Tag Archives: Tyrol Club

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.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part One)

Well before people started to pay for lift access and a day’s skiing, skiers were climbing Whistler and the surrounding mountains, either in search of skiable terrain, such as the George Bury expedition in 1939, or simply to spend time outdoors exploring, such as Pip Brock in the early 1930s.  One person who spent countless hours ski touring on Whistler Mountain was Stefan Ples.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1912, Stefan Ples spent much of his life surrounded by mountains.  When he was a young man it was common to work until noon on Saturdays, leaving Saturday afternoons and Sundays as his free time.  According to his daughter Renate Bareham, Stefan would work until noon and then get on a train or his bicycle and head for cabins in the mountains.  Ski lifts were still relatively new and uncommon at the time (the first recorded ski lift was built by Robert Winterhalder in Germany in 1908) and so Stefan would spend his time climbing up the mountain, skiing down only once at the end of his trip.  This would remain his preferred way to ski for the rest of his life.

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

During the Second World War Stefan lived in Hallein, a town outside of Salzburg, where his wife sadly passed away, leaving him with their young son.  After a move to Sweden Stefan met Gerda.  She came from Leipzig, Germany and had lost her fiancé in the war.  Like Stefan, Gerda was planning to come to Canada.  The pair got married and Stefan, Gerda and Steve came to to Canada together, docking in Halifax and then going by train to Montreal.  In Montreal, Stefan would hike up Mount Royal whenever he got the chance, though it couldn’t compare to the mountains he grew up in.  The family spent some time there before moving on to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Stefan and Gerda ran a rooming house in the West End, a Victorian building located on Denman and Davie Streets, right across the street from English Bay.  Renate, who was born in Vancouver, remembered that their house became the first stop for Austrian immigrants coming to the city.  In 2013 she told the museum, “I think I met just about every Austrian that came to Canada in the first ten years that I was born.”

Settling in Vancouver also meant Stefan was once again living amongst mountains.  In the early 1950s he, along with Norbert Kamnig, Fips Broda, and Erhard Franks, instructors at Hans Brunner’s ski school on Hollyburn Mountain, became founding members of the Tyrol Ski and Mountain Club.  The Club soon built a cabin on Mount Seymour, where Stefan and his family would often go in the summers.  Renate learned to ski on rope tows on both these mountains, though she remembers Seymour more clearly.

The Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club enjoyed the area so much they even decided to build a lodge in the 1960s. The Tyrol Lodge still stands above Nita Lake today.  Tyrol Lodge Collection.

According to the Club, it was a chance meeting with an Alta Lake resident at a cobbler that first introduced Stefan to the area around Whistler Mountain.  He and a few other Club members took the train up to Alta Lake and were impressed with the location, returning afterward to continue ski touring around the area.  In 1959, Stefan and Gerda went further and bought a property on Alta Lake next to Cypress Lodge.  This became their own cabin in the mountains, though it would be a few more years before the family moved to Alta Lake full time.

Next week we’ll be continuing with a look at Stefan Ples and his family’s time at Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain.

A Century of Skiing in Whistler

Sunday February 21st was International Ski History Day. At the museum we hosted a delegation from the International Ski History Association and put on our Speaker Series “Celebrity Athletes & the Growth of Modern Skiing” featuring Stephanie Sloan, John Smart, and Rob McSkimming. There were also events up on Whistler Mountain during the day.

We have an incredibly rich skiing heritage to celebrate here in Whistler. And though Whistler Mountain’s 50th anniversary is the big story this season, it’s not the only milestone worth celebrating this year.

As we’ve profiled on this blog previously, there were plenty of skiing pioneers doing things the old-fashioned way prior to the installation of ski lifts on Whistler Mountain. Examples include Tyrol Club members like Stefan Ples who regularly skinned up Whistler Mountain in the 1950s and early 60s, and famed explorers Don & Phyllis Munday, along with summer resident Pip Brock, who undertook ski-mountaineering expeditions into the heart of the Coast Mountains in the 1930s.

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A 1939 ski-mountaineering expedition near Black Tusk led by George Bury, in search of appropriate locations to build a ski resort. They found excellent skiing and remarkable landscapes, but their plans were interrupted by the outbreak of WW2.

Skiing, mostly of the cross-country variety, was also a popular pastime at Rainbow Lodge during the quieter winter months. We’re fortunate enough to hold in our archives dozens of photographs from that era of skiers trekking around the valley, posing on Alta Lake, or schussing down a small wooded slope near Rainbow. We even have a few shots of Bob the Workhorse pulling Myrtle around the lake on her skis, otherwise known as skijoring.

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Just out for a rip!

The solid wooden skis are generally massive, even putting your 30-year-old 210cm racing planks to shame, and the fashion is as nostalgic as it gets. One specific image, a little fuzzier than the rest but otherwise inconspicuous, is especially relevant to today’s story.

The image portrays Myrtle Philip with two other women posing while skiing on a frozen Alta Lake. They are adorned in wool tops and baggy bloomers, and are all using a single, solid wooden pole in the traditional Scandinavian style.

And written on the back of the image is the simple phrase “the first skiing guests at Rainbow about 1916. Janet Drysdale and friend and Myrtle Philip.”

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The dawn of skiing in Whistler.

Needless to say, the 3 ladies were unaware of the historical significance of this simple ski outing.

Of course it is completely possible that skis were used in the Whistler Valley prior to this visit, but we have come across no such stories or evidence. At that time trappers and prospectors generally used snowshoes and considered skis more toy than tool.

Local prospector Harry Horstman, when he encountered Pip Brock climbing Sproatt Mountain on a set of skis, apparently proclaimed “what the hell you got them flanks for? I can get around twice as fast as on my snowshoes as you can on them slitherin’ boards!”

Needless to say, we don’t share Harry’s disdain. Three cheers to 100 years! 

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.

A Visit with the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club

This past week the Museum had the pleasure to head down to the North Vancouver home of Rolf and Lotti Frowein to discuss the history of the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club with the Froweins and fellow Tyrolians Jim Brown and Walter and John Preissl.

The Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club was formed in 1952 by a small group of Vancouver skiing and hiking enthusiasts, most of whom were recent immigrants from German-speaking Europe. From the start, the Tyrol Club’s main purpose was to encourage people to get outside and take advantage of the beautiful mountains surrounding Vancouver. Many were North Shore ski instructors, and they were big promoters of the sport during the post-WW2 boom days of skiing.

Even though the Tyrol club’s membership has always been centered in Vancouver their Whistler roots run deep, and the club and its members have played a surprisingly important role in Whistler’s rise as a ski resort. Rolf Frowein, along with a group of Tyrolians, first came up to Alta Lake in 1959 and instantly began exploring the surrounding mountains, winter and summer.

Walter Preissl, Al Preissl and Erwin Kasiol ski down towards Glacier Bowl on Whistler Mountain, early 1960s. The days of skiing in shorts will soon be upon us again, too! Photo: Frank Grundig.

A few years later the club bought some land near Nita Lake and by 1966 construction was complete on Tyrol Lodge, which stands on that spot to this day.

A recently completed Tyrol Lodge, winter 1967. Photo: Frank Grundig.

That first winter after building the lodge the Tyrol Club decided to move their annual ski race, the Tyrol GS, from Seymour to Whistler. It was the first organized ski race ever held on Whistler Mountain. The race became a Whistler institution, running every winter until 1995.

Onlookers watch an early Tyrol GS race on Whistler Mountain, late 1960s. Photo: Frank Grundig.

Countless “ski-racer brats,”(to use John Preissl’s term) came up through the Tyrol Club’s racing league. Here is John’s brother Andy competing on Whistler Mountain in the late 1970s. Photo: Frank Grundig.

In addition to taking the time to talk to us about the Tyrol Club’s history, the Preissl’s have generously donated an impressive collection of documents relating to the Tyrol Club and skiing history generally, and hundreds of photos from their personal collection. Most of these were taken by their family friend  Frank Grundig, a professional photographer and ski journalist, so the images are of  consistently high quality.

Norwegian hot-shot Dag Aabye jumping off the roof of the Cheakamus Inn, 1967. Photo: Walt Preissl.

When club member’s like John Planinsic (pictured here) hiked up Whistler Mountain in the early 1960s, they looked down upon a very different valley than today. Photo: Frank Grundig.

Tyrol Club members conquer an “iceberg” in Lake Lovely Water, in the Tantalus Range. Mid-1970s. Photo: Frank Grundig.

Their large collection of photos leaves one with the impression that the more the valley has changed, the more the people stay the same!

We’ve only acquired a small portion of the photos so far, but already we’ve got some great shots that will help us to tell the history of our local mountains in greater detail, both inside and beyond the ski resort. Look forward to more stories from the Tyrol Club collection in the weeks and months to come.

Coincidentally, this evening the Tyrol Club celebrates their 60th anniversary in Richmond. We are excited to be partnering with such a great group of people, and we feel a congratulations are in order!