Tag Archives: ski touring

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part Two)

There is an often told story of the first meeting of Stefan Ples and Franz Wilhelmsen of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. on Whistler Mountain.  Apparently Franz arrived at the top of the mountain by helicopter to find Stefan there on skis.  Franz asked, “What are you doing on my mountain?”, to which Stefan replied, “What are you doing on mine?”  Though we do not know exactly how their first meeting occurred, the story certainly demonstrates Stefan’s love of the mountain and his preferred way to navigate it.  (For more information on Stefan’s life before coming to Alta Lake, check out last week’s article here.)

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

Although Stefan didn’t understand why people would prefer going up on lifts and skiing only a short distance down, he became greatly involved in the development of Whistler Mountain.  By the mid 1960s he had been exploring the mountain on his skis for years and knew the are perhaps better than anyone at the time.  Stefan began working for the lift company in 1963, going up to Alta Lake every weekend for over a year to climb up to a meadow at the bottom of the T-bar, where he would record the temperature and snowfall and other information (his handwritten reports were donated to the Whistler Museum & Archives by his daughter Renate Bareham in 2013).

When construction of the runs and lifts began Stefan moved up to Alta Lake full time to work.  Part of his responsibilities was to bring the horses up the mountain with supplies to a work camp that was set up in what may have been the same meadows he gathered his reports from.  Renate accompanied him on one of his trips up with the horses and told the museum, “It was just magical, because we went up through the forest and everything and we ended up in this meadow.  Oh, it was so beautiful up there.”

During one particularly bad snow year, Stefan also introduced the sport of Ice Stock Sliding to the valley.  “The old master, Stefan Ples, who introduced ice stock sliding to the Whistler area, sending one of the “rocks” down the recently blacktopped course next to the school at Whistler.” (Garibaldi Whistler News Fall 1977)

Though Gerda had continued to run their rooming house in Vancouver when Stefan first started working for the lift company, the rest of the family moved to Alta Lake in 1966.  According to Renate, not many people lived in the area at the time, and those who did either worked for the lift company or worked construction around the gondola base.  Renate attended high school in Squamish and worked for the lift company on the weekends and breaks.  At fourteen she began by stapling lift tickets and then handing out boarding passes, moving on to teach skiing for Jim McConkey when she turned sixteen.  She also babysat, caring for the Bright and Mathews children whose parents worked for the mountain.

Stefan continued working for the lift company and led ski tours to areas the lifts didn’t access.  One summer Renate even remembered helping him paint the top of the Red Chair.  Despite working for the lift company and receiving a lifetime pass in 1980, Stefan continued to prefer walking up, occasionally taking a lift as far as midstation before beginning his climb.

According to Renate, the only person who could go up the mountain on skis faster than her father was Seppo Makinen: “It took my dad three hours, probably, to get to the peak.  Seppo made it in an hour and a half.  I think he actually ran, you know, on his cross country skis, and my dad walked on his cross country skis, but Seppo ran.  He was also considerably younger than my father.”

Stefan Ples, long-time resident of Whistler, receives a lifetime pass from Garibaldi Lifts President Franz Wilhelmsen in recognition of his long involvement with Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Parts of Stefan’s legacy can be seen throughout the area though many may not know of his role in creating it, from the Tyrol Lodge to the two runs off Whistler Peak that bear his name (Stefan’s Chute and Stefan’s Salute).  He was a founding member of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s and helped start Whistler’s first Search and Rescue Team in 1973.  His name can also be found on the Stefan Ples trophy, the prize for the overall winners of the Peak to Valley Race, as he like to climb to the peak and then ski all the way down.

Though some people may come to Whistler to build a career or make it rich, Renate said of her father that, “All he wanted to do was be in the mountains,” a goal it would appear he certainly accomplished.

Celebrating Tyrol Lodge’s 50th

Travelling along Whistler’s westside, properly known as the Alta Lake Road, is a bit like travelling back in time.

The arrival of downhill skiing in the 1960s caused the pace of life in our valley to shift gears completely. While gondolas and condos, followed by full neighbourhoods and villages grew around the flanks of Whistler Mountain, across the valley the sliver of railway-accessed waterfront that formed the backbone of the community of Alta Lake was left to develop at a gentler pace. As such, despite the glitz, hustle and bustle of our modern resort, much of the Westside’s nostalgic charm has persisted to this day.

Tucked away on the west shore of Nita Lake, Tyrol Lodge has managed to survive through these eras as well as any other property.  When members of the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club first chose the site for their cabin in 1963, the gorgeous view across Nita Lake to Whistler Mountain (still officially named London Mountain at the time) didn’t include any ski lifts.

The lodge under construction

The lodge under construction. Frank Grundig Photo.

The Tyrol Club envisioned their cabin according to the traditional ski lodges of their Alpine motherland. It was simply to provide a comfortable if modest base from which club members and their guests could explore the surrounding mountains on foot and on skis.

While outdoor play was an obvious draw, maintaining a vibrant social life was just as important. Long-term Whistlerite Trudy Alder worked as the Lodge’s caretaker, along with her first husband Helmut, from 1968 to 1970. At the time, she considered entertaining lodge guests with spirited après-ski full to be as important a duty as clean linens and stacked firewood. What the lodge lacked in luxury, it made up with rustic charm and a sense of community.

The festive Tyrolean spirit was, and remains today, a defining characteristic of the Tyrol Club.

The festive Tyrolean spirit was, and remains today, a defining characteristic of the Tyrol Club. Frank Grundig Photo.

To this day there is no television in the lodge to distract from socialization. In fact, once on the Tyrol Lodge grounds, there is very little to indicate that you haven’t been warped back to the 1960s. Strategic upgrades like energy-efficient windows were deemed higher priority upgrades than video games and trendy décor. Perhaps counter-intuitively, bucking the trends of the modern ski industry seems to have been a winning strategy.

The Games Room, today. Very little has changed over the years. Jeff Slack photo.

The Games Room, today. Very little has changed over the years. Jeff Slack photo.

Today, the Tyrol Club continues to boast a sizeable and cohesive membership, with many young families joining who sought a departure from the typical ski-in, ski-out experience. Those involved with Tyrol Lodge all cite the club’s strong camaraderie and its devotion to its founding values as reasons why it has survived, even thrived for so long, as most other ski clubs and cabins have long-since ceased.

This Saturday, August 3rd, from 1-4pm, the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club will be welcoming the community to Tyrol Lodge to celebrate the property’s 50th anniversary. There will be a bbq, historical displays, and other fun activities for all ages. The event offers the perfect opportunity to tour the beautiful grounds, experience the Tyrol Club’s renowned hospitality, and experience firsthand some of our community’s living heritage, no time machine required.

The Lodge, today. Jeff Slack photo.

Tyrol Lodge, today. Jeff Slack photo.

Mountain Man Redux

Last summer we introduced you to Cliff Fenner, Mountain Man. Quick recap: Cliff was an Englishman who moved to Vancouver after World War 2 and soon after became Supervisor of Garibaldi Provincial Park. Naturally, Cliff was already an avid outdoorsman and spent much of his professional and personal time exploring the southern Coast Mountains.

Cliff in front of the Taylor Meadows Cabin. He was also a very capable photographer, and after retiring from BC Parks he actually made his living as a writer and photographer, mainly working for travel publications.

Well, we recently digitized 2 full albums of his personal photographs and there’s some real gems. Most photos depict summer hiking and climbing excursions, but to be seasonally appropriate, we figured we’d share some shots from a ski trip up to Black Tusk. Unfortunately we don’t have much background info for these images, beyond a probable year of 1955. Snow levels seem typical of May.

Every ski mountaineer knows the ridiculous feeling of sweating uphill in your hikers with a full ski it strapped to your back.

Every ski mountaineer knows the ridiculous feeling of sweating uphill below the snow line, with a full ski set strapped to your back.

The crew taking a pause, probably at the base of the Tusk proper.

The crew taking a pause, probably at the base of the Tusk proper.

The rewarding view across Garibaldi Lake.

The rewarding view across Garibaldi Lake.

And the view north across the Cheakamus Valley.

And the view north across the Cheakamus Valley.

On the way down we get to see how it was done on the rudimentary gear of the day.

Making their way up Black Tusk's infamous south chimney, still snow-filled at this time of year,

Making their way down Black Tusk’s infamous south chimney, still snow-filled at this time of year.

More descending...

More descending…

After descending from Black Tusk, the party put their skis back on and headed towards Mount Garibaldi.

Gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi.

Gazing up at the north face of Mount Garibaldi.

Unfortunately, without a written account we don’t know if they summited, or even attempted to climb the great volcano.

Skiing across a still-frozen Garibaldi Lake.

Skiing back across a still-frozen Garibaldi Lake.

Thus we encounter some of the limitations of incomplete archival records. All we know about this trip is what we can gather from the raw, uncaptioned images. Still, they are more than enough to set the mind wandering and the heart racing as we dream of the many mountain adventures that await us this upcoming winter. Have fun and play safe!

George Bury – Whistler’s Least-Known Dreamer

We’re currently in the midst of our 100 Years of Dreams celebrations. The events so far have been a great success and there’s still lots going on this weekend. Check the Museum website for a full rundown.

Since we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alex & Myrtle’s first visit to Alta Lake their story has been getting a lot of coverage of late, but we came up with the “100 Years Of Dreams” tagline because we wanted to celebrate all of the dreamers and icons that have called this valley home over the last century. Far less-known, but nearly just as consequential, is the story of George Bury.

Although the development of the Whistler area for skiing is typically attributed to a group of Vancouver businessmen looking for the next place to host a Winter Olympics in the 1960s, there were earlier attempts at ski development in the area. In May 1939, George Bury and three other skiers found themselves on what they, along with their floatplane pilot, thought was the shore of Alta Lake, laden with eight-foot long skis and 70 pound packs of gear.

On Cheakamus Lake.

They had made the entire journey from Seabird Island in Richmond in the plane and were eager to start skiing. Thus began a ten-day exploratory trip of the area, although in 2007 as Bury looked at maps while recounting his experience, he conceded that it was actually the shores of Cheakamus Lake from which they began their journey.

The crew.

The party included Austrian George Eisenschimel, who had escaped his home country just before Hitler annexed it, and went on to travel through Switzerland, to South America and then British Columbia. Eisenschimel had the idea of developing the area for skiing and took the step of contacting Bury, who at the time was well known for being the four-way champion of Western Canada. This skiing discipline encompassed jumping, cross-country, slalom and downhill. In addition to Eisenschimel, Howard Hamil was a part of the trip. Before hearing from Eisenschimel, Bury had also looked at maps of the region and thought that it had great potential for development.

Their camp near Black Tusk Meadows.

The group was greeted by warm spring conditions, and they spent their time hiking up, heating snow to produce drinking water, and then skiing down to search for another appealing ridge over the ten-day period. Ending their trip with a run down the face of The Barrier, they skied to the edge of the snowline and then hiked to the PGE railroad, where George stood in the middle of the tracks until he was able to flag down the next train and hitch a ride to Squamish.

A timeless tuck.

Not long after this trip, the idea of developing the area for skiing was sidetracked when Bury joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at the beginning of the Second World War. In 1940, a Province Newspaper column entitled, “Athletes in Uniform,” described Bury as “one of the best all-round skiers in the city,” going on to state that, “George joined the Air Force as an air gunner [the previous] April and went to Montreal for training.” After the end of the war, Bury continued his career in radio and communications and never looked back. The group from that 1939 expedition never got back in touch.

In 2007 Bury made his first return to the region since the 1939 ski expedition, aside from his radio, radar and microwave technology training bringing him back to install B.C. Hydro’s microwave system on Black Tusk. Now 98 years old, George and his wife Leona live on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. He still skis, teaching cross-country skiing to First Nations children in the winters, and he is still in possession of his ski instructor’s license- the 38th ever issued in Canada.

Waxing their skis and displaying the height of inter-war era ski fashion.

Pip Brock part 2.

This is the second half of a feature on Pip Brock, an early Alta Lake summer resident and pioneer of ski-mountaineering in the Coast Range. For the first half of this article click here.

On 30 July 1935, while Pip and the Mundays were bushwacking north-east of Knight Inlet towards the still-unclimbed Mount Silverthrone, Pip’s father Reginald boarded a chartered a flight from Vancouver to Gunn Lake with Pioneer Airways. That afternoon their C204 aircraft, which also carried David Sloan, managing director of Bralorne’s Pioneer Mines, landed at Alta Lake to pick up Mrs. Brock before continuing northward.

On take-off, windy conditions prevented the pilot from gaining sufficient altitude. The plane banked sharply to avoid the fast-approaching trees and the pilot attempted to re-land on Alta Lake, but without success. They plummeted back to the ground about 400 metres south of Mons, killing the pilot, Bill McCluskey and Mr. Brock instantly. Mrs. Brock and Mr. Sloan were severely injured, and transported via rail to Squamish, where a speedboat and doctor were arranged to take them to Vancouver General Hospital.

The Vancouver Sun’s feature story on the fatal crash. Click the image to view a full-size scan of the article.

The news quickly reached the central coast via the steamships that regularly plied those waters. When a local homesteader heard of the crash, he rushed up the Klinaklini River in his canoe to give Pip the tragic news. He reached the climbing party just before they ascended onto the Klinaklini glacier, at which point they would have been out of contact for several weeks. Pip rushed back to the city to discover the added tragedy of his mother’s passing; she succumbed to her injuries before their boat reached Vancouver.

The Brocks’ deaths was major news. They were an extremely respected and prominent family. Mr. Brock was the dean of applied sciences at UBC, a former Director of the federal geological survey, and a decorated military commander in World War One. He received a military funeral, and to this day Brock Hall at UBC commemorates the esteemed geologist.

Despite the family tragedy, the Brock boys continued to visit their cabin at Alta Lake. In 1937, Pip re-joined the Mundays for two major ski-mountaineering trips into the surrounding mountains. First, in January of that year, while Pip was on winter break from university, the party headed up Wedge Creek where they set up a base camp below tree line near the crest of Wedge Pass. From here they made the first ski ascent of Wedge Mountain, noting that they stood higher than anyone had before in Garibaldi Park, as the winter snowpack lifted them a few meters higher than summer climbers.

A few days later they proceeded to to the Spearhead side of the valley, making the first ski descents of what is today the Blackcomb backcountry. Don Munday’s description of their ski descent of one of the range’s massive icefields—probably the Shudder or Tremor Glacier—remains one of my all-time favourite skiing quotes:

Life has few thrills to equal ski-ing on a glacier. The quite moderate gradient surprised us with its immoderate speed for an uninterrupted half mile—if champagne has feelings when uncorked, they would match ours during those moments.

Don and Pip heading back to Primrose along the PGE railway tracks. Hungry, no doubt. Photo: Phyllis Munday, courtesy British Columbia Archives.

Buoyed by their success, Pip and the Mundays set out on an even more ambitious exploratory ski-mountaineering trip that spring, to Mount Sir Richard. Even today Mount Sir Richard is a fairly committing multi-day ski tour from Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains, accessed from the back of the renowned Spearhead Traverse. Back then skiers didn’t have the luxury of gondolas to ferry them up to the alpine, so they were forced to follow a far rougher route than modern ski-tourers enjoy.

Awaiting for the end of Pip’s school semester in late April, the party headed out from mile 34 of the PGE Railway to a supply cache that Don had previously placed near Cheakamus Lake. Here the party used a raft to pull their supplies to the head of the lake, a gruelling process which took two days itself. From here they continued to pack gear up the Cheakamus Valley to the base of Sir Richard.

Don (on shore) and Pip (on raft) hauling two weeks worth of gear and provisions up a still-frozen Cheakamus Lake. Photo: Phyllis Munday, courtesy British Columbia Archives.

Fighting thick brush, every sort of snow conditions imaginable, and the logistical headaches inherent in such a route, they managed another fine first ascent and an exhilarating ski through the McBride Glacier icefall. The trip took fourteen days. In an article in BC Mountaineer, Pip summed up their journey in typical understatement: “The trip was certainly an arduous one, but the most worthwhile trips usually do require the most effort, and this trip was worthwhile.”

We know little of Pip’s later years, though he continued to hike and climb well into his silver age. Later climbers who met him on the trail recount his genuinely warm and easy-going spirit. Few would suspect the epic mountain adventurers previously undertaken by this gentle old man.

The Brock boys picnicking near Singing Pass, 1930s.

The widely publicized expeditions that Pip and the Mundays undertook together helped convince the sceptical mountain community of the merit’s of ski-mountaineering. It is a testament to their vision that the Coast Mountains are today recognized as one of the world’s premier ski-mountaineering fields.Their wilful hardship, endured solely due to their love of the mountains, should serve as inspiration for those among us who wish to break beyond the confines of mechanized mountain access to discover all that the Coast Mountains’ alpine landscapes have to offer.

Pip Brock part 1

Beyond its success as a tourist destination, Rainbow Lodge’s success also attracted a growing number of year-round and seasonal residents, planting the seeds of the community that eventually became Whistler.

The Vancouver family of Reginald and Mildred Brock was just one family among the growing number of city-dwellers who began building vacation homes in this beautiful valley. The Brock’s first discovered the valley when Mrs. Brock came to visit a friend’s cottage in 1927 and instantly fell in love with the lakeside community, as so many others have since. Two years later the Brock’s purchased two lots on the southwest corner of Alta Lake and hired Bert Harrop to build their cottage, which they named Primrose.

The Brock’s Primrose Cabin near the south end of Alta Lake.

Every summer thereafter, the Brock’s visited Primrose along with their five sons– Patrick Willet, Byron Briton, David Hamilton, Thomas Leith and Philip (Pip) Gilbert. For Mr. and Mrs. Brock, Alta Lake was a peaceful summer retreat from their busy city lives. For their youngest child Pip, it became the jumping off point into a vast mountain wilderness just waiting to be explored.

Pip  had an especially strong draw to Whistler and would often come up on his own. Of course there was no Greyhound for a teenaged boy to ride—there wasn’t even a road—but that was no obstacle for Pip. After riding a steamship, most people hopped on the PGE railway to complete the day-long voyage from Vancouver to Alta Lake.

The boat would get there at about 2 o’clock and if we felt like spending 50¢ we could take a taxi as far as Cheakeye, but sometimes we didn’t even want to do that. Believe it or not, 50¢ seemed like a lot of money! So we walked the whole 38 miles quite often.

Even if folks were tougher back then, Pip Brock still stands out as exceptionally hardy—a trait that would serve him well in the mountains. As Brock plainly stated of the frequent 10-hour treks, “nobody else wanted to do the walking” so he usually went alone.

Despite the lengthy hike, upon arrival, Pip didn’t rest up one bit.  Instead he usually kept hiking right up into the surrounding mountains. He climbed some of the closer peaks as a teenager and began to gain notoriety among the locals for his mountain jaunts.

Pip was able to parlay his love for the mountains into paid work up high. In the 1920s and 30s the City of Vancouver had substantial interest in developing the hydro-electric potential of Garibaldi Park’s many glacial lakes and streams to power the rapidly growing metropolis. For several summers Pip worked for the Vancouver Water Board hydro surveys, measuring water storage and hydro-electric potential in the mountains he loved so much.

Pip atop Whistler Mountain, early 1930s

At the age of nineteen Pip made his first newsworthy ascent. It was Easter 1933, and with a new set of skis which he had purchased from Woodward’s department store (he later described them as “terrible”), he climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain and then proceeded to ski back down. Locals and visitors to Rainbow Lodge’ had been hiking to nearby summits like Whistler for some time, but this was the first ski ascent and descent of Whistler Mountain—thirty-two years before the arrival of lift-accessed skiing to the mountain. Locals didn’t believe the brash teenager’s claim until Pip pointed out his ski tracks through a set of binoculars.

At the time serious mountain folk remained sceptical of skis’ utility as a means of travel. Once, when he dropped in on Harry Horstman’s Sproatt Mountain cabin on a set of skis, the indignant prospector retorted ‘What the hell you got them planks fur? I can get around twice as fast on my snowshoes as you can on them slitherin boards!” Even most recreational mountaineers, accustomed to the North Shore’s steep wooded slopes, thought skis’ potential as a mountaineering tool were dubious at best. One Vancouver climber went as far as to publicize a mock award for the first person to ski-climb the Camel, a vertical climbing crag that never holds any snow.

Brock was among a small group of mountain-lovers who saw the great potential that skis held among the Coast Mountains’ vast glacial expanses. As Brock recalled in a 1992 interview with the Whistler Museum, “most mountaineers thought that skiing was impure and indecent. But a few of us being frivolous, realized the fun and value of skis for winter touring.” Brock soon befriended these other early converts, most notably the renowned climbers Don and Phyllis Munday. In 1930 the Mundays had begun their own (successful) experiments with ski-mountaineering in their widely publicized expeditions to Mount Waddington, the incredibly rugged and isolated highest peak in the Coast Mountains.

Thanks to his own ski-mountaineering experience, the Mundays invited Pip along as a packer on their 1934 expedition, which also featured high profile American climbers Henry Hall and Hans Fuhrer (who eventually scored the prestigious first ascent of Waddington in 1936). Their party made an epic attempt on the highly technical, dangerous, and still-unclimbed peak—after eight years this was to be the Mundays’ last attempt on Waddington—and they also made several ascents during their four-week-long expedition.

The following summer Pip would return with the Mundays to a new, largely unexplored set of mountains just to the north of Waddington. Their goal was to pursue more pioneer ascents in this superlative landscape, but this climbing trip would be cut short by an unexpected tragedy.

To learn about the tramautic loss of Pip’s parents, and his further ski-mountaineering adventures in the mountains surrounding Whistler, read part two here