Tag Archives: Red Chair

Before the Fitzsimmons Express

With a new eight-person chair announced to replace the four-person Fitzsimmons (Fitz) Express chairlift (pending approvals) we take a look back at how mountain access from Whistler Village has changed.

The first lift from Whistler Village opened for the 1980/81 season, around the same time the Town Centre opened and lifts on Blackcomb started turning. Prior to this, everyone accessed Whistler Mountain from the area known today as Creekside. When Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain officially opened in January 1966, it had a four-person gondola, the original double Red Chair and two T-Bars.

Whistler Mountain trail map from 1966 or 1967. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Trees were eventually cleared on Whistler Mountain for the aspirationally-named Olympic Run, however skiers who skied down the north side of Whistler Mountain were only met with a garbage dump where the Village now sits and had to catch the bus back to Creekside. Olympic Run generally only opened on weekends when the bus was running, otherwise skiers had to hitchhike back to Creekside.

Janet Love Morrison described being a rebel and skiing the closed run on a school trip. “I remember we went under the rope to ski the Little Olympic Run and we were really cool until we got to the bottom and had absolutely no way to get back to Creekside. Suddenly we were super scared because we knew we had to get back to get to the bus, because we went to school in Port Coquitlam.” Finding no cars or people at the base of the mountain, the grade eight students followed a gravel road to Highway 99 where they were picked up by a tow truck driver. They proceeded to get a dressing down by the driver and then their teachers, a first-hand experience that helped when Janet was writing Radar the Rescue Dog.

The garbage dump at the base of Whistler Mountain, where the Village is today. Whistler Question Collection.

When the lifts from the Village finally went in for the 1980/81 season multiple chairlifts were required to make it to the top. To get to the Roundhouse from Skiers Plaza, skiers first took the Village Chair, which finished slightly higher in elevation than today’s Fitz, and then skied down to Olympic Chair. Olympic Chair is still the original chair from 1980, however it was shortened in 1989 to service strictly the beginner terrain. Originally Olympic Chair met Black Chair at the bottom of Ptarmigan. If you wanted to continue on to the Roundhouse or Peak, Black Chair dropped skiers where the top of Garbanzo is today, then skiers would ski down and take Red or Green Chairs to the top. Four lifts to get to the Roundhouse and they were all slow fixed grip lifts, not the high-speed lifts that service the mountains today. (Olympic Chair, Magic Chair and Franz’s Chair are the only remaining fixed grip chairs in Whistler.)

Before Fitzsimmons Express and the Whistler Express Gondola, skiers could upload on the Village Chair. Whistler Mountain Collection.

Uploading from Whistler Village was simplified in 1988 when the Whistler Express Gondola replaced the four chairlifts, taking skiers and sightseers straight from the Village to the Roundhouse, in a gondola (apparently) designed to hold ten people.

The four-person Fitz that we know and love was built in 1999 and, together with Garbanzo, eliminated the need for the Black Chair. Prior to 1999, the biking on Whistler Mountain was predominately run by private enterprise, notably Eric Wight of Whistler Backroads, who mostly used the Whistler Express Gondola to access terrain. When the Bike Park was taken over by Whistler Blackcomb in 1999 and further developed, Fitz began to be used to access the Bike Park throughout summer, as the sport rapidly grew. These days the Bike Park sees way over 100,000 riders a year, most of whom who access the terrain from Fitz Express.

If Fitz is upgraded next summer it will be the start of a new era, greatly increasing the number of riders and skiers arriving at midstation.

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.