Tag Archives: Whistler-Blackcomb

Over 20 Years of Whistler Welcomes

November has traditionally been a time of arrivals in Whistler: the snow arrives in the valley (we hope) and new faces arrive for the upcoming season.

Over the past week you may have seen some (or been one) of these new residents throughout town getting their scavenger hunt passports stamped, attending classes at Meadow Park Sports Centre or playing board games at the Whistler Public Library.

While many board games can by played at Games Night at the Whistler Public Library, we don’t think the Whistler Challenge will be among those found there.  Does anyone have a copy of this Whistler game? Whistler Question Collection, 1983.

All of these activities are part of Connect Whistler, a weeklong Whistler introduction put on by Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) and community partners.  Though the name may not sound familiar, the idea behind it should be.  After all, WCSS has been officially welcoming new arrivals to Whistler for over a decade.

The first Whistler Welcome Week was put on in November 2003 by WCSS youth outreach workers Tessa McLoughlin and Greg McDonnell.  The week was designed to resemble “a healthier version of a university frosh week” and offered five alcohol-free events attended by over 1,300 people.

Some events, such as a volunteer fair and scavenger hunt, familiarized attendees with services and businesses available in Whistler.  There was also a snowboard film screening and the Moist Pool Party held at Meadow Park.  The week’s festivities culminated in Saturday’s Community Welcome Dinner.

Community meals have been held in the Whistler valley for decades.  Here the Alta Lake community gathered to ring in the new year.  Philip Collection.

Held at the conference centre, the Community Welcome Dinner sat new residents and old at a table together to share a meal provided by some of the town’s top chefs.  Whistler’s then-Mayor Hugh O’Reilly and his wife got to know eight young Australians the first year, discussing travel and the upcoming season.

The following year, the dinner was renamed in honour of Jill Ackhurst, a long-time community member and chair of the WCSS board of directors who died in 2003.

With the support of community partners such as LUNA, Whistler Blackcomb, Tourism Whistler and the RMOW, most of these events would remain Welcome Week staples over the next 12 years.

Other events were also added, ranging from a community rummage sale to workshops on tenants’ rights.

In 2016, WCSS announced a rebranding of Welcome Week.  The scavenger hunt, which used to be a single afternoon’s activity, has been reformed as a week-long opportunity to find and get familiar with local businesses and services, including the new WCSS building, the Re-Use-It Centre, the Whistler Library and even the Whistler Museum, with the incentive of some pretty great prizes.

Participants are also offered a chance to try out classes at Meadow Park, devour Rotary pancakes and ensure a good winter season by taking a plunge in Lost Lake.

With a few variations in dress, this photo easily could have been taken at the Whistler Museum last night. Whistler Question Collection, 1978.

Last night the Whistler Museum hosted Feeding the Spirit, the last in a long list of Connect Whistler events.  Thank you to everyone who joined up and we hope you learned something about Whistler’s history (if not, we’re open daily!).

A huge thank you to Creekside Market for their ongoing support of Feeding the Spirit, as well as all the local businesses that generously provide prizes.

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Saudan Couloir: The History of North America’s Most Extreme Ski Race

With the Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme returning this April we’re taking a look back at the original run of the legendary race.  This new exhibit opens Tuesday, March 20 with special guests Dave Clement (part of creating the first race), Chris Kent (winner of the first four races) and more.  The exhibit will run through the end of April.

H.I.T.: 20 Years of Grassroots Action

Whistler became the community it is today in large part thanks to the incredible natural wealth in our surroundings. However, the extent to which this natural wealth has been protected and preserved is a testament to the character of the community that has grown here.

A deep understanding of this intertwined relationship spurred Arthur De Jong to action two decades ago. Working as Mountain Planning & Environmental Resource Manager for Whistler-Blackcomb, Arthur was a frequent attendee at meetings where local environmental groups and engaged citizens raised a variety of ecological concerns. There was no shortage of will, but Arthur stepped in and created a simple, effective way to address these problems.

“Why don’t we have a group dedicated to fixing what they can within a short time-frame to address some of the smaller, easier-to-fix environmental issues in the valley?”, Arthur wondered. And thus, H.I.T. was born.

This past week the Habitat Improvement Team, or H.I.T. wrapped up their 20th summer of grassroots environmental rehabilitation in the Whistler Valley. The enduring success of the group is in large part thanks to the group’s deceptively simple structure (and, of course, Whistlerites’ enthusiasm for the local environment).

The H.I.T. team after a night rehabilitating the riparian zone. Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong.

Bi-weekly, all summer long, a group of volunteers come together and get to work on a predetermined project. Arthur coordinates the team and determines the work schedule, with input from local community groups. Whistler-Blackcomb supports the group with transportation support and a late après at Merlin’s for the thirsty volunteers.

A lot of the group’s early work focused on improving fish habitat in the valley by replanting native species in disturbed riparian zones, preventing suffocating erosion on adjacent trails and stream banks, and other rehabilitation projects.

W-B’s Wendy Robinson transporting native plants for habitat restoration.  Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong.

 

Over the years the group’s mandate expanded beyond ecological restoration to other environmentally oriented projects such as hiking trail maintenance and improvement, installing interpretive signage, cleaning up areas of high garbage accumulation, and packaging retired Whistler-Blackcomb uniforms for shipment to developing nations such as Romania and India. 

Getting retired uniforms ready for shipment. Photo Courtesy Arthur De Jong.

Just this summer, H.I.T. cleared parts of the Lost Lake interpretive trails, removed invasive burdock plants, packaged clothing for international aid, completed 2 work nights on the Ancient Cedars trail (more on this project in next week’s column), and helped build a pollinator garden at the Spruce Grove community gardens.

 

For their efforts, H.I.T. has been awarded a Silver Eagle for Community Relations by the National Ski Areas Association, and special recognition for business leadership at the Shift Conference for Public Lands Management in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. On a more personal level, Arthur notes that “it’s always a joy to walk through parts of the valley and seeing areas that H.I.T. was instrumental in restoring. That’s quite rewarding.”

And it’s not just Arthur who feels gratified. Many of the volunteers contributing this past summer have been involved for years, some nearly the entire 20 years that H.I.T. has been active. Ultimately the big winner is the local environment, which is greener, more productive, and more appreciated thanks to two decades of grassroots, volunteer-led efforts from H.I.T.

Happy volunteers. Photo courtesy Arthur De Jong.

Peak to Peak

The Peak to Peak Gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb was built in 2007 and 2008. The idea for the gondola was conceived so that skiers and snowboarders could ski both mountains without having to go through the village or take multiple lifts to get to the other mountain. The original idea was to have lifts that went down the sides of the mountains and over Fitzsimmons creek but the land on the slopes in between them is unsuitable for skiing, not to mention it is protected land. In order to build a gondola that would not go all the way to the ground they needed to take in to account the enormous costs. Intrawest, who owned both mountains at the time was able to receive the funding and the project was set in motion.

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Whistler-Blackcomb broke ground in late May of 2007 after having to delay the project by a year. Most of the components of the system including the Gondola cabins themselves were made in Switzerland and then shipped over to Canada once completed. The Peak to Peak includes 4 towers, 2 of which were completed in the first summer of construction and the second 2 were added after the winter.In June of 2008 the 5 cables arrived in Whistler from Switzerland and had to be winched down Blackcomb Mountain to the valley floor then up Whistler Mountain.

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A total of 28 cabins were constructed and the first 12 crossed the span for the first time on September 19 of 2008. After successfully making it across the span the rest of the cabins were added and the whole system was tested rigorously till the grand opening that December.

The whole system was built by the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group and is the first tri-cable lift by Doppelmayr in North America. The only other gondola’s like it in the world are ones in Switzerland, Austria, France and Germany but none of them can match the scale of the Peak to Peak.

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The Peak to Peak holds 2 world records, one for longest free span between the towers, which is just over 3 kilometres (3.3 to be exact), and one for highest point above the ground, 436 metres.  It can hold over 4000 people in an hour and only takes 11 minutes to cross between the mountains. The total cost of building the gondola came to $51 million Canadian.

To celebrate the unveiling of the Peak to Peak, Red Bull Air Force Members base jumped from the middle of the gondola. Since then, in 2014 1 man carried out an illegal base jump from the tallest point of the Peak to Peak and cause some $10,000 worth of damage to the gondola car from prying open the doors. His accomplice was arrested shortly after and the act was condemned by many.

The Peak to Peak is a great attraction all year round to let athletes enjoy both mountains but also to allow sightseers to experience the beauty of the Valley and the hikes and views both mountains have to offer.

 

by Michaela Sawyer

Whistler Wildfire History, 1919-1999

Last week the Whistler Museum was fortunate to participate in a community forum on wildfires organized by the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) and the Sea to Sky Clean Air Society. Officially titled “Our Future with Forest Fires – A Climate Action Symposium,” the event featured a series of expert speakers discussing various public health and safety concerns associated with wildfires, and how these concerns will evolve in the near future.

Topics discussed included the use of controlled burns to mitigate wildfire risk, the public health impacts of wildfire smoke (think back to last July), and the growing risk that wildfires pose to our neighbourhoods (and vice versa), and tourism economy.

claire ruddy wildfire

Just a few days after the community forum on wildfire hazards, A lightning storm sparked several small wildfires in the Sea-to-Sky corridor, including this one on the southwest slopes of Whistler Mountain. Photo: Claire Ruddy.

One especially eye-catching comment came from Whistler fire chief Geoff Playfair, who noted that, as the climate continues to change, our wildfire season is growing at an average rate of roughly 2 days per year. Having worked at the local fire department for 30 years now, Playfair corroborated that the wildfire season is roughly 2 months longer now than when he began his career.

Our contribution was a timelapse video showing the extent of wildfires in the Whistler area during the 20th century. The video was made using GIS data from the Whistler Forest History Project, a project that used aerial photographs, historical research and fieldwork, or “ground-truthing”  to build a remarkably comprehensive record of natural an human disturbances to Whistler’s natural landscape over the last century.

Here’s the video:

First of all, the video makes it clear that there have been lots of wildfires over the years, and a significant portion of our valley burned in the last century. As well, while it may seem that burns are becoming smaller and less severe. This may be true, but the number of fires has held fairly steady. Sure, we’re getting better at controlling and mitigating wildfires in our region, but that doesn’t mean that a large, devastating, and potentially dangerous wildfire in Whistler couldn’t happen again.

It should also be noted that this video only goes to 1999. Among the significant fires that have occurred in Whistler since then are at least 3 that occurred on the upper slopes of Blackcomb, imperilling ski-lift infrastructure. You can actually ride through several of these burnt forests today, serving as aesthetically pleasing but no less sobering reminders of the continued risk of wildfire.

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Water bombers fighting wildfire on Blackcomb Mountain, August 2009. Courtesy cbc.ca

All of this theoretical discussion was made all the more real when just a few days later, lightning strikes from an intense thunderstorm triggered multiple fires in the Whistler & Pemberton area. The largest fire, on the southwest slopes of Whistler Mountain, just outside the ski area, required aerial water bombing to get it under control before it became threatening to nearby developments and infrastructure.

To learn more about the risk of wildfires, and practical steps you can take to protect yourself, your property, and our community, please visit our local Firesmart website.

Jim McConkey’s Movie Magic

Whistler-Blackcomb is a very athlete-driven resort. So much so that when it came time celebrate the resort’s 50th anniversary last winter, the single, official image they chose to promote the anniversary was this:

The famous "Legends & Icons" image. Photo by Blake Jorgensen, courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb.

The famous “Legends & Icons” image. Photo by Blake Jorgensen, courtesy Whistler-Blackcomb.

In the front left, next to freestyle phenomenon Wayne Wong is none other than Jim McConkey, Whistler’s first local celebrity-athlete.

When “McConk” moved here in 1968 to run the ski school and rental/retail operations, he was already an established ski star, with feature roles in films by filmmaking icons like Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore. For nearly two decades he lent his personality, fame, and expertise to the growing resort, all the while still appearing in films and magazines that featured his big-mountain and powder skiing prowess.

McConkey enjoying some of Alta, Utah's famous champagne pow.

McConkey enjoying some of Alta, Utah’s famous champagne powder during the filming of Ski Crazy! (1955).

We have a few photographs of McConkey in our archives, but very little video, until now.

A few week’s ago “Diamond Jim” (his other main nickname) stopped by the museum for a visit. We planned on recording an oral history interview with him, and figured he’d be bringing in a few more photos for us to digitize and share.

What we didn’t count on was him bringing in the original 16mm film reels from 25 of his original ski films!

This is what 25 films on their original 16mm reels looks like.

This is what 25 films on their original 16mm reels looks like.

The collection includes features like “Skiing is Freedom” & “The Snows of Garibaldi,” as well as instructional and promotional films. Jim ran Whistler’s second heli-ski operation, so there should be lots of wonderful early aerial footage of McConkey and friends skiing untracked powder on the Coast Mountains’ vast glaciers. McConkey was such a renowned and well-rounded outdoorsman that we even have “Canoeing the North Country.”

The titles are tantalizing, but unfortunately, we won’t be holding any screenings in the immediate future. We don’t have the means to view the film, and wouldn’t want to run the risk of permanently damaging such fragile and significant film stock.

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 GM Jack Bright (left) skiing Whistler with “Diamond Jim” McConkey. Photo taken ca. before toques were invented (1972, actually).

Our first step is researching to find out which of these gems has not yet been digitized by another individual or institution, then securing funding to digitize those films. This is not a cheap prospect, but as these films represent such an important part of our local ski heritage, and will likely make for highly entertaining viewing, we are confident that this will be accomplished.

So hopefully some day not too long from now, we will have these films digitized and available to see. In the meantime, take some inspiration from Jim himself and go play outside!

 

 

 

The FIS Fiasco of 1979

With the world watching, the mountain began to fall apart.

It was early March 1979, and heavy rains had turned a mid-winter snowpack already beset by persistent depth hoar into a sodden mess. The avalanche hazard went through the roof. This was a mountain manager’s nightmare, but as they say, “through adversity comes greatness.”

Patrol began doing what came naturally; they bombed everything that could move. As long-time Whistler pro patroller Roger McCarthy recalls, “in a normal day, that avalanche hazard in itself would be enough to give you grey hair. But we had a world cup to run…”

Mccarthy Watt Patrol - BENJAMIN 51

Roger McCarthy at left, with Bruce Watt and Ken Moyle going over wind data,   mid-1970s. George Benjamin photo.

That’s right. Whistler was experiencing one of the most volatile avalanche cycles in memory, and we were just days away from hosting the resort’s first ever FIS World Cup downhill skiing race.

A few days before the race, some FIS officials insisted on riding the gondola up to check on conditions. While standing on the loading ramp at the bottom of red chair they witnessed Goat’s Gully shed its snow right to the ground. The avalanche even damaged one of the Orange Chair’s towers. Further downslope, a slide on Lower Insanity had left debris piles five feet high on Coach’s Corner. This was not the auspicious debut on the world stage that Whistler had planned for.

“In a normal day, that avalanche hazard in itself would be enough to give you grey hair. But we had a world cup to run…”

Still, mountain staff managed to clean up the mess and the forecast for race day was cold and clear. However, FIS officials deemed that safety requirements had not been met and the race could not run. As a new course with a relatively small budget, the safety infrastructure was not at the same level as some of the more established European courses, but some suspected politics as the true reason for the cancellation.

This was the era of the upstart Crazy Canucks trying to crack the European-dominated world of ski racing, and some feathers were being ruffled in the process. Regardless, with so much invested, it was going to be a major letdown for the organizers, the resort, the sponsors, and the tens of thousands of fans expected to be in attendance.

The night before the race, sensing it would be cancelled, Canadian ski racing legend Nancy Greene came up with an idea to salvage the event. They ran an exhibition Super G race, the first ever, instead. It wouldn’t count as a World Cup, but as local writer Janet Love Morrison described in her book The Crazy Canucks, it would entertain the crowds, satisfy the sponsors, and demonstrate the spirit and ingenuity of Whistler, and Canada as a whole.

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The Crazy Canucks at the race. From left to right, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Unknown (can anyone help us out?), Steve Podborski, Ken Read.

And just in case anyone was wondering how the racers really felt about the cancellation over safety concerns, when it was Crazy Canuck Ken Read’s turn to race the exhibition course, he ignored the Super G gates and tucked the entire course at full speed, much to the crowd’s approval.

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Ken Read addressing the crowd, with Steve Podborski to viewer’s left.

“Everyone—racers, fans, and media—had a good time,” Morrison recalled.

And so, in 1979, with the ski racing world focused on Whistler, nearly everything that could go wrong did. But somehow we still managed to get things right.