Tag Archives: Skiing

Learning to Ski with Ski-ed

Each week we really enjoy sharing stories, events and photos from Whistler’s past through the Museum Musings column in Pique Newsmagazine.  This column offers a way to share far more stories than would be possible in our physical building.  In 1980, another Whistler institution had its own column in another Whistler newspaper, the Whistler Question, that they used to share knowledge and information each week.  This was “Get Ski-ed on Blackcomb,” written by various employees of Blackcomb Mountain.

In preparation for the official opening of Blackcomb Mountain in December, the first “Get Ski-ed” column was published in the early fall of 1980.  Though the main purpose of the column was stated as “to keep you informed on the most up-to-date skiing ideas and hints to further your skiing education,” the column also offered a way to introduce members of the Blackcomb team and new programs to the public.

Dennis Hansen, the first director of Ski-ed, poses outside the temporary Blackcomb offices. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

“Get Ski-ed” was kicked off by Dennis Hansen, a 29 year old Level 4 instructor who had previously worked at the Grouse Mountain Ski School.  He joined Blackcomb as the director of Ski-ed, “a new focus on ski education offering programs for everyone.”  Hansen shared his tips for getting in shape before the winter season, stating that getting in shape by skiing was not recommended.  Conveniently, this article coincided with the introduction of a “Get fit for skiing” program for adults offered by Ski-ed.

Running or jogging was the preferred way of getting in shape for Bob Fulton, the assistant director of Ski-ed.  He recommended varying your running rout to prevent boredom, using a run as a chance to take in the scenery around Whistler’s many trails.

Jose (Pepo) Hanff shows off some the Blackcomb uniform pieces featuring the original Blackcomb logo. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Over October and November, Fulton and Hansen shared tips for buying equipment (“The most important part of your equipment for any level of skier is your boots.”) and maintaining current equipment.   From minor ski tuning to how to wax skis, they encouraged skiers to prepare for the upcoming season and continue taking care of their equipment throughout the season.

In total, seven of Blackcomb Mountain’s “Ski Pros” were introduced through the Whistler Question column by the end of 1980.  Linda Turcot and Jose (Pepo) Hanff discussed the Molstar Race program for recreational racers and how to start racing as an adult skier.  Rob McSkimming offered tips for skiing smoothly with less effort, taking inspiration from Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark.  Jani Sutherland, Ski-ed’s Kids Specialist, gave parents helpful tips for getting their kids ready for ski lessons.  Her advice included such practical matters as ensuring they were send to a lesson with Chapstick, Kleenex, and contact information for a parent in the pockets.  Sutherland also provided information about buying equipment for children and advised parents to pay attention to their own form when skiing, as children learn through imitation.

Cathy MacLean thought that one of the most important parts of learning to ski was mastering the chairlift. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Perhaps the most practical advice provided by “Get Ski-ed” column that year was from full-time Ski Pro Cathy MacLean, who wrote her article about how to ride a chairlift.  According to MacLean, “first thing to do is try to find a person who has ridden a chairlift before, and is willing to go up with you.”

At the time, the “Get Ski-ed” column, like the earlier articles by Jim McConkey in Garibaldi’s Whistler News, blended advice, information, and promotion of Blackcomb Mountain’s events and programs.  Today, however, they offer insight into changes in equipment technology, the teaching of skiing, and even the individuals who worked at Blackcomb Mountain in its first year of operations.

Blackcomb’s 40

Over the past few months we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations.  Last Thursday (December 4) marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift Two using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.

The opening ceremonies at Lift Two on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith Collection.

This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain.  The day before, on December 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems.  The previous winter Blackcomb had offered Snowcat tours for twelve skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain.  December 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.

Jerry Blan and Hugh Smythe from Fortress Mountain Resorts present the Blackcomb development to the public.  Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

In 1978 the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination.  Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR).  As Smythe recalls, it was on October 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.

Opening day, when it arrived, was accompanied by 18 feet of cake from Gourmet Bakery.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager.  In 1974 he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) (today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada) after going into bankruptcy in 1971.  When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.

After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co.  Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain.  According to him, his pitch was “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.”  Luckily, they did.

The Blackcomb snowcat tours promised skiers fresh snow and a hot lunch. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978/79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails.  Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front year.  The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979/80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours.  The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains.  In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain.

The original target date set in 1978 was December 1, 1980.  Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days later, a feat described by the management as “not bad.”  Lift One from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.

Mayor Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe load the first chair to head up Blackcomb. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Happy 40th Blackcomb!

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 Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson 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.

Lost on Whistler?

In February 1968, The Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN) published an article entitled “Were 107 Skiers Really Lost on Whistler Mt.?”  The article was meant as a (somewhat belated) response to articles published in Lower Mainland newspapers on December 4, 1967 about an incident that occurred at the Blue Chair on Whistler Mountain.

In 1966, the Blue Chair had become the second chairlift to be installed onWhistler Mountain.  In was located in the same general area that the Harmony Express run today, loading in the same area and carrying skiers up to where today’s Emerald Chair offloads.  According to Lynn Mathews, the Blue Chair was part of a popular circular route.  After riding the gondola and Red Chair, skiers could go up the T-bar, hike over to the back bowl, and ski down to the base of the Blue Chair, which they could take back up to start the circle again.

On Sunday, December 3, 1967 the Blue Chair was shut down for part of the day, and skiers who had expected to take the lift back up were led out from the bottom of the chair via the beginner tail, just over 3 km.

The view from the lineup at the Blue Chair, today the location of the Harmony Chair.  Whistler Question Collection.

According to The Vancouver Sun, the Blue Chair broke down, “stranding scores of skiers,” but the versions of events presented by those who were “stranded” differed greatly from the lift company.  Those who talked to the paper claimed that 117 skiers were led by four ski patrol volunteers on “a gruelling 6 1/2-hour hike through shoulder deep snow,” with skiers needing rescue after falling off of the single-file trail trampled by the patrollers, finishing long after dark (in December, sometime after 4 pm).

The Sun wrote that the lift company’s response to these claims was to “sneer”.  Jack Bright, then the area manager for Whistler Mountain, reported that it took less than four hours for the group to hike out, using a ski run “which happened to have a bit more fresh snow on it.”  The company handed out free passes to those who had been stranded, but claimed that the number of passes handed out did not necessarily reflect the number stranded, as “Everybody claimed to be stranded so they could get a free ticket.”

Thanks to the colour coded nature of the early Whistler Mountain chairlifts, it’s easy to identify chairs in colour photographs! George Benjamin Collection.

Two months after the incident, the lift company used their publication to clear up lingering questions.

According to Jack Bright in the GWN, high winds and extremely heavy snow caused mechanical difficulties for the Blue Chair, causing the engine to overheat and automatically stop the lift.  The operator announced that it would take from an hour to an hour and a half for the engine to cool off before they could restart.  The auxiliary engine was used to evacuate the chair.  The decision was made to send those waiting in line, accompanied by five experienced patrollers and employees, out along the beginner trail.

Due to the snow, it took longer than expected for the group to make it out.  The trail was marked and, according to Bright, “however irritable people were, there was a general gay harmony throughout the safari.”  This agrees with the memory of Lynn Mathews, who remembered her husband Dave, Whistler Mountain’s operations manager, coming home late and announcing that there were over 100 people lost on the mountain, although she said he told her, “They’re not lost, they’re having too much fun at the moment.”  According to Lynn, Dave claimed the skiers in the group were making snow angels, throwing snowballs, and generally having a good time.

No matter what truly happened on the mountain that day, this experience is unlikely to be repeated today as over the past five decades both chairlifts and grooming (as well as on-mountain communications) have advanced.

Snow Expectations

Recently Whistler Blackcomb announced the first snowfall of the season on the mountains and it has many thinking about what the winter will look like this season.  Snow is always a major topic of conversation in Whistler, as we can see by looking back on previous years.

In 1972, Garibaldi’s Whistler News noted that the snowfall in the valley was a record high at 943 cm, and according to their Fall 1972 issue “there was snow covering the mountain tops mid-September and it looks like another year for early skiing.”  The average snowfall in the years leading up to 1972 was recorded at 12.8 m.

Unsurprising for a town built on skiing, snowfall has been the talk of the town in Whistler for decades. Benjamin Collection.

This wasn’t the case for every year, however.  In 1976, the winter ski season was off to a sluggish start.  A lot of rainfall and sunny weather in November caused the snow on the mountain to melt, thereby pushing back the opening of the mountain.  The Whistler Question reported in December that employees were let go or not hired due to the lack of snow, leaving about 25 fewer people working for Whistler Mountain.  This also affected the number of tourists that came in to town and had an impact on the economy.  Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays, but all skiers had to download using the gondola.  In February 1977, the first snow gun was obtained for Whistler Mountain to help combat the lack of snow.

Luckily, the next winter, 1977/78, was “marked with the return of good snowfalls and a good season for the ski school,” as reported by the Whistler Question.

Roger McCarthy gets into some deep snow on the side of Dad’s Run.  Whistler Question Collection, December 1979.

Winter came early again in 1981 as Blackcomb Mountain announced it would be opening a week earlier than planned, while Whistler Mountain remained closed until the scheduled opening on November 26.

El Nino was blamed for the warmest winter of record  in 1992 by then Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe, as reported in the Blackcomb Mountain Staff News.

There was a feeling of déjà-vu in 1995/96, as rain affected the beginning of ski season and workers were laid off.  American Thanksgiving usually marks the beginning of skiing but that year Whistler Mountain’s alpine didn’t have a sufficient base of snow, while Blackcomb was pumping water out of its snow guns and hoping the freezing level would drop enough to make snow.  Blackcomb Mountain opened on the US Thanksgiving weekend, but with only a limited number of lifts and trails.

A Whistler wonderland appeared overnight Sunday, October 17 with the season’s first snow in the valley.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Once again, a slow opening was followed the next year by great snowfalls.  Meteorologist Marilyn Manso in December 1996 said, “by mid-December we’ve had more snow on the ground than at any time since records were kept.”  There was 74 cm of snow on the ground in the valley at this time in December, compared with the previous year of 34 cm.

The first week in December 2001 brought about 1.2 m of snow on the mountains, which allowed for half of Whistler Blackcomb terrain to be open.  This was more than any other ski resort in North America at that time, and allowed for the snow guns to be moved lower on the mountain and provide ski-out access.

Last winter also got off to a slow start, so let’s hope that this season brings great snowfalls.

Summers Gone By: The Dave Murray Ski Camps on Film

In my last post, I shared the story of Marine World/Africa U.S.A., a California zoo and theme park with an unexpected connection to the museum.  This week, I’ll be talking about a topic that is much more quintessentially “Whistler”: the Dave Murray Summer Ski Camp.

Those who attended the camps on Whistler Mountain in the 1980s may have fond memories of summer skiing under the leadership of former Crazy Canuck Dave Murray.  Though the first summer ski camp on Whistler Mountain ran in 1966, the roots of this action-packed camp date back to 1967, when it was helmed by Austrian ski legend Toni Sailer.  Murray attended as a teenager and took over as head instructor in 1984.  The camp’s new name endured past Murray’s tragic death from skin cancer in 1990, before being simplified to The Camp in 2013.

Toni Sailer, six-time Olympic gold medalist, comes to Whistler from Austria every year to run the ski camp before Dave Murray took over in 1984. Whistler Question Collection.

Over the past several months, I have been working with a large collection of materials related to the Toni Sailer and Dave Murray Summer Ski Camps.  These included a veritable treasure trove of 43 videocassettes and DVDs containing footage from these bygone summers.  Most of these tapes were annual highlight videos set to catchy tunes of the ’80s and ’90s.  Predictably, skiing took centre stage, showcasing everything from the wedge turns of beginners to the graceful freestyle of coaches like Stephanie Sloan.  One oft-repeated stunt saw campers zoom down a hill and through a large slush puddle waiting at the bottom.  Needless to say, this resulted in many painful-looking wipeouts.

The Summer Ski Camps aren’t the only ones to ski through slush – the spring Slush Cup is still going today. Greg Griffith Collection.

The videos also featured many outdoor activities that put the “summer” in Summer Ski Camp.  Once off the ski hill, campers enjoyed biking, swimming, windsurfing, watersliding, canoeing, roller-skating, and more.  Volleyball, tennis and golf seemed to be the most popular sports.  More unusual pastimes also made appearances – including a flying trapeze, an Aerotrim machine and a large, suspended basket carrying passengers over a river.

As per the carefree spirit of Whistler, cheeky and even rude humour abounded in these tapes.  Peppered throughout the videos were scenes of campers making faces, telling jokes and generally clowning around.  The ski camp staff performed and filmed skits such as “Dave Murray Land,” “Timmy’s Dream,” and “The Lighter Side of Coaching.”  They were even kind enough to include blooper reels.  More than one person mooned the camera.

A group shot of all the coaches at the Dave Murray Summer Ski Camp, circa late 1980s. The crew was a veritable “who’s who” of Canadian ski racing.

On the other hand, there were also several professionally-edited televised advertisements for the camp, such as a BCTV promo from 1984 and a Pontiac World of Skiing special aired in 1995.

As I watched hour after hour of footage, I was struck with a sense of double nostalgia.  Firstly, for the fun-loving campers whose childhood memories I was vicariously experiencing – and who must now be at least in their 30s.  Secondly, for myself.  Here I was, handling VHS for the first time in a decade and reminiscing about the summer camps outside my own hometown of Edmonton (although I must admit that the skiing scene on the Alberta prairies can’t compare to that offered at the Dave Murray Summer Ski Camps!).

Holly Peterson is the archival assistant at the Whistler Museum and Archives.  She is here on a Young Canada Works contract after completing the Museum Management and Curatorship program at Fleming College (Peterborough, Ontario).

What do canoeing and powder skiing have in common?

With the beginning of the new year, we have been spending some time looking back at what 2018 brought to the museum (new records, new exhibits and many new donations of artifacts and archival materials!) as well as looking forward to what lies ahead.

Each year January marks the beginning of our annual Speaker Series.  We’re very excited to start off our 2019 series Thursday, January 17 with Highways of the Past: Canoeing the Grand Canyon of the Liard River.

In 1972 Mike Stein and five fellow adventurers filmed their journey on the Liard River, which flows 1115 km through parts of the Yukon, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.  Their trip focused on the Grand Canyon, a 30 km stretch of the Liard River containing numerous class IV and higher rapids.  For decades the resulting 16mm film was thought lost, but recently Mike Stein not only found a copy but had it digitized.

Heading through the Liard Canyon, 1972. Photo courtesy of Mike Stein.

Thursday, January 17 Mike Stein will be at the Whistler Museum for the first screening of Highways of the Past and to discuss his own experiences before, during and after the trip.

While looking through a copy of Garibaldi’s Whistler News published three years prior to the trip down the Liard River, I found an article written by another participant in the canoe trip, Jim McConkey.  McConkey came to Whistler Mountain to take up the position of Ski Director in the spring of 1968 and began writing instructional articles about ski techniques for the publication during his first season.  In early 1969, Whistler Mountain received weeks of what he described as “beautiful, deep powder snow.”  This led to “Learning Powder Snow Technique,” an article in which McConkey instructs skiers on the proper way to ski powder.

‘Diamond’ Jim McConkey’s official Whistler Mountain portrait.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The article begins by defining true powder snow as “very light snow that flies out from underneath the skis, sometimes bellowing up over the skier’s head.”  Once the skier found the right snow, they also had to ensure they had the right equipment, meaning flexible deep snow skis, with little camber and soft heels.

When the skier was ready to head for the hill, McConkey recommended starting with a long, gently slope to practice the “continuous, flowing motion of linked turns straight down the hill” that is powder skiing.  According to the article, there is no room for traversing a run on a powder day as “traversing like a cautious old woman is Taboo.”

Jack Bright and Jim McConkey skiing Whistler Mountain, 1972 (the same year as the trip).  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The article ends with hints that still hold up well today, such as “establish a rhythm”, “keep your head and shoulders facing down the fall line,” and “keep your feet locked together.”  Especially useful is McConkey’s last reminder:

Be sure to laugh when you take a giant clobber in the deep snow.  You will get your chance to laugh with your friends when they fall.  Powder snow and clobbers too are for everyone.

We may not be able to promise weeks of powder skiing this January, but you can join us at the museum Thursday, January 17 for a unique look back at an incredible journey from 1972.

Tickets are on sale at the Whistler Museum; $10 or $5 for museum or Club Shred members.  Doors open at 6:30 pm, the talk and film will start at 7 pm.  See you there!