Tag Archives: ski touring

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