Tag Archives: Ski Patrol

Paul Burrows’ Early Years in Whistler

This past September we were lucky enough to welcome Paul Burrows, founder of the Whistler Question in 1976, to the museum to talk about the early days of the paper.

The stories he told of The Question then are amazing, but while looking through our collection of oral histories we came across an interview Paul did with Whistler Cable nearly 20 years ago in which he described his early days in Whistler, back when it was still known as Alta Lake.

Paul first arrived in Canada in 1960 on a flight that hopped from London to Scotland to Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland to Toronto.  He came west because “that was the place to be” and he and his friends started skiing.  It was thanks to some bumps and twists on the mountains that he first met and became friends with members of ski patrol in Vancouver.  They soon heard about a new ski area in Alta Lake and in 1965 Paul came up by train to take a look.

When Paul Burrows first came to the area Whistler Mountain was still under construction. Whistler Mountain Collection.

The second time he came up he was with a group in a Volkswagen and they brought their skis.  It was August.  As Paul recalled, “we put our skis on our back and walked up through the trees and we walked right up the west ridge of Whistler and we peered over the edge of Whistler Bowl and then we got to see them building the chairlifts on the Red Chair and cutting the ski runs.  So then we skied down and we got mixed up and ended up on a cliff and we got stuck there for a while.”  The group did eventually make it down the mountain.

Bill Southcott and Paul Burrows sport snow beards after a few run on Whistler in the 1970s. Whistler Question Collection.

In 1966 Paul returned as a member of the brown-jacketed ski patrol for the season before leaving to work for the ski patrol in Aspen for a year.  When he returned he got a job working on the pro patrol alongside Murray Coates and Hugh Smythe.  In his words, “It was pretty hairy.  We got buried a lot.  The safety procedures we used to knock avalanches down and everything else would not be tolerated today.  We didn’t even talk about the WCB.”

During this time Paul, like quite a few other “residents” at the time, was squatting.  He rented a 15-foot trailer from a place in Richmond for the season for $550 and parked in a lot at the bottom of the mountain.  The trailer was put up on bricks, insulation was installed beneath it and plywood was put around it and the trailer became home to six or seven people.

Parking lot and gondola at Creekside base, ca. 1980, a decade after the trailer took up residence.. Whistler Mountain Collection.

With no electricity or water the wash facilities in the day lodge came in very useful, as did a trusty oil lamp.  According to Paul, “I would shut all the doors and windows and you’re in there but the trouble is you keep running out of air.  So when you had a party in there in the winter and there were guys in there you kept running out of air.  So if you had this little oil lamp cranked up, it was a bit like the miner’s lamp, when the light started to flicker and go out you knew you had to open the door and let some more air in.”  Condensation was also an issue in the trailer.  Condensation build up could freeze the doors and windows shut and the lamp would then be used to melt one’s way out of the trailer in the morning.

After that season Paul again left Whistler, this time for Grouse and then work in the printing business.

The Burrows’ A-frame on Matterhorn, where the first editions of the Whistler Question were created.

In 1971 Paul married Jane and when she was offered a job teaching in Pemberton the pair moved back to Whistler, staying in their Alpine A-frame until 2000.

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The Origins of Avalanche Control on Whistler Mountain

There are few truer mountain-town experiences than being awoken in the early dawn by the distant rattle of avalanche bombs. While providing an unmistakable announcement of fresh snow, they also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the mountains are a complex and potentially hostile landscape demanding caution and respect.

Often romanticized as “throwing bombs, skiing powder, and breaking hearts,” avalanche control at a ski resort is actually a highly technical profession requiring extensive training in explosives, first aid, weather forecasting, and snow science. But it wasn’t always that way. When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966, the concept of snow science barely existed, and the only technical avalanche manual in North America was almost 15 years old.

Learning to safely harness the destructive power of avalanches took time and dedicated practice by hundreds of individuals. John Hetherington was one of those key folk, and his recollections give some fascinating insights into the nascent years of avalanche control work on Whistler Mountain.

After a brief, somewhat lost-in-translation introduction to the avalanche world as a rookie ski patroller in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the 1966-67 season, John “Bushrat” Hetherington joined the Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol in December 1967, the mountain’s third season of operations.

Back then, John recalls, “avalanche control consisted mainly of putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going ‘I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.’ Over time there was some experience that certain slopes had a tendency to avalanche… There was no science behind it, just ‘let’s throw lots and lots of bombs.”

That winter Monty Atwater, inventor of the Avalauncher, visited Whistler to demonstrate his avalanche artillery gun. “It would have given us the capability of reaching the remoter areas which today are now lift-accessed but back then were not (Peak, Upper Harmony, etc]” but issues with the system, the unreliability of the shells in particular, left Whistler uncomfortable with the powerful but crude technology. “It went away in storage” and patrollers continued to rely on setting all their charges by hand. To get a better sense of the danger such work entailed, the patrol team didn’t receive their first avalanche transceivers until 1973 (they didn’t become common equipment for non-professionals until the 1990s).

 

After his inaugural Whistler season, John set out working as an avalanche professional for mines up north and in the interior. Meanwhile, an incident during the winter of 1972 served as an eye-opening and watershed moment for the patrol. A typical Coast Mountain winter storm blanketed the mountain in several feet of snow. Four skiers went missing during the blizzard, and it took several days to determine that they had been caught in an avalanche, whose debris had subsequently been buried by even more storm snow. After that incident it became painfully clear that avalanche control was a serious and crucial aspect of ski area management.

Norm Wilson, formerly the head of ski patrol Alpine Meadows, California was then hired to modernize Whistler Mountain’s avalanche control system. More sophisticated terrain analysis and systematic patrol routes were established to clear slopes of their slide risk, and an infrastructure was put in place to conduct more detailed short and long-term snow and weather study. From that point on, daily avalanche planning increasingly began from analysis of the overnight snow and weather readings, rather than gut instinct.

That same season, advances in the Avalauncher system brought their gun out of storage and it was installed on a platform near the top of the t-bars. Being able to trigger avalanches from such a distance made the daily control routine safer and less-gruelling.

The expertise that developed in subsequent years, thanks to the system and infrastructure put in place by Norm Wilson, and the dedicated practice by a generation of Whistler patrollers, made a huge contribution to our understanding of avalanche forecasting, not just in Whistler, but Canada-wide. John Hetherington, returned to Whistler the following winter, and was soon second in command. He went on to become a widely respected avalanche consultant, heli-ski guide, SAR-member, and board member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Just for fun we figured we'd throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger's moustache had more staying power than Bruce's.

Roger McCarthy and Bruce Watt checking the anemometer printout, which provides crucial data on wind speed and direction, from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain.

Other major contributions include the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association by local patroller Bruce Watt, spurred by his own burial and rescue from a slide while patrolling on Whistler in 1979. Whistler Mountain was the only ski area with a large contingent at an inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver in 1981—most of the others worked for Parks Canada in Rogers Pass, Banff and Jasper. The meeting led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Why is that ski-run called ‘Hooker’?

A Whistler Mountain trail map from the simpler days

A Whistler Mountain trail map from the simpler days

It is with some trepidation that I write this post, as place names are notorious for having multiple people claiming that they named them.  Speaking to the archivist at the BC Geographic Names Index she tells me with a laugh how she’s lost count of the number of times that people have claimed that their ancestor named this or that mountain, only to discover that the mountain was named before their ancestor was born!

I’m sure Whistler Blackcomb’s ski runs will be no exception to this rule, so if you disagree to any of the descriptions to follow, feel free to correct us by commenting below – we are always looking for new information at the Whistler Museum.

So here goes, I roll up my sleeves and give you a brief guide to Whistler Blackcomb’s ski run names. Of course, there are many, many more runs than I can include in one blog post, but here are a selection that caught my attention:

Whistler

Jimmy’s Joker

Not named after Jim McConkey, as I had assumed.  Apparently one of the surveyors, named Jimmy, got lost in the fog and marked out a trail that turned out to be very different than he had expected.

McConkey’s

Is named after Jim McConkey! ‘Diamond Jim’ took over management of Whistler Mountain Ski School in 1968.

Pig Alley

A short cut from Whiskey Jack to Ego Bowl.  Named after ski patrol’s first skidoo, -a pig of a machine that always got stuck. The patrol had the trail cut because it was easier to cross over to Ego Bowl and climb that with the skidoo than to climb Whiskey Jack.

'Diamond' Jim McConkey, the eponymous hero of McConkey's but NOT Jimmy's Joker

‘Diamond’ Jim McConkey, the eponymous hero of McConkey’s but NOT Jimmy’s Joker

Blackcomb

Once slated for logging, many Blackcomb runs have logging themes to them:

Jersey Cream: Extra good timber; cream of the crop

Stoker: A person employed to fuel the steam engines used to pull the logs.

Hooker: A foreman of a logging “side”.  The yarding crew had 8-10 men. (So, in answer to the title question, ‘Hooker’ is in fact a logging term, not a ‘lady of the night’.)

Cruiser: A logger who surveys standing timber for volume.

Catskinner: A tractor driver.

The Bite: an area in the curve or slack of a cable.  When the cable pulls a log, the slack snaps out causing this area to be very dangerous.

Couger Milk: A term referring to the grease used on logging equipment.

Crosscut: Means to cut across like “crosscut saw”.

Skid Row: A rod on which logs were dragged by bulls.  Later horses, then logging skidders.

Springboard: A board that a hand fallers stood on above the broad base when falling a large tree.

Choker: A short length of wire rope used to wrap around the log to be yarded to the landing.

Gearjammer: A nickname given to a heavy equipment operator.

7th Heaven

Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe named the area after he figured out that the lift servicing it was Blackcomb’s 7th lift.

Ladies First

I got this little gem from the Guide to Whistler Blackcomb. Ladies First on Blackcomb Glacier was named after Whistler Patroller Cathy Jewett who was first to (sort of) ski the line in 1984. Jewett dropped in and instantly set off an avalanche that she rode down the slope until she managed to self-arrest. So, although she was theoretically “first”, she didn’t really ski it that day!

Bushrat

A technical chute off of Chainsaw Ridge, Bushrat was named after Museum President John Hetherington who was working on Ski patrol at the time. Ken Newington, Blackcomb’s first Ski Patrol director named this run after John soon after the area opened.

That’s all for now, but if you liked this post, let us know and we’ll do some more!