Tag Archives: Sidney Dawes

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

Olympic (pre)Vision

One of the most difficult, but fascinating aspects of history is trying to look back on past events without your view being completely skewed by hindsight. An obvious example, “Of course Whistler developed into an internationally renowned mega resort, look how amazing the [insert mountains/snow/forests/your preferred factor here] are!”

Nothing builds itself (except cranes, of course). So discerning those characters who foresaw the future and then helped make it happen is always rewarding. One such discovery was made while digging through our Cliff Fenner files.

Fenner climbing in Garibaldi Park.

Fenner climbing in Garibaldi Park.

In March of 1960, Fenner, along with interested “press, radio and board of trade representatives” participated in a helicopter survey of Garibaldi Park in search of potential Olympic venues. Based out of Diamond Head Chalet (near today’s Elfin Lakes Hut), they even had skiers sampling specific runs to test their suitability.

Although the ski terrain was fantastic, it was during these reconnaissance flights that Sidney Dawes, Canadian representative with the International Olympic Committee, decided that it was not suitable as an Olympic venue because access was complex and the terrain even moreso.  A valley bottom development was preferred. Famously, Dawes selected London Mountain as the site for Olympic and ski area development.

Dawes rightfully deserves credit for the decision to develop Whistler rather than Diamond Head, but it is clear from Fenner’s reports that he shared Dawes sentiments. As the person on these flights with the most first-hand knowledge of Garibaldi Park’s extensive terrain, it is not unlikely that he helped inform Dawes’ decision.

A few weeks after the initial helicopter flights Fenner embarked on more ground- level observations of the Cheakamus Lake and London Mountain area. His snow measurements indicated similar depths to the Diamond Head region—more than two meters deep at 4800 feet (1460 meters) on March 19, a poor snow year according to Fenner—but with a more favourable climate that was slightly colder and drier than areas closer to the coast.

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Fenner taking a rest from one of his many mountain explorations.

Moreover, he suggested that just west of Cheakamus Lake (that is, the Cheakamus Crossing and Function Junction area) would make an ideal base area development that provided great access to both the mountain and any potential highway linking Alta Lake to Vancouver. With the expected ski lifts Fenner described “immediate access to high level ski touring and summer hiking areas of tremendous potential, [especially] London Mountain to Singing Pass.” Clearly, there was some profound foresight at work here, no doubt the product of Cliff’s keen analytic mind and intimate knowledge of the south Coast Mountains environment.