Tag Archives: Whistler-Blackcomb

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.

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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…”

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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.

Peak-to-Valley: A Whistler Tradition

This weekend marks the annual return of Whistler’s proudest traditions, the Peak to Valley Race.

The brainchild of Dave Murray – the retired Crazy Canuck racing legend, turned Director of Skiing for Whistler Mountain – this event was one part of his tireless efforts to popularize ski racing amongst the masses. No doubt, Dave also considered it a creative way of showing off Whistler’s massive vertical. Many a race goer over the years has certainly left wondering “how much is too much?!?!”

With its 32nd iteration wrapping up today, sold out as usual, Dave’s vision has been more than vindicated.

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Peak-to-Valley visionary Dave Murray came up with the brilliant idea to promote ski racing amongst the general public by creating a race far more gruelling than anything he had encountered on the World Cup circuit. It worked.

From the top of the Saddle all the way down to Creekside base, the concept is deceptively simple; people ski out from the valley to the alpine all the time. But turn on the clock and throw down a 1400 vertical metre, 180-gate gauntlet and, well, thighs begin to burn. For comparison, a world cup GS course can be no more 450 vertical metres, with a maximum of 70 gates. It is, quite simply, the longest giant slalom ski race on Earth.

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Hopefully the legs aren’t burning yet! A long way still to go for this racer running the upper section of the course, circa late 1980s. Note the absence of the Peak Chair. Greg Griffith Photo.

Superlative course aside, what makes this event special is the tradition that it has developed over the years. This is one of the few races in the world where you can have world cup-level racers competing against, even with octogenarians.

The race is battled over by teams of four. Teams must include a member of each gender, no more than one “carded” racer (ie – pros, ringers, etc), and categories are sorted by the cumulative age of each team, from 149 & under all the way up to 250 & above. Some of the teams have been together for close to two decades.

Local rabble rouser G.D. “Max” Maxwell wrote a great feature in 2004, celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. In the article, former national team racer and P2V course record holder Chris Kent described the feat of endurance as such:

Coming off the first section, you’re gliding across the flats before Upper Franz and you’re beginning to really feel your legs. The first time I ran it, about there I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, how can I possibly finish this course?’ This is where you have to start getting tough.

Keep in mind that this section is only about a third of the way down.

But for every team grunting it out in the quest for Peak-to Valley primacy, there a handful of others who are in it for the camaraderie, and perhaps a personal best.

 

A racer heads for a gate on Upper Franz, 2016. Brad Nichols photo.

This year we’re excited to have the return of the full-course, after snow conditions prevented the race from running all the way to the valley last season (only the 3rd or 4th time this had happened in the history of the event). Good luck to all the teams today!

Whistler-Blackcomb has now uploaded the results for every race since 1985, viewable here.

2016 results available here. Congrats to all the racers!

 

 

The Origins of Avalanche Control on Whistler Mountain

There are few truer mountain-town experiences than being awoken in the early dawn by the distant rattle of avalanche bombs. While providing an unmistakable announcement of fresh snow, they also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the mountains are a complex and potentially hostile landscape demanding caution and respect.

Often romanticized as “throwing bombs, skiing powder, and breaking hearts,” avalanche control at a ski resort is actually a highly technical profession requiring extensive training in explosives, first aid, weather forecasting, and snow science. But it wasn’t always that way. When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966, the concept of snow science barely existed, and the only technical avalanche manual in North America was almost 15 years old.

Learning to safely harness the destructive power of avalanches took time and dedicated practice by hundreds of individuals. John Hetherington was one of those key folk, and his recollections give some fascinating insights into the nascent years of avalanche control work on Whistler Mountain.

After a brief, somewhat lost-in-translation introduction to the avalanche world as a rookie ski patroller in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the 1966-67 season, John “Bushrat” Hetherington joined the Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol in December 1967, the mountain’s third season of operations.

Back then, John recalls, “avalanche control consisted mainly of putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going ‘I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.’ Over time there was some experience that certain slopes had a tendency to avalanche… There was no science behind it, just ‘let’s throw lots and lots of bombs.”

That winter Monty Atwater, inventor of the Avalauncher, visited Whistler to demonstrate his avalanche artillery gun. “It would have given us the capability of reaching the remoter areas which today are now lift-accessed but back then were not (Peak, Upper Harmony, etc]” but issues with the system, the unreliability of the shells in particular, left Whistler uncomfortable with the powerful but crude technology. “It went away in storage” and patrollers continued to rely on setting all their charges by hand. To get a better sense of the danger such work entailed, the patrol team didn’t receive their first avalanche transceivers until 1973 (they didn’t become common equipment for non-professionals until the 1990s).

 

After his inaugural Whistler season, John set out working as an avalanche professional for mines up north and in the interior. Meanwhile, an incident during the winter of 1972 served as an eye-opening and watershed moment for the patrol. A typical Coast Mountain winter storm blanketed the mountain in several feet of snow. Four skiers went missing during the blizzard, and it took several days to determine that they had been caught in an avalanche, whose debris had subsequently been buried by even more storm snow. After that incident it became painfully clear that avalanche control was a serious and crucial aspect of ski area management.

Norm Wilson, formerly the head of ski patrol Alpine Meadows, California was then hired to modernize Whistler Mountain’s avalanche control system. More sophisticated terrain analysis and systematic patrol routes were established to clear slopes of their slide risk, and an infrastructure was put in place to conduct more detailed short and long-term snow and weather study. From that point on, daily avalanche planning increasingly began from analysis of the overnight snow and weather readings, rather than gut instinct.

That same season, advances in the Avalauncher system brought their gun out of storage and it was installed on a platform near the top of the t-bars. Being able to trigger avalanches from such a distance made the daily control routine safer and less-gruelling.

The expertise that developed in subsequent years, thanks to the system and infrastructure put in place by Norm Wilson, and the dedicated practice by a generation of Whistler patrollers, made a huge contribution to our understanding of avalanche forecasting, not just in Whistler, but Canada-wide. John Hetherington, returned to Whistler the following winter, and was soon second in command. He went on to become a widely respected avalanche consultant, heli-ski guide, SAR-member, and board member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Just for fun we figured we'd throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger's moustache had more staying power than Bruce's.

Roger McCarthy and Bruce Watt checking the anemometer printout, which provides crucial data on wind speed and direction, from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain.

Other major contributions include the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association by local patroller Bruce Watt, spurred by his own burial and rescue from a slide while patrolling on Whistler in 1979. Whistler Mountain was the only ski area with a large contingent at an inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver in 1981—most of the others worked for Parks Canada in Rogers Pass, Banff and Jasper. The meeting led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association.