Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation

Whistler’s Waterslides

By the time Whistler Springs, Whistler’s first (and so far only) waterslide facility, opened in August 1985, it had already caused quite a bit of controversy. The project was first proposed in 1983 and was expected to be completed by December of that year, but it took two years before the first riders flung themselves down the fibreglass tubes.

In the spring of 1983, Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) was studying the economic viability of a waterslide at the base of their northside lifts after they were approached by a development company. According to Dave Balfour, then the vice president of finance and administration, studying how it could be incorporated into their operations and ski runs was “an interesting design problem.” Because the site was part of the ski area, the developer Hugh Hall first needed to apply for tenure from the Ministry of Lands, Parks and Housing through WMSC in order to apply for a development permit from the municipality. WMSC did not think this would be a problem and by the end of the summer plans had moved ahead.

Whistler Springs on the side of Whistler Mountain. Though covered, the walkway up was still exposed to the weather and reportedly very chilly after one’s first slide. Coates Collection

As described by Hall, the proposed facility would include a spiral staircase up to the lobby, offices, a gift shop, a juice bar, multiple spas, a heated and covered walkway, and two slides made of semi-transparent tubes. It would be one of a small number of non-skiing family-oriented facilities in Whistler and would operate for most of the year (according to Hall, it would be closed for half of May and all of June as “everyone has to accept the fact that in any resort there are certain months of the year things aren’t open.”) When it came time to apply for a development permit, however, there was some vocal opposition, especially from the site’s neighbours.

Kurt Gagel, president of the Telemark Strata Corporation, and Peter Gregory, the developer of the Delta Mountain Inn, expressed concern about the location and its impact on their property values due to the aesthetic of “unattractive waterslide tubes” and potential noise complaints. Others expressed concerns about the visual impact of the waterslides and whether there would be adequate landscaping to make the facility blend in with its surroundings. In September, over fifty people attended a three-hour public meeting to discuss the development. Only about twenty people showed up to the next meeting where council was set to vote on the matter, but letters from both neighbours were read indicating possible legal action if the permit was approved. Despite this, council voted to approve the permit 4-3 but with fourteen conditions attached before a building permit would be issued.

After many twists and turns, sliders were let out into a shallow pool. Coates Collection

Over the next two years, changes were made to the design and construction began on Whistler Springs in 1984. December was again proposed as an opening date, but the facility was not completed until August 1985, after another small controversy over 400 sq ft of floor space that had not been in the original permit.

Whistler Springs officially opened to the public on August 23. Visitors and residents alike arrived to test out the slides and it was soon discovered that the right slide ran slightly more quickly than the left. Despite what some have described as a very chilly walk up to the top, the slides became very popular with the summer ski camp kids and others. In 1987, the waterslides were even included in articles meant to advertise Whistler as a resort destination.

The slides operated for less than a decade before the space was taken over by WMSC Employee Services. Whistler Question Collection, 1991

By the early 1990s, the popularity of the waterslides was waning and Whistler Springs closed permanently in 1991. According to Peggy Vogler, after the slides closed the building was used by WMSC employees. The restaurant space upstairs became offices for the ski school and the downstairs was used by Employee Services. The site was sold to developers and eventually developed into the Westin Resort & Spa. The only trace of the waterslides left today is the name of the Whistler Blackcomb Employee Services building, still called The Springs.

W is for Whistler

For some visitors to the museum, the most recognizable images of Whistler’s past are not photographs or objects, but logos and company branding. Just seeing Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.’s green and blue “G” can instantly remind a former lift operator of their company-issued jacket and the months they spend loading the Red Chair sometime between 1965 and 1980. Some logos and branding initiatives have lasted for decades while others were only in use for a few years and then forgotten, though traces of them can still be found around the Whistler valley long after they were first introduced.

Jim McConkey is his Ski School uniform, including a small blue and green G on the label. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The Whistler Village Land Company (WVLC) introduced their “W” logo in their newsletter in December 1978. It was designed by Robert McIlhargey, an architectural illustrator who, with his wife Lori Brown, created much of the concept rendering work for Expo 86. McIlhargey was hired by the WVLC along with David Clifford as design consultants, helping plan elements of the Whistler Village like the logo and even directional signs. According to McIlhargey, the “W” logo and uniform branding and signage throughout the resort were meant to “reinforce the image of Whistler.”

The “W” logo consisted of a circle of Ws, often with the words Whistler Village written underneath. It was designed to be easily adapted to different settings through the use of different text and background colours (the logo was first introduced in green). Shortly after its introduction, the Ws were visible on signs at the entrance to the Whistler Village site and into the 1980s the Ws could be found on wooden signs, pamphlets, advertisements, and even turtlenecks. In 1979, Don Willoughby and Geoff Power of Willpower Enterprises were given permission to use the “W’ logo to produce 1,000 t-shirts as souvenirs of the World Cup race that was meant to have run on Whistler Mountain.

New signs recently put up in the area of the new Whistler Village by the Whistler Village Land Company. Whistler Question Collection.

Not all marketing and branding initiatives in Whistler have been as seemingly well received as WVLC’s “W” logo. The reception to the memorable Big Old Softie initiative wasn’t exactly what the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) had hoped for.

According to WMSC’s then Vice-President of Marketing Mike Hurst, Whistler Mountain began to be perceived as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back” after Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, while Blackcomb built a reputation as a beginner-friendly mountain. Hurst described Blackcomb’s reputation as “this big, friendly family mountain, nice and soft, everything’s good.” Whistler Mountain did not yet have the same on-mountain amenities of family-focused programs that Blackcomb did, but after fifteen years without local competition Whistler Mountain was working to change its image.

The Big Old Softie sticker, showing a friendly image of Whistler Mountain.

Hurst and his team began trying to show that Whistler Mountain was “every bit as friendly and family oriented” as Blackcomb with lots of easy beginner terrain. Working with Ron Woodall (the person behind the A&W Root Bear and the creative director of Expo 86), the Big Old Softie initiative was created. Featuring a rounded, smiling mountain, the Big Old Softie was not a universal hit. On rainy days, some changed the name to the “Big Old Soggy” and, according to Hurst, he and the Whistler Mountain team “got raked over the coals pretty good by pretty much everybody” about the campaign. Despite this, the Big Old Softie has proven memorable, and Hurst thought that it did bring attention to Whistler Mountain’s softer side and developing programs.

While you are unlikely to come across an image of the Big Old Softie walking through Whistler today, there are still circles of Ws and even some Garibaldi Lifts Gs that can be spotted around town.

A Different Olympic Dream

Since the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) first dreamed of hosting the Olympics on Whistler Mountain, there have been a lot of plans for developments in the Whistler area, both big and small. Some, such as building lifts or creating the Whistler Village, have been fulfilled, but there are many others that never came to fruition. Most of these, including Norm Patterson’s “Whistler Junction” around Green Lake, GODA’s various early plans for an Olympic village, and Ben Wosk’s proposed $10 million development at the Gondola base, remained concept drawings and scale models. Also on the long list of developments that were never fully developed are the plans the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) had for Olympic Meadows on Whistler Mountain.

In January 1987, WMSC ran a nation-wide ad campaign courting developers. The ad included drawings of Whistler Mountain’s existing lifts, plans for mountain and real estate development, and an architect’s drawing of a large hotel at the Gondola base. When WMSC unveiled their development plans to the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) in February, however, their plans centred not on the Gondola base but on Olympic Meadows, an area at the base of the Black Chair (today the top of the Olympic Chair).

The top of the Black Chair and base of Olympic Chair, around the area where Whistler 1000 would have been located. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Early ideas for Olympic Meadows included moving the office and maintenance facilities up from the Gondola base and building hotel rooms and parking, serviced by a 4.1 km road which could eventually be lined with residential development. There were a few different options for hotel developments on the site, ranging from a 340-room “lodge-style hotel” with 500 day parking stalls to two terraced hotel blocks up to nine stories high with a total of 1,200 rooms.

Over the next months, WMSC’s plans for Olympic Meadows were refined and WMSC president Lorne Borgal brought in landscape architect Eldon Beck (which is why he was in town to talk with Kevin Murphy about Village North). By the fall, development plans were referred to as “Whistler 1000” and “Whistler 900.” Whistler 1000 featured lodges, townhouses, some commercial services, tennis courts, and 1,000 stalls of day skier parking at the top of the Village Chair (today’s Olympic Station), which was set to be replaced by a high-speed gondola in the next couple of years. Whistler 900 would be located nearby above Brio with future plans for a chairlift from Whistler 900 to the base of the Orange Chair. Both Whistler 1000 and 900 would be accessed by a winding road off of Panorama Ridge.

The view to the valley that the hotels of Whistler 1000 would have featured. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

WMSC’s plans depended on development rights recognized by the ski area agreement with the province but not included in the RMOW’s official community plan (OCP). The RMOW was in the process of reviewing the OCP but timing was tight. WMSC needed the development rights in place before placing their order for new lifts and ski-related development, which needed to go in by February 1988. The earliest date for possible amendments to the OCP was that January. At one time, there was even talk of Whistler Mountain trying to legally separate from the RMOW, though it was not thought likely.

While WMSC was developing its plans for Olympic Meadows and waiting to hear about amendments to the OCP, their competition Intrawest was presenting big plans for the Benchlands and Blackcomb Mountain.

WMSC came close to getting the amendments they needed in January 1988, when Council began drafting bylaws to amend the OCP, but community concerns about the scale and elevation of the proposed development, as well as the pace of development in Whistler more broadly, meant these amendments were not ultimately approved and the WMSC plans were stalled.

Blackcomb Mountain and the Benchlands experienced massive development that year, but Whistler 1000 and Whistler 900 never did break ground. However, at least one of the WMSC’s plans did materialize: the Village Chair was replaced in 1988 by the Village Express gondola.

Selling Whistler by Radio

If you listened to Vancouver radio in the 1980s, chances are you heard radio ads for Whistler mountain featuring Dave Murray.  Targeting Lower Mainland listeners, the ads had a very catchy tune that urged listeners to “Get away to Whistler” and Murray’s voice explaining why skiers should head to Whistler Mountain.  One of the creators of the ads was Mike Hurst.

Mike Hurst, 2nd from right, presenting the grand prize for an unknown promotion, early 1980s.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Hurst first came to know Whistler in 1971 while working as a marketing executive for Labatt’s Brewing.  He left Labatt’s in the early 1980s to raise his family in BC.  About a month after he arrived, he received a call from the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC) offering him a job as vice president of marketing.  He was presented with the challenge of competing with the newly opened Blackcomb Mountain while at the same time cooperating with Blackcomb to market Whistler as a destination for skiers.  To complicate matters further, when Hurst asked about the marketing budget he was told, “Well, zero.”  Nevertheless, he began working for WMSC and stayed with the resort until he returned to Labatt’s in 1989.

In 2015 Hurst participated in a Speaker Series at the Whistler Museum along with Lorne Borgal and Bob Dufour during which he described his early years of working for Whistler Mountain.  During his part of the presentation, Hurst talked about some of the programs and marketing that those who skied Whistler in the 1980s and 1990s will find familiar.  At the time, WMSC was adjusting to the idea that they were no longer the only ski hill in town.  Blackcomb Mountain was proving worthy competition with on-mountain restaurants, a ski school specifically for kids (Kids Kamp), and an overall focus on friendly customer service.

Kids are put through the hoops at Blackcomb Mountain ‘Kids Kamp’.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

One of the most enduring Whistler Mountain programs that Hurst spoke about was the master camps run by Dave Murray.

After Murray retired from racing in 1982 he and Hurst sat down to talk about him coming to work at Whistler.  According to Hurst, he asked Murray what he wanted to do and over the next hour and a half Murray laid out his vision of using race training techniques to improve recreational skiers’ abilities, partly by getting them involved in competing against themselves for fun.  Murray was made director of skiing for Whistler Mountain and his camps soon became a reality for all ages.

As the new Director of Ski Racing for Whistler Mountain, Dave Murray will be coordinating downhill race clinics, ski promotions and special events. Murray, 29, retired from the Canadian National Ski Team last year after the World Cup held at Whistler.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Murray’s new position included becoming the spokesperson for WMSC, which is how he came to be the voice on their radio ads (Hurst said that at the time they couldn’t afford television).  According to Hurst, Whistler Mountain was seen as “the big ol’ tough ol’ mountain from way back,” while Blackcomb had a reputation as a friendly family mountain.  Murray was able to change that perception by engaging with people and making the mountain personal.

Murray told Hurst that he had never done radio ads before but that didn’t stop them.  Hurst wrote some ads and they went down to the studio in Vancouver to record for an hour.  Hurst said that, “It was amazing to watch Dave… first couple of times he fumbled and bumbled, but the third time, nailed it.”  They even had time to record extra ads, written on the spot.

Dave Murray coaching one of the kids master classes on Whistler Mountain. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Each ad starts with the same phrase, “Hi, I’m Dave Murray of Whistler Mountain,” after which Murray would talk about the variety of skiing on offer, Whistler’s new Never-Ever Special, Whistler’s improved dining options, Ski Scamp programs, or his Masters Racing Camps.  The ads were personable and friendly, with Murray encouraging skiers to “ski with me on my mountain.”  Every ad ended with one of Whistler Mountain’s slogans of the day: “Whistler Mountain, above and beyond,” or “Whistler Mountain, come share the magic.”

The 1980s were a period of huge change for Whistler Mountain and for the area as a whole.  Dave Murray and Mike Hurst played a large role in changing the way that Whistler Mountain presented itself and operated during this period.  Keep an eye out for more stories from the 1980s over the next few weeks and months!