Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain

Whistler Mountain’s Early Operations

As we approach another opening day for Whistler Blackcomb, we’ve been looking back at the early days of operations on Whistler Mountain.  Much of the information we have on these early years comes from oral history interviews, some lift company records, and Garibaldi’s Whistler News (GWN).

Earlier this year, a volunteer for the museum conducted a series of interviews with none other than Lynn Mathews.  Lynn was the editor, and so much more, of GWN, and she shared a wealth of knowledge about both the paper and her experiences at Whistler.

The Skiers Chapel was still under construction when the Mathews first came to town. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Mathews was born on Staten Island, New York.  She is a journalist and writer by profession, and before moving to Whistler worked for magazines and at Harshe-Rotman & Druck, one of the leading PR firms in New York City.  In the early 1960s, Lynn spent a winter in Quebec, teaching skiing at Gray Rocks Inn.  It was there she met Dave Mathews, who was involved in resort business in the area, and the two were married the following year.  The couple soon moved west to Vancouver, and Dave planned to leave the ski business to work full-time for an irrigation company where he had previously worked summers.  The ski industry, however, would prove hard for the pair to leave behind.

During their first winter in BC, Lynn taught skiing at Grouse Mountain, while also working for various magazines and publications.  The irrigation business was slow in the winter, and so for the season of 1966/67, Dave and Lynn planned to spend their weekends teaching at a new ski area north of Vancouver that was just opening for its first season of full-time operation.

Even by 1970, the Creekside area was a little empty. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Lynn’s first trip to the Whistler Valley in August 1966 didn’t necessarily impress her.  As she put it, “There was nothing here.  There was the gondola, that was there, the daylodge had been built, there were two A-frames on the hillside,” and not too much else.  Due to extensive logging and burning, Lynn said that without snow, the Creekside area “looked like a war zone.  It wasn’t a pretty alpine village at all.”

For about $125, Lynn and Dave rented one of the log cabins at Jordan’s Lodge for the season.  Lynn chose the cabin “that tilted the least,” and the self-described “city girl” prepared for a winter with no electricity, no plumbing, and a wood cookstove.

In the 1970s, this was more likely to be the scene at Jordan’s Lodge. Benjamin Collection.

Lynn recalled that in December, Franz Wilhelmsen, who was acting as a combination of general manager, CEO, and chairman of the board, got very sick with pneumonia, right when Whistler Mountain was heading into its first full season.  Two managers were brought on board, Dave Mathews as operations manager and Jack Bright as mountain manager.  According to Lynn, Dave was responsible for “anything that moved,” and Jack was in charge of ticket sales, administration, image, publicity, and much more.

Lynn worked in the mountain’s office as well.  Though some ski passes were sold at the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. offices in Vancouver, others were sold at Whistler Mountain and Lynn was in charge of making those passes.  Without any computer systems, she used a polaroid camera and a hand-cranked laminating machine.  Each person got two photos, one for their pass and one for the files, and a lift ticket to go skiing.  At the end of the day they could pick up their pass at the office.

Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing more tales from Lynn and others who have told their stories to the museum.  Have a story about Whistler to contribute to the Museum’s collection?  Please come see us!

Snow Expectations

Recently Whistler Blackcomb announced the first snowfall of the season on the mountains and it has many thinking about what the winter will look like this season.  Snow is always a major topic of conversation in Whistler, as we can see by looking back on previous years.

In 1972, Garibaldi’s Whistler News noted that the snowfall in the valley was a record high at 943 cm, and according to their Fall 1972 issue “there was snow covering the mountain tops mid-September and it looks like another year for early skiing.”  The average snowfall in the years leading up to 1972 was recorded at 12.8 m.

Unsurprising for a town built on skiing, snowfall has been the talk of the town in Whistler for decades. Benjamin Collection.

This wasn’t the case for every year, however.  In 1976, the winter ski season was off to a sluggish start.  A lot of rainfall and sunny weather in November caused the snow on the mountain to melt, thereby pushing back the opening of the mountain.  The Whistler Question reported in December that employees were let go or not hired due to the lack of snow, leaving about 25 fewer people working for Whistler Mountain.  This also affected the number of tourists that came in to town and had an impact on the economy.  Whistler Mountain was able to open for the Christmas holidays, but all skiers had to download using the gondola.  In February 1977, the first snow gun was obtained for Whistler Mountain to help combat the lack of snow.

Luckily, the next winter, 1977/78, was “marked with the return of good snowfalls and a good season for the ski school,” as reported by the Whistler Question.

Roger McCarthy gets into some deep snow on the side of Dad’s Run.  Whistler Question Collection, December 1979.

Winter came early again in 1981 as Blackcomb Mountain announced it would be opening a week earlier than planned, while Whistler Mountain remained closed until the scheduled opening on November 26.

El Nino was blamed for the warmest winter of record  in 1992 by then Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe, as reported in the Blackcomb Mountain Staff News.

There was a feeling of déjà-vu in 1995/96, as rain affected the beginning of ski season and workers were laid off.  American Thanksgiving usually marks the beginning of skiing but that year Whistler Mountain’s alpine didn’t have a sufficient base of snow, while Blackcomb was pumping water out of its snow guns and hoping the freezing level would drop enough to make snow.  Blackcomb Mountain opened on the US Thanksgiving weekend, but with only a limited number of lifts and trails.

A Whistler wonderland appeared overnight Sunday, October 17 with the season’s first snow in the valley.  Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

Once again, a slow opening was followed the next year by great snowfalls.  Meteorologist Marilyn Manso in December 1996 said, “by mid-December we’ve had more snow on the ground than at any time since records were kept.”  There was 74 cm of snow on the ground in the valley at this time in December, compared with the previous year of 34 cm.

The first week in December 2001 brought about 1.2 m of snow on the mountains, which allowed for half of Whistler Blackcomb terrain to be open.  This was more than any other ski resort in North America at that time, and allowed for the snow guns to be moved lower on the mountain and provide ski-out access.

Last winter also got off to a slow start, so let’s hope that this season brings great snowfalls.

Legends of Whistler… tell the stories

We are incredibly excited to announce a three part speaker series cohosted with the Whistler Public Library and the RMOW!

Over three days, twelve very special guests will be sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history, including the development of the mountains and the creation of Whistler Village.  Each event is free to attend.

Building Glacier Park

Earlier this month, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) began a rezoning process with the goal of constructing a new six-storey building with 60 units of employee housing to join the seven existing staff housing buildings on the Glacier Lane site.  Consisting of two-bedroom units, each about 40 square metres in size, this proposed housing will be very similar, if a bit newer than, the first four buildings originally built by Blackcomb Ski Enterprise and Canadian Pacific (CP) Hotels in 1988.

The first hint of the project came at the beginning of January 1988, when Blackcomb received permission to convert the administration offices of its old daylodge into temporary employee housing.  To assuage concerns from council that the housing might not remain temporary, Gary Raymond, Blackcomb’s vice-president of finance, mentioned that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, the owners of the then-under-construction Chateau Whistler Resort, would be bringing a joint proposal for permanent employee housing to council in the next few weeks.

References to the “Financial Wizard” in the Blackcomb newsletter usually included a drawing of said wizard. Blabcomb

The proposal was for four buildings, each with 48 two-bedroom units, to be built over two years.  When finished the buildings would house almost 400 people; at the time, Blackcomb had roughly 500 employees and the Chateau was expected to employ about 350.  Due to a severe shortage of housing, the plan changed, and all four buildings were to be constructed over the summer of 1988 in time for employees to arrive in October.

The Blackcomb/CP Hotels Glacier Lane project was not the only employee housing project underway.  That summer projects with the Whistler Valley Housing Society (WVHS) were also being constructed or proposed at Nordic Court and Eva Lake Road.

An architect’s drawing of the proposed housing. Look familiar? Blabcomb

All of these projects hit some snags over the summer, though the Glacier Lane project may have been the most visible.  The buildings were higher and more visible than expected and Letters to the Editor were published in The Whistler Question referring to the construction as a “massive box” that could be seen from any point in the valley north of the Village.  In July, Mayor Drew Meredith even called the visibility of the project “a worthwhile mistake,” while pointing out that the developers were trying to mitigate the visibility of the buildings through landscaping.

Before the buildings could officially open on September 19, 1988, they first had to be named.  A contest was announced in the Blabcomb newsletter and employees were invited to name both the development as a whole and the individual buildings.  The contest was won by David Small, who proposed to call the development Glacier Park, with each building named for a glacier: Horstman, Overlord, Spearhead and Decker.

The early blueprints for the building. Blabcomb

At the grand opening, Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe recalled his own years spent living in employee housing while working for Whistler Mountain, saying “I remember sleeping on the floor, on tables and in trailers,” including one trailer, known by many as “the ghetto.”  According to Smythe, the new units compared quite favourably to his own experiences, and certainly had a better view.

The first residents began moving in October 1.  They were reportedly a mix of Blackcomb employees, including employees of Alta Lake Foods who provided food services for the mountain, and CP Hotel construction workers.  Most of the CP Hotel employees would not move in until the Chateau Whistler Resort opened in late 1989.

By the end of November, the Blabcomb reported that all units had been filled, with people either already moved in or with rooms committed to incoming employees, and a waiting list had already been started.  They were also able to report that, partly due to his work managing the housing project, Gary Raymond had been awarded one of the Whistler Chamber of Commerce’s first “Business Person of the Year” awards, along with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain.  According to the Blabcomb, the project had been a great success.

Welcoming Fall to Whistler

In may technically still be (and at times even feel) like summer, but for many people the beginning of September signals the beginning of fall.  While many people will have spent this weekend celebrating a certain beverage at the Whistler Beer Festival, in the 1980s this past weekend would have featured a celebration of the upcoming season with the Whistler Fall Festival.

The Fall Festival was first organized by the Whistler Resort Association (WRA, now known as Tourism Whistler) in 1981.  At the time, the Whistler Village was beginning to emerge from a craze of construction and Blackcomb Mountain was looking forward to its second season of operations.  There was a lot to celebrate in Whistler and the festival featured many of the growing community’s arts, crafts, sports, and activities.

The Fall Festival also included a Paint a Snowflake contest, leaving the fences around construction sites covered in snowflakes. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

One of the local characters showcased at the Fall Festival was Willie Whistler, the new mascot of the WRA.  Willie’s name came from a “Name the Whistler Marmot” contest for children in the area in which the winner, eight-year-old Tammi Wick, won a Blackcomb season pass.  The mascot was created to promote Whistler at local and other events and the Fall Festival, which included time each day to “Meet Willie Whistler,” was his first big event.

Willie Whistler takes a ride with Bo Bo the Clown during the Fall Festival in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

The festival also featured local artists and artisans who demonstrated their crafts in the village, including pottery, fibre spinning, stained glass, and painting.  Performers over the weekend included acts such as Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders, the Alpini Band, and local favourite Doc Fingers, as well as dance performances and Bo Bo the Clown.

For visitors and residents alike, the Fall Festival offered different ways to see the Whistler valley.  Snowgoose Transportation offered free 50 minute bus tours, showing off everything from residential areas to the gondola base in Creekside to the Blackcomb daylodge.  To see the valley from above, participants could enjoy a flight from Okanagan Helicopters, take advantage of Blackcomb Mountain’s offer of free chairlift rides, or, subject to wind conditions, go up in Chuck Bump’s hot air balloon, billed at the festival as the “World’s Largest Hot Air Balloon.”

Evan Kemp and the Trail Riders perform in Village Square. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Perhaps not surprisingly, sports and competitions also featured prominently at the Fall Festival.  Spectators could take in volleyball, Pro/Celebrity tennis matches that paired pro players with notables from politics, business, and media, a softball game between the Whistler Contractors Association and the Whistler A’s, or even a parachuting demonstration.  For those looking to compete, the Waiters Race challenged Whistler’s servers to run a timed obstacle course without spilling a drop, and the Labatt’s Great Whistler Water Race relay covered four lakes and the River of Golden Dreams through canoeing, kayaking, swimming, and windsurfing.

A softball game was fun for participants and spectators. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

Though the Fall Festival was primarily about showcasing Whistler, it also raised money for several different causes.  On the Sunday, Whistler hosted a run as part of the first national Terry Fox Run, raising over $7,600.  The proceeds from a beer garden hosted by the Whistler Athletic Society that evening were also donated towards cancer research.

Local causes benefited as well.  The WRA donated enough funds from the Village Centre beer garden to replace the snowmobile of the Alta Lake Sports Club that had been destroyed in a fire.  Umberto Menghi, who was then opening his new restaurant Il Caminetto, contributed to the festival by both providing the firework display for the Saturday evening and hosting a gala dinner at Myrtle Philip School to benefit the Whistler Health Care Society.

If you look really closely, Chuck Bump’s balloon also featured some advertising for local restaurants. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation.

According to Glenda Bartosh of The Whistler Question, the first Fall Festival was about far more than raising money and generating revenue for the resort.  She reported that the festival “created laughter, high energy and a true appreciation of what Whistler is all about.”  The WRA must have agreed, as they continued to organize the Fall Festival for at least three more years.

How McKeever’s Got Its Name

This past week we opened a new temporary exhibit at the museum featuring the various ways people have found a place to call home in the valley (the exhibit runs through July 31st so be sure to drop by!).  While putting together the exhibit we’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about housing and development and what has and hasn’t changed.  We recently came across an article in the Squamish Citizen that featured the beginning of a building that has changed quite a bit while, in some ways, remaining the same: McKeever’s General Store.

On July 22, 1986 Sue Cote, a reporter for the Squamish Citizen, was invited to a groundbreaking ceremony in Alpine Meadows by Chuck Johnstone, the owner of the property at the corner of Alpine Way and Highway 99.  Attended by MLA John Reynolds, Alderman Paul Burrows, Michael and Mark Sadler of Sadler Brothers Building Ltd. and Harry McKeever, the actual breaking of the ground was done by Art Den Duyf and his grader (no spades were needed).

With approval from the neighbourhood and the RMOW, Johnstone planned to develop and convenience store and laundromat on the property.  The store would be owned and operated by McKeever and his sister Linda who committed to leasing the space.  After early reports of opposition to the store were published in the Whistler Question in October 1985 Alpine Meadows residents Sonya McCarthy and Margaret Kogler conducted a petition that showed overwhelming support for the idea.  By the end of 1986, the idea had become reality and residents now had access to McKeever’s General Store and Dirty Harry’s Laundromat.

Harry McKeever, Alpine Meadows resident, Vending Machine Operator. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

McKeever’s was a well-known name in the valley well before the opening of this store.  Harry McKeever first came to Alta Lake on holiday in 1957.  In 1960 is family bought property and built a cabin in Alta Vista.  Not too long after that he moved up permanently and when Garibaldi Lifts began operating in 1965/66 McKeever became one of the company’s first lifities.  Working mainly in the gondola barn in the valley, McKeever became valley supervisor and stayed with Garibaldi Lifts until 1975.  According to a 1993 article by Bob Colebrook in the Whistler Answer, “McKeever could give seminars to today’s lifties on courtesy and friendliness, although he might have a hard time imparting his sincerity.”

Lifts were not McKeever’s only occupation; he ran a successful vending machine business between 1970 and 1990, supplying the valley’s game, pop and cigarette machines, and became known to some as Whistler’s “slot machine mogul”.  During his time in Whistler McKeever was also an early member of the Chamber of Commerce, on the Board of Directors of the Whistler TV Society, a member of the Whistler Rotary Club and the sponsor of Dirty Harry’s hockey team.

When McKeever’s General Store opened in 1986 it carried groceries, hardware, auto supplies and video rentals while the laundromat provided a welcome service to residents.  Shortly before they opened Linda McKeever stated, “We want to make the store a focal point for the neighbourhood,” a goal they certainly achieved.  McKeever’s provided a convenient location to pick up eggs or butter (especially if you already happened to be checking your mailbox) and for the children of the neighbourhood it was the closest place to buy popsicles in the summer.

When discussing the store with Colebrook in the early 1990s, Harry McKeever told him: “It’s excellent, it’s the first easy job I’ve had.  As the staff learns more and more my work gets less and less.  It’s a great way to keep in touch with the people.  Also, by having my name on the store I get a lot of people from twenty-five or thirty years ago coming in because they same my name.”

The store has evolved since McKeever left the valley.  The laundromat (and the linoleum flooring) is gone, replaced by Alpine Cafe and the store is now named Alpine Meadows Market.  The McKeever name, however, will always be associated with the address: 8104 McKeevers Place.

Blackcomb Mountain’s Blabcomb

We love newsletters at the museum.  They’re a great way of keeping interested parties up to date and sharing information and, when donated to the archives, are an interesting record of changes to an organization over time.  Recently, some of the museum’s resource binders were digitized to make them text-searchable to help with our own and others’ research projects.  One of these binders housed a collection of newsletters published by Blackcomb Mountain over the late 1980s and early 1990s: the Blabcomb.

The 18 foot cake prepared by Gourmet for the opening of Blackcomb Mountain in 1980.  By the time the Blabcomb began publishing the mountain had been open for skiing for only seven seasons.  Whistler Question Collection.

When the first edition of the Blabcomb came out on March 17, 1988 the newsletter was only four pages of news and updates related to Blackcomb operations; the last issue that the museum has a copy of, from July 12, 1991, had grown to twelve.

Early issues of the Blabcomb came out with payroll every two weeks, then switched to monthly publication for the summer months.

The issues included lists of birthdays, staff changes, discounts, meetings and recognition of the latest ICE (Inspire Continued Excellence) Awards.  Even birth announcements made it in,

Thought the newsletter included frequent calls for volunteers and contributions, it would seem Blabcomb was spearheaded by Eric Sinclair of Blackcomb’s accounting department.  The name “Blabcomb” was the product of Wayne “Chookhead” Burt, who won out against competing submissions such as “Snow News” (Bart Parsons), “Seventh Heaven Express” (Peter Bacholtz), and “Blackcomb Briefs” (Gerhard Reimer).

Considering the chatty (and, at times, perhaps gossipy) tone of the newsletter, Blabcomb seems like a perfect fit.

The suitcase races on Blackcomb were a popular event, and would have made for great television. Blackcomb Collection.

In some ways the resort described in the Blabcomb is very different from the Whistler Blackcomb operations of today.  Events such as the Celebrity Challenge Suitcase Race (you can learn more about that event here) no longer run and with the merger between Whistler and Blackcomb guest numbers are no longer a competition.  Other parts of their spring 1988 newsletters, however, could almost be published today.

The Blabcomb reportedly began “in order to maintain the Blackcomb spirit,” which some feared was being lost as the company grew (a feeling not unknown in Whistler).  In early March 1988 the Blackcomb staff (combining both employees of Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises and of Alta Lake Foods, which ran the food and beverage operations for the mountain) surpassed the 600 employees mark.  The creation of the Blabcomb recognized that it could be “difficult to maintain that feeling of ‘family’ among such a large employee base.”

Original pin that was used to promote the new Wizard Chair at Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler Museum.

With expanded food service and five new lifts added in 1987 (Magic Chair, Wizard Express, Solar Coaster Express, 7th Heaven Express and Horstman Glacier T-Bar) the 1987-88 season was a big year for Blackcomb Mountain.  By early April it had exceeded 512,000 visits (to put the number is perspective, the previous record of 508,000 had been set by Whistler Mountain in the 1984/85 season) and looked on track to exceed 600,000 by the time the season ended.

Employees asked by the Blabcomb described the season as “exciting, exhausting, wild and, of course, magical” but the newsletter also acknowledged the toll the season had taken.

As they put it, “Not only did Blackcomb employees have to adjust to a massive expansion project that included new lifts, buildings and added responsibilities, they were overwhelmed by the number of skiers we received in Whistler Resort this year… A shortage of employees, cramped, and sometimes marginal living conditions made these ‘adjustments’ even more difficult.”

Over the next few years the Blabcomb continued to update employees about changes in operations and events on the mountain, while also covering topics that we still discuss in Whistler today, such as the construction of employee housing (it was during this period that Blackcomb and CP Hotels, later the Chateau, built some of the housing currently in use).

Though newsletters are often written thinking of the present and future, they can be really useful resources when examining our past.