Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part Two)

There is an often told story of the first meeting of Stefan Ples and Franz Wilhelmsen of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. on Whistler Mountain.  Apparently Franz arrived at the top of the mountain by helicopter to find Stefan there on skis.  Franz asked, “What are you doing on my mountain?”, to which Stefan replied, “What are you doing on mine?”  Though we do not know exactly how their first meeting occurred, the story certainly demonstrates Stefan’s love of the mountain and his preferred way to navigate it.  (For more information on Stefan’s life before coming to Alta Lake, check out last week’s article here.)

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

Although Stefan didn’t understand why people would prefer going up on lifts and skiing only a short distance down, he became greatly involved in the development of Whistler Mountain.  By the mid 1960s he had been exploring the mountain on his skis for years and knew the are perhaps better than anyone at the time.  Stefan began working for the lift company in 1963, going up to Alta Lake every weekend for over a year to climb up to a meadow at the bottom of the T-bar, where he would record the temperature and snowfall and other information (his handwritten reports were donated to the Whistler Museum & Archives by his daughter Renate Bareham in 2013).

When construction of the runs and lifts began Stefan moved up to Alta Lake full time to work.  Part of his responsibilities was to bring the horses up the mountain with supplies to a work camp that was set up in what may have been the same meadows he gathered his reports from.  Renate accompanied him on one of his trips up with the horses and told the museum, “It was just magical, because we went up through the forest and everything and we ended up in this meadow.  Oh, it was so beautiful up there.”

During one particularly bad snow year, Stefan also introduced the sport of Ice Stock Sliding to the valley.  “The old master, Stefan Ples, who introduced ice stock sliding to the Whistler area, sending one of the “rocks” down the recently blacktopped course next to the school at Whistler.” (Garibaldi Whistler News Fall 1977)

Though Gerda had continued to run their rooming house in Vancouver when Stefan first started working for the lift company, the rest of the family moved to Alta Lake in 1966.  According to Renate, not many people lived in the area at the time, and those who did either worked for the lift company or worked construction around the gondola base.  Renate attended high school in Squamish and worked for the lift company on the weekends and breaks.  At fourteen she began by stapling lift tickets and then handing out boarding passes, moving on to teach skiing for Jim McConkey when she turned sixteen.  She also babysat, caring for the Bright and Mathews children whose parents worked for the mountain.

Stefan continued working for the lift company and led ski tours to areas the lifts didn’t access.  One summer Renate even remembered helping him paint the top of the Red Chair.  Despite working for the lift company and receiving a lifetime pass in 1980, Stefan continued to prefer walking up, occasionally taking a lift as far as midstation before beginning his climb.

According to Renate, the only person who could go up the mountain on skis faster than her father was Seppo Makinen: “It took my dad three hours, probably, to get to the peak.  Seppo made it in an hour and a half.  I think he actually ran, you know, on his cross country skis, and my dad walked on his cross country skis, but Seppo ran.  He was also considerably younger than my father.”

Stefan Ples, long-time resident of Whistler, receives a lifetime pass from Garibaldi Lifts President Franz Wilhelmsen in recognition of his long involvement with Whistler Mountain.  Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Parts of Stefan’s legacy can be seen throughout the area though many may not know of his role in creating it, from the Tyrol Lodge to the two runs off Whistler Peak that bear his name (Stefan’s Chute and Stefan’s Salute).  He was a founding member of the Alta Lake Volunteer Fire Department in the 1960s and helped start Whistler’s first Search and Rescue Team in 1973.  His name can also be found on the Stefan Ples trophy, the prize for the overall winners of the Peak to Valley Race, as he like to climb to the peak and then ski all the way down.

Though some people may come to Whistler to build a career or make it rich, Renate said of her father that, “All he wanted to do was be in the mountains,” a goal it would appear he certainly accomplished.

Happiest in the Mountains: Stefan Ples (Part One)

Well before people started to pay for lift access and a day’s skiing, skiers were climbing Whistler and the surrounding mountains, either in search of skiable terrain, such as the George Bury expedition in 1939, or simply to spend time outdoors exploring, such as Pip Brock in the early 1930s.  One person who spent countless hours ski touring on Whistler Mountain was Stefan Ples.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1912, Stefan Ples spent much of his life surrounded by mountains.  When he was a young man it was common to work until noon on Saturdays, leaving Saturday afternoons and Sundays as his free time.  According to his daughter Renate Bareham, Stefan would work until noon and then get on a train or his bicycle and head for cabins in the mountains.  Ski lifts were still relatively new and uncommon at the time (the first recorded ski lift was built by Robert Winterhalder in Germany in 1908) and so Stefan would spend his time climbing up the mountain, skiing down only once at the end of his trip.  This would remain his preferred way to ski for the rest of his life.

Stefan and Gerda Ples sit on their hearth at Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Bareham family.

During the Second World War Stefan lived in Hallein, a town outside of Salzburg, where his wife sadly passed away, leaving him with their young son.  After a move to Sweden Stefan met Gerda.  She came from Leipzig, Germany and had lost her fiancé in the war.  Like Stefan, Gerda was planning to come to Canada.  The pair got married and Stefan, Gerda and Steve came to to Canada together, docking in Halifax and then going by train to Montreal.  In Montreal, Stefan would hike up Mount Royal whenever he got the chance, though it couldn’t compare to the mountains he grew up in.  The family spent some time there before moving on to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, Stefan and Gerda ran a rooming house in the West End, a Victorian building located on Denman and Davie Streets, right across the street from English Bay.  Renate, who was born in Vancouver, remembered that their house became the first stop for Austrian immigrants coming to the city.  In 2013 she told the museum, “I think I met just about every Austrian that came to Canada in the first ten years that I was born.”

Settling in Vancouver also meant Stefan was once again living amongst mountains.  In the early 1950s he, along with Norbert Kamnig, Fips Broda, and Erhard Franks, instructors at Hans Brunner’s ski school on Hollyburn Mountain, became founding members of the Tyrol Ski and Mountain Club.  The Club soon built a cabin on Mount Seymour, where Stefan and his family would often go in the summers.  Renate learned to ski on rope tows on both these mountains, though she remembers Seymour more clearly.

The Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club enjoyed the area so much they even decided to build a lodge in the 1960s. The Tyrol Lodge still stands above Nita Lake today.  Tyrol Lodge Collection.

According to the Club, it was a chance meeting with an Alta Lake resident at a cobbler that first introduced Stefan to the area around Whistler Mountain.  He and a few other Club members took the train up to Alta Lake and were impressed with the location, returning afterward to continue ski touring around the area.  In 1959, Stefan and Gerda went further and bought a property on Alta Lake next to Cypress Lodge.  This became their own cabin in the mountains, though it would be a few more years before the family moved to Alta Lake full time.

Next week we’ll be continuing with a look at Stefan Ples and his family’s time at Alta Lake and Whistler Mountain.

Volunteers of 2010: The Weasel Workers

This past month, the Whistler Museum opened a temporary exhibit on the Sea to Sky volunteers of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The exhibit will run through March as Whistler continues to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paralympic Games.  One of the groups included in this exhibit is a group that formed well before the Games ever came to Whistler.

The Weasel Workers formed in the 1970s when Bob Parsons bad his crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.  Most of the early volunteers were parents of Whistler Mountain Ski Club members, but membership grew over the years as Weasels continued to work on the courses for large races on Whistler and began sending volunteers to help build courses for World Cups, World Championships, and Winter Olympics on other mountains.  When the Games were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003, the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team well in advance of the alpine events held on Whistler Mountain.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

During the 2010 Games, the number of Weasel Workers swelled to about 1,500 volunteers.  Volunteers came from across Canada and other nations to join a core group of 400 to 500 volunteers from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky area.  About 300 volunteers worked specifically for the Paralympics, and a couple hundred Weasel Workers volunteered to work for both the Olympics and Paralympics.  Weasel volunteers began their work for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on Whistler Mountain as early as mid-November 2008 and continued to clean the courses well after the Games had left town.

Even during the Games, the Weasels continued to be a family affair.  Bunny Hume, who began volunteering the with Weasels with her husband Dick in the early 1980s when their grandsons began ski racing, volunteered alongside multiple family members.  She handed out and collected race bibs, her son Rick was the Chief of Course for the women’s course, and her grandsons Jeff and Scott worked on the dye crew.  Rick’s wife Lynne also worked as a Weasel during the Paralympics.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

Some of the Weasel Workers who began volunteering as ski club parents even had children competing in the Games.  Long-time Weasel Andrée Janyk, who could often be found working on a course with a smile, saw two of her children, Britt and Mike, race in the Olympics in their hometown.

Karl Ricker, also a long-time dedicated Weasel Worker, was on the mountain trying to prevent people from crossing where the winch-cats were working when he received the news that Maëlle Ricker, his daughter, had won a gold medal in snowboard-cross on Cypress Mountain and become the first Canadian woman to claim an Olympic gold on home soil.  He went down to Vancouver to attend her medal ceremony, but was back at work on the course early the next morning.

Despite rain, wet snow, and warm weather over the first few days of the Games, and the postponement of three races, the Weasel Workers created and maintained courses for the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic alpine races that were seen around the world in 2010, and those who came to Whistler to work with the Weasels became just as much a part of the team as the long-time volunteers.  Patrick Maloney, then the Weasel president, told The Whistler Question that, “Anybody that’s on that track is a Weasel Worker.”  This sentiment was echoed by Weasel Worker Colin Pitt-Taylor, who claimed that, “as soon as you started working on an alpine course, you became a Weasel Worker, whether you like it or not.”

Learning to Ski at Whistler

Whistler attracts skiers and snowboarders of all ability levels and it comes as no surprise that there are a great number of people who first learned to ski on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, or even on the nearby slopes of Rainbow Mountain.  On Whistler Mountain, formal instruction has been on offer since it opened in 1966.

Garibaldi Ski School was opened by Roy Ferris and Alan White, who persuaded Omulf Johnsen from Norway to manage the school.  After two years Johnson moved on to Grouse Mountain and Jim McConkey was asked to take over instruction at Whistler.  McConkey had taught skiing in Utah for ten years before moving to Todd Mountain in Kamloops.  He agreed to come manage the ski school in Whistler on the agreement that he would also handle equipment rentals and the ski shop.

Jim McConkey posing for a formal staff photo in his Whistler Ski School uniform.  Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection.

McConkey described the ski school as being in a class of its own due to there being limited beginner terrain.  The ski school grew to have a few salaried instructors and more than 25 regular instructors who worked on commission.  Joe Csizmazia and Hans Mozer had started using helicopters for skiing in 1966 and McConkey took over the helicopter operations in 1968 for six years.  He, along with a couple of his top instructors, acted as guides for heli-skiing off of the regular runs on Whistler Mountain.

Ski lessons were a bargain at $18 for six two-hour classes.  In 1969 the mountain introduced adult summer ski programs in addition to children’s camps.  The adult summer lessons combined skiing with apres and summer recreation.  After a few hours of skiing in the morning, the group would have lunch at the Roundhouse and then go swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, or McConkey, who was an avid golfer, would take groups to the Squamish Golf Course.  Each week’s camp ended with a slalom race and an evening barbecue.  McConkey also began holding instructor courses where weekend skiers could learn to become ski instructors.

This bell called a generation of skiers to their lessons on Whistler. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

Students at Whistler Mountain were called to their ski lessons by the ringing of a bell at the base of the gondola.  McConkey had heard that there was a bell in Pemberton that belonged to the Lil’wat Nation.  The bell had been installed in the steeple of a church in Mount Currie in 1904 but had been unused since the church caught fire in the late 1940s.  McConkey asked for permission to use the bell and had a picture drawn to show what it would look like at the base of Whistler.  The council was consulted and agreed to lend the bell to the ski school.  McConkey and Dick Fairhurst brought the bell to Whistler and installed it at the gondola base, with a plaque to tell the story of its origins.

A young Bob Dufour poses for his offficial Ski School portrait, early 1970s.

McConkey left the ski school in 1980, at which point Bob Dufour took over as its director.  When Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980 they made their own ski school called Ski-ed.  It was advertised as a chance to ski with a pro on Blackcomb.  In 1985 Ski Esprit was opened as a dual mountain ski school with six instructors.

Since the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have combined more than just their ski schools, and thousands of skiers, and now snowboarders, continue to learn on the slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.

Garibaldi Lifts’ Early Employees

Since Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. first began hiring staff in 1965, Whistler Mountain has employed thousands of people in the area, some for a season and some for careers that span decades.  Like today, one of the challenges facing lift company employees then could be find a place to stay while working.  In an oral history interview conducted with Lynn Mathews this past summer, there were some names of employees that came up again and again while discussing early mountain operations.  One thing that three of these names, Doug Mansell, Denis Beauregard, and Frank Arundel, had in common was that they all had a place to stay well before the lifts began operating on Whistler.

Doug Mansell was a superintendent of lift operations for almost two decades.  He first moved to Alta Lake with his family in 1945 at the age of 8, after his father purchased property on the east side of the lake.  There the family built and operated Hillcrest Lodge, which opened its doors to guests in July 1946.  Doug and his brother grew up at Hillcrest Lodge, and Doug even married a Hillcrest guest, Barb.  At 14, Doug began working in Alf Gebhart’s Rainbow Lumber Mill and from 1951-56 he worked as a telephone lineman for the PGE Railway.  Doug and Barb took over the management of Hillcrest when his parents retired in 1958 and later sold the lodge to Glen Mason in 1965.  Hillcrest later became known as the Mount Whistler Lodge.

Doug Mansell, Franz Wilhelmsen, Stefan Ples and Jim McConkey pose together at the dedication ceremony for Franz’s Run. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

After selling, Doug and Barb both went to work for the lift company.  As Lynn put it, “Growing up in Alta Lake, you had to be handy, and know how to do things.  And Doug was really good.”  Doug continued working on Whistler Mountain until he and Barb retired to North Vancouver in 1983.

Like Doug, Denis Beauregard, an electrician for the lift company, was an Alta Lake resident before runs and lifts were built on Whistler Mountain.  He and his wife Pat began visiting Alta Lake with the “Witsend” group and built their own summer cottage on the lake in 1961.  The story we’ve heard is that a party at Rainbow Lodge in 1966, Denis remarked that if he could get a job in the area, he would move up permanently.  Brian Rowley, who worked for the lift company at that time, told Denis he could supply the job, and neighbour Don Gow offered to share his well water with the Beauregards in exchange for use of their washing machine.  The Beauregards moved up and both Denis and Pat began working at the mountain.  Both continued to be active members of the Alta Lake community, and even hosted the community club film screenings in the lift company cafeteria.

Denis and Pat Beauregard receiving silver coins for Whistler Mountain’s 25th Anniversary from Maurice Young (centre).

Both of the Beauregards’ sons worked for the lift company as well, and in 1991 Denis and Pat received silver coins commemorating their 25 years of service.  The pair retired to Squamish in 1994.

Frank Arundel worked for the lift company as a heavy-duty mechanic.  He and his family lived outside of the Alta Lake area, in Garibaldi Townsite, until an Order in Council and subsequent government actions cleared all residents from the area in the 1980s.  Frank had a workshop on the top of the mountain, which, according to Lynn, “was usually buried in snow.”  For Julie Gallagher, who grew up at Brandywine Resort in the 1960s and early 1970s, Frank’s work at Whistler Mountain was very convenient as she and his daughter were able to catch rides up to go skiing whenever he went to work.

We know there are many more stories of early employees (such as Stefan Ples, who perhaps knew the mountain better than anyone) and the early days of mountain operations, and we would love to hear them at the museum, whether you worked for the lift company yourself or heard stories passed down through the decades.

Whistler Museum 2019: Year in Review

This was a highly successful year for the Whistler Museum & Archives Society. The museum continues, with the help of the Board of Trustees, staff, and volunteers, to preserve, protect, and interpret Whistler’s history.

Over the course of 2019, the museum welcomed 14,410 exhibit visitors. This is an increase of 1,552 people or 12.6% over 2018. In addition to exhibit visits, WMAS attracted a further 905 people to our building through programs and events. WMAS also held a number of events and programs outside the museum, which attracted approximately 9,486 people. In total, the museum provided services to approximately 2,480 individuals. This marks the busiest year in the museum’s history for the fifth year in a row.

The museum expanded many of its programs in 2019, including the ever-popular Discover Nature program. This program, which ran through July and August in Lost Lake Park, offered a chance for locals and visitors to learn about Whistler’s rich biodiversity through the use of touch tables and face-to-face engagements with our knowledgable and dedicated interpreters. This year we were able to expand the program by an additional day to five days a week, Monday to Friday, and our scheduled nature walks were expanded from June to August, seven days a week.

The touch table at Discover Nature in the summer.

We had another strong year for other events and programs as well, including established favourites like our Valley of Dreams historical walking tours, Speaker Series events, numerous children’s crafts such as Crafts in the Park, our annual LEGO Building Competition, and Mountain Bike Heritage Week.

The museum continued to develop special exhibitions throughout the year. In 2019, these included Finding a Place: A History of Housing in Whistler and Construction of Whistler Village: 1978 – 1984. These temporary exhibits give the museum a chance to explore and present aspects of Whistler’s history that are not part of our permanent exhibit, and to use assets from the museum’s ever-expanding archival and artefact collection.

One of the highlights of 2019 was the Legends of Whistler Speaker Series that was hosted in conjunction with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and the Whistler Public Library. This three-part event was moderated by Mayor Jack Crompton and featured special guests sharing their own stories and knowledge of Whistler’s history.

Eldon Beck and Drew Meredith speak at the event on the development of Whistler Village.

Speakers included a cross-section of Whistler’s community, including former mayors, Olympians, former Whistler and Blackcomb managers, artists, librarians, musicians, and developers. Subjects ranged from development of Whistler Mountain during the 1960s, the design of Whistler Village, the life of a professional athlete in Whistler, Whistler’s cultural sector, and the Whistler and Blackcomb merger.

Eldon Beck, the architect of Whistler Village, spoke during one of the events and expressed his thoughts on the events in an email to the museum stating, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. I felt an attachment to early Whistler never realized before, very special.”

I would like to take a moment to thank our funders and supporters: the RMOW, the Province of British Columbia, the Community Foundation of Whistler, American Friends of Whistler, Canadian Heritage, and our museum members for their continued support over the years.

I would also like to say a special thank you to everyone who has visited our exhibits, attended our events, read our Pique column, followed us on social media, and otherwise helped spread the word about Whistler’s fascinating people and history. We look forward to seeing you in 2020 (maybe at our first Speaker Series on Wedneday, January 29, where we will screen Pro Patrol, Curtis Petersen’s 1980 short documentary on ski patrol on Whistler Mountain, followed by a talk on changes in ski patrol and mountain safety with Roger McCarthy, Brian Leighton, and Bruce Watt.)