Tag Archives: Whistler Blackcomb

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 gondolas 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.