Tag Archives: ski school

Helmets on the Hill

Whistler is a hub for adventure sport and, if you have been here long, it is likely you know someone who has been affected by a head injury. With helmet use so standard on the mountain today, I found it surprising to see the following question asked in a 2011 museum oral history “Do you think that sometimes more people get injured when they are wearing safety gear? They suddenly feel empowered and attempt something far beyond their abilities?” Similar sentiments are echoed throughout many publications at this time.

Ski School instructor leading students in Whistler in the 1970s.
Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Unlike today, helmets were initially far less popular on the slopes than while riding a bike (helmets have been mandatory for cycling in BC since 1996 and you can be fined up to $100 for non-compliance). Looking at photos from skiing in the early days of Whistler Mountain, it is unusual to see people wearing helmets on the mountain even into the 80s, and they clearly gained popularity throughout the 90s and early 2000s as designs improved and they became more ingrained in local mountain culture.

Helmets were recommended on the slopes a long time before any mandates were introduced. There are stories from Whistler Blackcomb orientation where employees were asked to put their hand up if they wore a helmet. Those with their hands up were acknowledged as the smartest of the group.

Spot the helmet. Willie Whistler with Ski Scamps on Whistler Mountain, February 1982. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) Collection.

Helmets became compulsory for all people under 18 attending ski or snowboard lessons in the 2009/10 winter season (requirements for children under 13 occurred earlier). Employees and anyone in lessons were also required to wear helmets in the terrain park. At this time, Whistler Blackcomb also began to make a conscious effort to feature skiers and snowboarders wearing helmets in their promotional material.

Easily the most contentious decision around helmets occurred in April 2013, when Whistler Blackcomb was allegedly told by WorkSafe BC that they were not in compliance with Section 8.11 of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This act mandates that safety headgear is required for any employees where there is a risk of head injury. Until then, this decades-old regulation had never been enforced on ski hills. According to Director of Employee Experience Joel Chevalier “The WorkSafe BC officers told us that at any time during or after the meeting, they could go outside, see one of our employees on skis or a snowboard without a helmet and write us an order, which from our perspective was quite a serious statement to make.”

Whistler Blackcomb took this discussion very seriously and announced that all employees on skis or snowboards were required to wear a helmet at work from May 4, only two weeks after the meeting with WorkSafe BC. To ensure all employees were able to meet this regulation there was a helmet borrowing policy for the rest of the season and staff could get 45% off when purchasing helmets from Whistler Blackcomb-owned stores.

Ski school in 1991. Helmets optional. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Tom Ericson.

Some members of Whistler Blackcomb management and staff were incensed with the swift decision by WorkSafe BC because there were still concerns about the safety of wearing helmets in certain situations, particularly during avalanche control when Ski Patrol are required to listen for hazards. (According to a survey around this time, patrollers were evenly distributed, with one third always wearing helmets, one third sometimes wearing helmets and one third never wearing helmets.) Headings such as “Helmet policy riles workers” and “Ski hills question ‘helmet rule’ for employees” dotted the local and provincial newspapers. Still, the greatest controversy surrounded whether it was appropriate to mandate helmet wear, or whether it should be a personal choice.

Despite helmets remaining a choice for visitors, the tide has turned. A Statistics Canada survey from 2017 found that 78.6% of skiers and 76.3% of snowboarders always wear helmets (and this is likely higher in Whistler), while helmet use amongst cyclists is lower at 45.5% Canada-wide. Today you can often tell approximately how old a photo is based on the number of helmets you see on the hill.

Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Ornulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnsen moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that he would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

This Week in Photos: January 18


Whistler base from the Gondola Run, as it looked on January 14, 1980.

Paul & Jane Burrows added a bit of warmth to the paper with more travel photos, this time from New Orleans.

Cars got buried in snow in Alpine Meadows.


Paul Burrows holds a copy of the winter edition of Whistler Magazine. The magazine is still published today.

Fuel-soaked cardboard ignites as Bentham (far right) readies to run. (If anyone knows why this stunt took place or has any further details, please let us know at the Museum.)

Bursting through the blaze as crewmen with fire extinguishers head towards Bentham.

Getting the treatment from four extinguishers including brother Harry Bentham (wearing the ski toque).

In the aftermath, Bentham is bandaged by his brother Harry.


A weekend snow storm effectively buried many cars and had many people heading out with shovels.

“Through the hoops” – a Myrtle Philip Kindergarten student shows their form during the school ski program at Blackcomb. The students go skiing once a week for four weeks.

Dennis Waddingham, North Side Ski Shop Manager for Whistler Mountain, Resident of Whistler Cay.

Dogs enjoy playing in the snow in Village Square.


Cross-country skiers kick out over the new trail system around Lost Lake on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The same trail was the scene of a 20 km race earlier in the day.

Have you cleaned your chimney lately? If not, these fellows may pay you a visit shortly. Fire Inspector Gerry Fosty reports there have been four chimney fires at Whistler since the New Year – all of them preventable.

Over 200 applicants turned out at the Keg Monday, January 17 for a variety of jobs being offered by the restaurant. The Keg is scheduled to open its doors sometime in early February.

All hands were on deck for the first series in the third annual Boat Race between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains Wednesday at the Longhorn Pub. Crowds cheered the Blackcomb team on to victory in the Women’s and All-Star (mixed team) events. Whistler Mountain personnel were the top tipplers in the men’s division and will have a chance to regain the All-Star title Wednesday, March 2 at the Bavarian Inn.


Divers prepare for a plunge into Nita Lake.

An RCMP E-division diving trainee prepares to climb out of the frigid water of Nita Lake at last week’s training session held in Whistler. The divers combed the lake bottom in pairs learning how to recover lost objects such as vehicles, weapons and bodies.

The shaken occupant of a van that was struck at the Lorimer and Nesters intersection last Thursday morning leaves the upturned vehicle. About $4000 damage was done to the two vehicles, but there were no serious injuries. The accident occurred when a car turning off Nesters Road collided with a second vehicle, which was travelling on Lorimer Road. The driver of the first car was charged with driving without due care and attention.

Diamond Jim

While writing last week’s post about Okanagan Helicopters, we realized that we hadn’t posted anything about “Diamond Jim” McConkey yet. We couldn’t let that injustice continue, so, here you go.

Jim McConkey was the ski school star of early Whistler Mountain. With a magnetic personality and his shock of white hair — “Diamond Jim” is a Whistler legend. McConkey had already had a long and distinguished career in the ski business when, in 1968, Franz Wilhelmsen sent Hugh Smythe and Jack Bright to ask him to be Whistler’s new Ski Director.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.

McConkey had always had an interest in Whistler Mountain and had heard good reports through the ski industry grapevine. The expanding Vancouver population, the long ski season and new road access all pointed towards success.

In the spring of 1968 he took a chance, moved to Whistler, and invested all his money in building a ski shop there. The new building was 20 feet by 50 feet, with two floors — rentals downstairs with a little office, and retail upstairs and the office for the ski school.

The classic image of Jack Bright (right) skiing Whistler with "Diamond Jim" McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

The classic image of Whistler Mountain General Manager Jack Bright (left) skiing Whistler with “Diamond Jim” McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

In an interview the Museum conducted with McConkey in 2010 he recalled:

In those days we used to have snow early. If we didn’t have snow by Nov. 11, we were kind of worried. The first year I had invested all my money in the ski shop and set it all up, Christmas came, and it was freezing cold, and there was a guy who was in charge of the hydro thing. He was a wonderful guy, but I don’t know if he got drunk or whatever it was, but the hydro was run by a couple railway cars down in Mons … and it went out. There was no power to run anything. And the lifts of course were shut down. No gondola, no nothing.

That was at Christmas time, my first winter, after I had gambled everything, and everybody left. People were getting on the trains going, ‘for the love of God, get me on that train!’ They were going and the place became deserted and the floors at Cheakamus Lodge had ice about six inches thick on them and it was closed for six weeks. No business in ski school, but people came up and we survived, and we had unbelievable skiing.

Although that first year was a bit hair-raising, McConkey’s decision to come to Whistler turned out to be a good one. New technology in skiing equipment meant more people were taking up skiing, and consequently there was a great market for instructing. Jim managed the ski school until 1980 and the rental and retail operations until 1985.

Before (and during ) his time in Whistler, McConkey made a name for himself as an early ski film star. Here he is enjoying some of Alta, Utah's famous champagne pow.

Before his time in Whistler, McConkey made a name for himself as an early ski film star. Here he is (at right) enjoying some of Alta, Utah’s famous champagne pow.

Whistler Mountain honoured Jim by naming a run after him (McConkey’s) on Dec. 15, 1994 — the same day that the Harmony Express chairlift was opened. This was clearly not enough for some, as there is also an unofficial McConkey’s on Whistler Mountain — a large unpatrolled area near the Peak to Creek.

A true fun-lover with an infectious joy for mountain life — McConkey’s catchphrase “Every day’s a bonus” is one we can all learn from.