Tag Archives: Sea to Sky Highway

Highway to (Powder) Heaven

The towering mountains and lush valleys that inspire people to fall in love with the Sea to Sky also create challenges for access. When Myrtle and Alex Philip arrived at John Millar’s cabin in 1911, they had taken a steamer to Squamish, and then walked the rest of the way to Millar’s cabin at present-day Function Junction. With the introduction of the railway to Alta Lake in 1914, the region was opened to more tourism and industry.

Prior to 1965, the road to Whistler was notoriously unreliable. Regular creek crossings were required and the single lane gravel road suffered extreme washouts, as seen in this photo of Cheakamus Canyon in the 50s. Janet Love Morrison collection.

It was not until 1956, however, that a road connected Vancouver to Squamish, and there was not a reliable road to Whistler until the 1960s. To ensure the highway was completed in time for the opening of the lifts in 1965, rumour has it that the Garibaldi Lifts Company gave a single ski to the then-Minister of Highways Phil Gaglardi. He kept this ski in his office as an incentive to complete the road, and was presented with the matching ski upon the completion of the highway.

Crossing creek on the road to Alta Lake (now known as Whistler), south of Pinecrest. Before the highway, numerous creek crossings meant access via car was not possible at many times during the year. Janet Love Morrison collection.

Even once the highway went in, it was still a hair-raising journey. While driving the Sea to Sky in certain conditions today requires confident and experienced winter drivers, imagine if the roads were only plowed once a week. This is what visitors and residents had to contend with for the inaugural season of Whistler Mountain. Only ski fanatics would brave the journey, and you had to be a special type of enthusiast to make the trip on Friday evening before the roads were plowed on Saturday morning.

When you met another car along the single-lane plowed gravel road, there was no room to pass. Both cars were required to stop and snow was dug out of the snow banks to let the smaller car squeeze by. Revellers would spend Friday night at the Cheakamus Inn, watching to see whose cars had survived the rough trip. As Paul Burrows remembers, “Eventually most people ended up at the Inn because after driving that road you needed a drink.”

Even the good sections of road were rough and hard on vehicles. This photo was taken prior to the highway near Pinecrest. Janet Love Morrison collection.

In 1966, one year after construction, Highway 99 was paved from Squamish to Mons and kept clear of snow as much as possible. As we know, that did not eliminate all transport problems. The Squamish Citizen reported in 1987, “Poor visibility, the near eradication of lines along the edge of the highway and the dinginess of the centre line coupled with the spottiness of the cat’s eyes (road reflectors) in many places makes it almost impossible to distinguish the centre line or edge of the road.” Does that sound familiar? The article goes on to recommend imbedding the cat’s eyes in the centre of the road, and suggesting that someone invent fluorescent paint for the road lines.

These solutions (including the invention of fluorescent paint), along with the widening of the road for the 2010 Olympics, have no doubt helped with access and we have seen incredible growth in visitors and residents alike, resulting in far more people using the Sea to Sky Highway. However, where you have mountainous geography and weather that brings amazing snowfalls, road and access continue to be topics of great debate. At least it does not take five hours to get to Costco every visit, unless you make the mistake of leaving on Sunday afternoon!

Narrow road through Cheakamus Canyon. Janet Love Morrison collection.

A Harrowing Journey to Whistler

For many people, their first impression of Whistler begins with a trip up Highway 99 from Vancouver. Depending on the time of year and the weather, this can be anything from an inspiring journey with spectacular views to a frustrating slow-moving slog through traffic to a harrowing experience sharing the road with drivers unprepared for snowy conditions. For Lynn Mathew’s mother, her first impressions were closer to the last.

Lynn’s mother had already visited the west coast before her first visit to Whistler; when Lynn and David Mathews first moved out to Vancouver from Quebec in the 1960s, both her parents came out to see their new home. At the time, Lynn’s mother had never been in an airplane and didn’t particularly want to be in one, so she boarded a bus in New York and three days later Lynn’s father boarded a plane. Lynn picked up her father at the airport and then together they drove to Vancouver’s bus station to collect her mother. A year or two later, when Lynn had her first child in November 1967, her mother got on her first plane and ventured out to visit her new grandson in Whistler.

With snow on the road, Highway 99 could easily become a treacherous, one-lane route. Laforce Collection

She arrived the day after her grandson was born and, until that day, there had been no snow in the Whistler valley. David picked her up at the airport and they stopped at the Squamish hospital where Lynn and the baby were staying the night. While they were there, it began to snow in Squamish. David, who had the lift company truck, suggested that they leave before it snowed too much. When they returned to collect Lynn and the baby the next day, she got to hear about their adventures driving up to Whistler.

The highway between Squamish and Whistler today is very different from that of 1967 but, as Lynn put it, “the hill at Daisy Lake is still there.” She described this section at the time as “a very narrow hill with no shoulders, and very steep.” Though there wasn’t a large number of cars traveling up the highway, many of those that were encountered difficulties getting up that hill. By the time David and Lynn’s mother got to the hill, there were cars off the side of the road, some of them leaning towards the cliff. As they told Lynn, it was fortunate that no cars ended up in the lake.

Prior to the development of Whistler Mountain in 1965, the “roads” were in even more questionable condition. MacLaurin Collection.

David and Lynn’s mother came across a couple on their way home to Pemberton whose car was “definitely in the ditch.” Despite the fact that the bench in the lift company truck would only comfortably fit three, David and Lynn’s mother offered the couple a ride as far as Whistler, where they could arrange for friends to pick them up. The four of them squished into the truck and zigzagged up the hill between the cars stuck on the sides.

As it happened, one of the people they had picked up was from Norway, not too far from where Lynn’s mother was from. The two had a great visit as David drove them safely through the snowy conditions to Whistler. The next day, David and Lynn’s mother returned to Squamish to bring Lynn and the baby home to Whistler.

It continued to snow steadily in the area and, according to Lynn, “My mother wasn’t sure just what I had moved to.” This sentiment was echoed by David’s mother when she came out to visit from Quebec in January 1968, a visit that involved a lot of snow, a power outage, and an evacuation by snowcat to the Ski Boot Motel, but that’s a story for another day.

Whistler’s Silver Book

When talking about the creation of the Resort Municipality of Whistler in 1975 and the early development of the Whistler Village through the 1980s, one of the documents that is often mentioned is the “Silver Book,” also known as the Community Development Study for the Whistler Mountain Area.  The Silver Book was put together in 1974 by the Planning Services Division of the Department of Municipal Affair of BC and contained a study of the current state of the area, thoughts on potential growth, and a recommended framework for creating both a short and long term community development plan.  The report was a key factor in the formation of the RMOW and was one of the first documents to recommend a single-centred Town Centre on the site of the garbage dump.

The aptly named “Silver Book”

The Silver Book also, included plans for residential development, infrastructure such as sewer and water systems, further recreational development, and transportation both to and within the area.  Reading through the report, it is clear that some of the transportation woes experienced by Whistler in the past few years are similar to those thought of back in 1974.

At the time, almost all travel between Whistler and Vancouver was done by private automobiles on the two lane highway.  According to the report, “At peak times, particularly winter Sunday evenings, traffic on the highway is almost bumper to bumper.”  The capacity of the highway in winter conditions was calculated to be about 500 vehicles per hour, but with many skiers arriving and leaving at the same time the traffic slowed to a crawl.

Snowy winter days could already lead to backed up traffic exiting the Whistler Village by 1984. Whistler Question Collection.

The idea of building a new road with a different route to Whistler was dismissed as too expensive at $80-100 million (adjusted for inflation, $400-500 million), as was a proposal to expand the existing highway significantly.  Using rail to expand transport capacity was considered, but it was concluded that the railway, designed for moving freight, “does not lend itself to the operation of high-speed passenger trains.”  A weekend ski-train was proposed but this would have removed only 600 skiers per day from the road.  Though increased bus service was expected to provide only a modest increase in capacity, it was considered the most effective solution.

Buses were also an important part of the transportation plan within the Whistler area.  The community was expected to develop in a linear fashion along the highway and be “somewhat sprawling.”  The plan for a single Town Centre meant that municipal and commercial services would require traveling outside of the different subdivisions, which, if all trips were taken in a private automobile, could lead to excessive traffic noise, air pollution, and “aesthetically inappropriate large-scale parking lots” at the Town Centre.  Instead, the recommendation was to develop an efficient public transport system within the valley.

A bus picks up skiers at the Gondola base, today known as Creekside. Whistler Question Collection, 1979.

The Silver Book outlined several ways of encouraging the use of public transport, but only one was marked “not workable” by the donor of one copy in our collections: toll gates and restricted parking.  The idea was that toll gates at the north and south ends of Whistler would encourage visitors to take a bus or train, while residents could apply for an annual windshield sticker that would allow them through.  These “stickered” vehicles would, however, not be allowed to part at the Town Centre during peak periods, thereby “forcing” residents to use buses and reducing the size of parking structure needed.

The Silver Book provides an interesting look at what the Province thought Whistler could become from the early 1970s.  Some of the plans and predictions of the report (such as the linear development) have been realised while others either have never come to fruition (toll gates) or have far exceeded these early plans.

Visiting a Different Whistler

There is a lot to do in Whistler in the summer, even with the restrictions currently in place across British Columbia.  You can go up the mountains to hike and ride the Peak 2 Peak, hike throughout the valley, relax at a lake, or even visit Whistler’s Cultural Connector (which includes the Whistler Museum).  What about, however, if you had visited Whistler during the summer of 1980?

Thanks to Whistler News, a supplement published by The Whistler Question, we can get an idea of what summer visitors to Whistler could have expected forty years ago.

The Whistler Village at the base of Whistler Mountain as visitors would have found it in the summer of 1980. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The first step to visiting Whistler was getting here.  Though it’s relatively easy today to find your way to Whistler, in 1980 there were no directional signs in Vancouver pointing the way and Whistler News encouraged drivers to obtain a road map and head north on Highway 99.  The drive up included a 12km section through the Cheakamus Canyon that was set to be realigned and improved by 1981 but was still somewhat treacherous.  This was still an easier route than those from the north.  The route to Whistler through Bralorne was suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles and the Duffy Lake Road would not be paved until 1992.

Visitors had a choice of lodgings, both in and near to Whistler.  While some of these lodgings, such as the Highland Lodge and Whistler Creek Lodge, are still standing, others such as the Alpine Lodge (a lodge and cabins located in Garibaldi, which the provincial government declared unsafe in 1980) and the White Gold Inn (more commonly known as the Ski Boot Motel) have since been demolished.  Those looking to camp had quite a few options, including a BC Hydro campground at Daisy Lake and a forestry camp at the Cheakamus and Callaghan Rivers.  Supposedly, the summer of 1980 was also going to see the construction of new camping facilities as part of Lost Lake.

Lost Lake south shore showing where a beach and picnic ground will be built. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler also offered a variety of dining options, from Chinese cuisine at the Alta Lake Inn Dining Room to the Keg at Adventures West.  Those looking to provide their own meals, however, were encouraged to plan ahead, as the only grocery shopping in the area was at the Gulf and Husky Mini-Marts.

Visitors could still do many of the things that have brought people to Whistler in recent summers.  They could go hiking around the valley (Lost Lake was recommended as having the “spectacular sight” of the ski jump) and spend time around and on Whistler’s lakes, where windsurfing was becoming increasingly popular.  Those more interested in snow could attend the 15th year of the Toni Sailer Ski Camp, perfecting their skiing under the direction of Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene, Wayne Wong and Bob Dufour.

The group at the Sailer Fischer Ski Camp party catered by the Keg. (L to R) Wayne Wong, Wayne Booth, Schultz, Nancy Greene, Toni Sailer, Rookie, Alan White. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The summer of 1980 was also a season of huge changes in the area and would have offered visitors many opportunities to view construction in the valley.  There was not yet a Whistler Village as we know it today.  In the Town Centre the first buildings of Phase I were expected to open that season and construction of Phase II buildings was underway.  Late in the summer Whistler Mountain installed its first lifts that ran from what would become the Whistler Village.  At the same time Blackcomb Mountain was building its first lifts, as well as on-mountain restaurants and utility buildings.

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 recent tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

With all this construction, changing businesses and development, it’s no surprise that summer visitors to the museum will often tell us that Whistler is almost unrecognizable as the same place they visited in the 1970s or 1980s.