skiers; by night the high plateau belongs to the packer drivers, her, Gordy Rox Harder and a few ravens.

There is nothing as stunning and peaceful as living in the mountains: The view from Janet’s and Gordy’s kitchen in the Alpine Service Building was unrivalled. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

There is nothing as stunning and peaceful as living in the mountains: The view from Janet’s and Gordy’s kitchen in the Alpine Service Building was unrivalled. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

In the late 1980s, Janet and Gordy lived as alpine caretakers on top of Whistler Mountain for almost two years. Clearing the Red Chair lift was one part of their unique and – as one can imagine – very coveted job. Gordy earned his salary as a carpenter and Janet got paid eight dollars an hour, free rent, hydro, and ski passes. Priceless, of course, are the moments when they were the only souls in their mountain kingdom, enjoying V.I.P. seats in front of the afterglow scenery while the whole valley was in the shadow yet. They also had the best opportunities to ski fresh powder. Janet remembers that she sometimes would ski to the valley as soon as it was light: “The valley gondola opened at 7 a.m. to upload staff and I would get in a couple of alpine to valley runs in complete aloneness.”

Home of the three musketeers: the Alpine Service Building with the Little Red Chair. Schoki patrols, and makes sure that everything is in order on top of Whistler Mountain. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

Gordy and Janet’s home on top of Whistler Mountain: the Alpine Service Building with the Little Red Chair. Photo courtesy: Janet Love Morrison, Gordy Rox Harder

Janet and Gordy remember that getting groceries was always an interesting affair. In between them and the grocery store in the village, there was a 45-minute trip up the four lifts from the village to the top of the mountain. “We never wasted a trip, every time we were in the valley we’d bring something up” they recall. If they had been done a big shop in Squamish everything was loaded onto the Creekside Gondola, and then offloaded at mid-station and reloaded onto the Red Chair. “One of us would go ahead on the Red Chair, while the other loaded numerous milk crates full of our groceries. Who ever got off at the top would unload the crates. Then we would ski them over to our apartment.”

The position of alpine caretaker first began in 1978 with the completion of the Alpine Service Building close to the top of the Red Chair. In 1987/88, there were actually three teams sharing the positions: Gordy and Janet lived in the alpine (2,100m); their neighbours Laird Brown and Colleen Warner lived at mid-station (1,350m); and Sandy and Molly Boyd lived in the valley (650m). In the summer of 1988, the Express Lift was installed from the village to the alpine, and the position was terminated. The mid-station position remained for another winter, and the valley caretaker position until 1992.