The official blog of the Whistler Museum & Archives Society
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Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain
This past September we were lucky enough to welcome Paul Burrows, founder of the Whistler Question in 1976, to the museum to talk about the early days of the paper.
The stories he told of The Question then are amazing, but while looking through our collection of oral histories we came across an interview Paul did with Whistler Cable nearly 20 years ago in which he described his early days in Whistler, back when it was still known as Alta Lake.
Paul first arrived in Canada in 1960 on a flight that hopped from London to Scotland to Iceland to Greenland to Newfoundland to Toronto. He came west because “that was the place to be” and he and his friends started skiing. It was thanks to some bumps and twists on the mountains that he first met and became friends with members of ski patrol in Vancouver. They soon heard about a new ski area in Alta Lake and in 1965 Paul came up by train to take a look.
The second time he came up he was with a group in a Volkswagen and they brought their skis. It was August. As Paul recalled, “we put our skis on our back and walked up through the trees and we walked right up the west ridge of Whistler and we peered over the edge of Whistler Bowl and then we got to see them building the chairlifts on the Red Chair and cutting the ski runs. So then we skied down and we got mixed up and ended up on a cliff and we got stuck there for a while.” The group did eventually make it down the mountain.
In 1966 Paul returned as a member of the brown-jacketed ski patrol for the season before leaving to work for the ski patrol in Aspen for a year. When he returned he got a job working on the pro patrol alongside Murray Coates and Hugh Smythe. In his words, “It was pretty hairy. We got buried a lot. The safety procedures we used to knock avalanches down and everything else would not be tolerated today. We didn’t even talk about the WCB.”
During this time Paul, like quite a few other “residents” at the time, was squatting. He rented a 15-foot trailer from a place in Richmond for the season for $550 and parked in a lot at the bottom of the mountain. The trailer was put up on bricks, insulation was installed beneath it and plywood was put around it and the trailer became home to six or seven people.
With no electricity or water the wash facilities in the day lodge came in very useful, as did a trusty oil lamp. According to Paul, “I would shut all the doors and windows and you’re in there but the trouble is you keep running out of air. So when you had a party in there in the winter and there were guys in there you kept running out of air. So if you had this little oil lamp cranked up, it was a bit like the miner’s lamp, when the light started to flicker and go out you knew you had to open the door and let some more air in.” Condensation was also an issue in the trailer. Condensation build up could freeze the doors and windows shut and the lamp would then be used to melt one’s way out of the trailer in the morning.
After that season Paul again left Whistler, this time for Grouse and then work in the printing business.
In 1971 Paul married Jane and when she was offered a job teaching in Pemberton the pair moved back to Whistler, staying in their Alpine A-frame until 2000.
We’re starting something new on our blog for this year! Every week we’ll be sharing our own version of #tbt (Throwback Thursday) using photos from the Whistler Question from 1978 to 1985 and, wherever possible, the original captions. When the collection was donated the negatives were very helpfully organized by week, which means we actually know when the photos were taken or published! Some years do have some missing weeks, but what we’ve got we’ll share with you. So, if you’ve ever wondered what this week in Whistler used to look like, read on.
There aren’t too many people who got the chance to ski Whistler Mountain before the lifts were installed or the runs even cut, but this past week the Museum had a visit from two people who got to do just that. Keith and Jane Horner sat down with our Collections Manager Alyssa for an oral history interview and recounted the times they spent in Whistler during the very early days of the mountain’s development.
Oral histories can be tricky because they do not often come with what some people call “proof”, that is documents, photos or other written reports that support what someone says. The oral histories that we collect at the Museum are often people’s memories and reminisces of events that took place many years ago.
Jane Horner was born Jane Shakespeare, the third daughter of Jack Shakespeare, a chairman of the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association and one of the original directors of the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. Jack was a friend of Franz Wilhelmsen and is believed to have been in the helicopter with Franz and Sidney Dawes while the Canadian representative of the IOC was selecting an appropriate mountain for Olympic development. Her father’s involvement with the development of Whistler Mountain meant that Jane and Keith got to have some unique experiences before its opening in January 1966.
The pair recalled two days in the early 1960s when a small group of about forty people skied Whistler with a man called Peter Bennett. The first day was spent around the base of the mountain but the second day the group was taken up by helicopter to about where the t-bar would later be installed. The skiing about the tree-line was incredible, but once the group reached the forest there was no trail and they had to create their own paths from tree to tree. As Keith explained, there was a “huge variety” in the skiers’ ability; one skier ended up hanging upside down in a tree after getting caught in its branches and from top to bottom took one group member six hours.
Keith and Jane both remember spending the Christmas of 1965 in Whistler as part of a group from Vancouver including Jane’s parents. The gondola and chair had been installed by this time and Jack Shakespeare took a group up to Whistler to see the progress made on the mountain. The group was staying at the newly built Cheakamus Inn when they got snowed in and ended up staying longer than expected. Jack had meetings in Vancouver and tried to drive through the snow but had to abandon his car and come back for it weeks later. This trip had not really been meant as a ski trip so the group found other ways to occupy their time while they waited out the snow. The Cheakamus Inn made them welcome with a champagne breakfast and taught their guests to make hot buttered rum. Bridge was also a popular pastime while snowed in.
Whistler has undergone quite a few changes since the early times Keith and Jane recall spending here, though I’m sure quite a few people in town wouldn’t mind getting snowed in during December. Visits and oral histories like these provide great insight into a Whistler that can no longer be experienced. Though we cannot guarantee that everything we are told is completely accurate (memories are rarely infallible), if you’ve got a tale you’d like to tell, please contact the Whistler Museum; we’d love to hear it!
To most non-advanced skiers Whistler’s Peak was completely inaccessible before 1986.
No panoramic view, no glimpse of the vast expanse of Garibaldi Park and no feeling of being on top of the entire mountain. This past month marked the 30th anniversary of the Peak Chair opening on Whistler Mountain. In 1986, the 1,000-metre lift was imported from Grand Junction, Colorado, at a cost of $900,000, costing $1.48 million overall.
Since 1980, Whistler Mountain had been struggling to make ends meet and part of the strategy behind adding the new lift was to broaden the appeal of Whistler to Lower Mainland skiers. Additionally, Whistler Mountain intended to keep pace with Blackcomb Mountain, which had opened their new T-Bar System and 7th Heaven in the high alpine in 1985. Just a year later, Whistler Mountain countered this opening of new high alpine terrain with their opening of the Peak Chair on December 22, 1986.
The official opening of the Peak Chair was attended by a few big names: Premier Bill Vander Zalm, Mayor Drew Meredith, Female Athlete of the 20th Century Nancy Greene-Raine, Mount Everest climber Sharon Wood, Whistler Mountain president Lorne Borgal and the event’s master of ceremonies Jim McConkey.
“For years, people have been climbing and skiing off the peak and hiking to the peak in summer,” said Nancy Greene-Raine in the original December 24, 1986 Whistler Question article. “It’s wonderful that now they’ll be able to ride p and ski it, with a little caution.”
The mayor cracked a joke at the idea of quick access to all those steep new runs: “I think this is something Lorne dreamed up while riding the Scream Machine at Expo (’86) last summer.”
As we know well today, there are some intense line choices available from Whistler’s Peak, some having gained legendary status in this town, like the cliff drop visible from Peak Chair known as “Air Jordan” and the Peak to Creek run, the longest groomer in North America at 5.5 km.
The chair was first opened only to advanced skiers due to the steepness of the terrain and the early season rock hazards. More than 70 skiers eagerly awaited the opening of the chair that day. Unfortunately, intermediate and beginner skiers still missed out on most of the runs coming down from the Peak; the only run accessible for non-advanced skiers was aptly named “Last Chance”.
Today we take for granted the opportunity to zip up to Whistler’s peak as easily as taking a seat on a chair. Give a brief pause to take in the stunning panoramic vistas when you’re up on Whistler’s peak this winter, and perhaps remember the work that went into making those views possible for every skier and snowboarder to experience without a treacherous hike up.
One of the motivations behind our just-wrapped-up Whistler Mountain Bike Heritage Week was to connect with the local mountain bike community so that we can better celebrate what has become the leading summer pastime for the majority of Whistlerites.
We had a serious dearth of photographs, artifacts, and oral histories about the history of mountain biking in our community, and we are glad to say that this is now beginning to improve.
Among the few historical biking photographs we did already possess was a collection of mountain bike photos taken by local photography legend Greg Griffith from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Most of them were from a promotional shoot that showcased the riding of the day, including several gorgeous alpine shots high up on Blackcomb Mountain.
Also included were several shots from what looked like an epic competition that we knew very little about — until last Saturday night at our Speaker Series “Whistler MTB: Building a Community.” The evening began with local biking pioneers Grant Lamont and Charlie Doyle sharing stories about the early days, and paying tribute to the numerous individuals who were instrumental in the growth of Whistler into a mountain bike stronghold.
They were followed by Chris Kent, best known for his many feats on skis, but also an avid and long-time mountain biker. Chris also happened to be the organizer of the race in the Griffith photos, the Garibaldi Gruel.
First held in September 1994, the race was ahead of its time and almost like a predecessor to today’s wildly popular Enduro race format, in that it required competitors to complete major climbs and descend massive vertical in serious terrain. On top of that, there was also a leg of alpine trail-running, nowadays tagged with the trendy name of “Sky-running,” sandwiched in the middle.
The course climbed more than 1,100 vertical metres on service roads from the Village up to the Roundhouse Lodge, followed by an 8km run over to Harmony and back. Riders then got back on their bikes, climbed Pika’s Traverse to the Peak, then descended Highway 86 all the way back down to the valley. The course was so gruelling that Chris wasn’t certain that anyone would even bother entering.
His fears proved unfounded, with 120 entrants the first year — and roughly the same amount of volunteers. Kevin Titus, local marathon runner and multi-sport athlete won in an astonishing time of well under three hours, Mick Peatfield and Paul Fournier rounded out the podium.
The first year they enjoyed gloriously sunny weather, but the second running of the event was a different story. Heavy rain in the valley transitioned to full-on blizzard in the alpine. The weather forced the organizers to alter the route and forgo the climb up to Whistler Peak, and several competitors were forced to bow out early with hypothermia. Kevin Titus repeated as champion.
Unfortunately the event only lasted those two summers, but for those who participated the Garibaldi Gruel is fondly remembered as a challenging race that helped push the boundaries of what was possible on bikes in Whistler.
Have more MTB photos, memorabilia, or stories to share? We want to hear from you!
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.
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.
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.
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!