Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain

Starting at the Village

In the past ten years, Whistler Blackcomb has installed several new lifts on both mountains, replacing older lifts with new ones (such as the new Blackcomb Gondola and Emerald Express) or moving existing lifts to replace others (such as the Crystal and Catskinner chairs on Blackcomb Mountain).  While it may seem like there have been a lot of changes in the last decade, the greatest change in lifts in the area was actually seen in the 1980s.  A total of 21 lifts were built, six on Whistler Mountain and fifteen on Blackcomb.  Eight of these lifts opened in the 1980/81 season alone.

On Whistler Mountain, skiers had been skiing down to the site of the Whistler Village and catching a bus or a ride back to the gondola base at Creekside for over a decade.  In 1980, Whistler Mountain opened three trip chairlifts starting from the Village, breaking from its tradition of naming chairs for colours for the first time since opening in 1966.

The official opening of the Village Chair. In 1988 the Village Chair was replaced with a 10 person gondola. Whistler Question Collection.

The imaginatively named Village Chair began at Skiers Plaza and ended at Olympic Station.  From there, skiers had a short run down to the aspirationally named Olympic Chair.  At the top of the Olympic Chair they could then ski over to the Black Chair, which let them off at the top of what today is the top of the Garbanzo Express.  To teach the Roundhouse required skiing down to another chair, either the Green or Red.

The Midstation towers on the new Olympic Chair on Whistler North. Picture taken from the top of the Village Chair. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Of the three lifts, only the Olympic Chair continues to operate on Whistler Mountain today.  The Village Chair was replaced in 1988 by the Whistler Express and, instead of requiring four exposed chairlifts, the ten-person gondola took skiers and sightseers alike straight from the Whistler Village to the Roundhouse.  In 1999 the installation of the four-person Fitzsimmons and Garbanzo Expresses eliminated the need for the Black Chair.  The Olympic Chair was shortened in 1989 and now operates as a beginner chair.  It is one of the few fixed grip lifts still used on Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains.

Blackcomb Mountain opened its first five lifts (named One through Five) in 1980.  Lift Five was a two-person chairlift designed for beginner skiers, located at Base II, then the hub of Blackcomb operations.  The development of the Upper Village and the opening of the Magic Chair in 1987 moved beginners to the new Blackcomb base and Lift Five was removed.

The bottom terminal of Blackcomb Lift #2 takes shape. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Four triple chairs took skiers from Skiers Plaza to the top of the Rendezvous.  Over time, these lifts began to be called by names as well as numbers: Fitzsimmons/One, Cruiser/Two, Choker/Three, and Catskinner/Four.  To ride all four lifts could take over half an hour, a long journey if the weather was not great.  In 1994, Lifts One through Three were replaced by Blackcomb’s first gondola, Excalibur, and the four-person Excelerator Express.  Lift Four remained the only original lift operating on Blackcomb until it was replaced in 2018.

Though only one of the eight lifts installed in 1980 remains, the year marked the beginning of a busy decade of lift building for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Blackcomb’s First Season

Back in September the museum posted a series of photos on social media picturing some of the activity taking place on Blackcomb Mountain as they prepared to open for their first season in December 1980.  One comment made on the photos made clear that their first season wasn’t necessarily all that Blackcomb had hoped it would be, point out “except it didn’t snow.”  Unfortunately for Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, this was true for most of the early winter season.

The 1980/81 season didn’t start out too badly.  On December 4th, when Pat Carleton cut the ribbon on Lift 2 with a chainsaw, there was snow in the valley and the weather looked promising.  The new triple chairs to reach the top of Blackcomb were operating and skiers were able to end their day with a piece of the 5 m cake and draw prizes.  According to Hugh Smythe, the mountain enjoyed “phenomenal skiing for three weeks” and then it started to rain.

The opening ceremonies on Blackcomb Mountain had promising snow and skiers lined up to ride the new lifts. Greg Griffith Collection.

The Whistler Question reported that it began raining in the region on December 24, 1980, and it was still raining towards the end of January 1981.  Sections of the highway between Whistler and Squamish were washed on by heavy rains twice in that period, first on December 26 and again on January 21, cutting Whistler and Pemberton off from the Lower Mainland except by train or helicopter.  Within Whistler, Alpine Meadows was cut off from the rest of the town when 19 Mile Creek flooded its banks.  All this rain might not have been too terrible for the ski season, except that the rain was accompanied by unseasonably warm temperatures (at one point in January the temperature in Whistler was recorded as 5°C).  On January 8, 1981 the Question editorial stated, “As you look out of the window on January 6 it looks more like May 6 with little or no snow in the valley and only a minimum coverage above 4,500 ft.”

The rains did damage to more than just the snow – bridges, including this rail bridge over Rutherford Creek, were washed away. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The holiday season, usually one of the busiest times of year in Whistler, saw only 20% of its usual volume.  Blackcomb employees delivered newsletters throughout the subdivisions in the valley to let people know that Blackcomb Mountain was open for skiing but bad press coverage of the weather did not encourage skiers to visit.

Whistler Mountain was able to continue operating (or, some might say “limped along”) through January, but Blackcomb shut down operations and laid off staff temporarily because there was not enough snow to get skiers up to Lift 4 and Lift 3 was not designed for downloading.  Blackcomb tried grooming the runs on Lift 4 and moving snow onto the road that led to the top of Lift 2, enabling skiers to ski down to the bottom of Lift 3 before downloading.  They even borrowed snow making equipment from Grouse Mountain, who reportedly did not open at all that season, but the warm temperatures made it impossible to keep or make enough snow.

After the highway washed out a second time, BCR saw an increased demand for passenger cars. Whistler Question Collection, 1981.

Blackcomb Mountain was able to reopen later in the season and by March there was consistently snow on the mountains.  Blackcomb has gone on to operate for 39 successful seasons and, this December, will celebrate their 40th anniversary (fingers crossed without the rain).

Whistler’s Posters

Some of the most memorable images of advertising by both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains from the posters that the two companies produced in the 1980s and 1990s.  It is not unusual for the Whistler Museum to be contacted by someone trying to track down that last Saudan Couloir poster for their personal collection or hoping to find a copy of Whistler Mountain’s 20th anniversary poster of the flying Volkswagen.  In 2015, Mike Hurst, previously the vice-president of marketing, shared stories from behind the scenes of some of Whistler Mountain’s memorable posters.

One of the amazing Saudan Couloir Ski Race Extreme posters designed by Brent Lynch, who designed many of the posters for both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

Posters were a relatively inexpensive and, based on how popular they continue to be today, effective form of advertising.  Both Whistler and Blackcomb worked with Brent Lynch (the artist behind most of the Saudan Couloir posters, the flying Volkswagen, and many more) to create some of their most beloved posters.  According to Hurst, though, there was usually at least one thing about the posters that he and Lynch didn’t agree on: the promotional tagline.  Lynch wanted the art on the poster to represent itself, without any marketing language to distract from the message of the art; Hurst wanted every poster to include a promotional line that would be remembered by those who saw it.  As Hurst put it, “I won on getting the promotional line, but he won by trying to bury it as softly as he could so you couldn’t read it.”  Despite this claim, you don’t have to look too closely to find the tagline on at least one of Hurst and Lynch’s posters featuring Whistler’s Mother.

This poster can still be found in homes throughout the area.

Hurst remembered that he was trying to find a way to say, as cheaply as possible that Whistler was the superior mountain to Blackcomb.  He had an idea of Whistler’s Mother skiing down the mountain, riding the gondola and the lifts, and, after checking with Kastle (Whistler Mountain’s suppliers) Lynch created the image of artist James McNeill Whistler’s mother riding the Red Chair.  Hurst gives his wife credit for coming up with the promotional line “Whistler, Mother always loved you best,” that was included on the poster.  Blackcomb Mountain had been advertising their long runs and their status as a “Mile High Mountain” and so Hurst was glad to sneak this poster in on them.

Not all of the posters Whistler Mountain produced in the 1980s were created by Lynch.  The first poster for the Ski Scamps program featured a photograph of three children with skis on top of snow, obviously dressed for a day in Ski Scamps.  What you might not know from looking at the poster is that Whistler Mountain didn’t have much money for a photo shoot, the children are Hurst’s three children, the ski clothes were borrowed, and it was shot on Grouse Mountain.  Apparently they had planned to shoot on a sunny day in Whistler but each time Hurst called to check the weather Whistler had fog.  As the deadline for the advertising campaign approached, Hurst reached out to Gary Kiefer at Grouse and asked to “borrow his mountain.”

The Ski Scamps poster didn’t let on that it taken on Grouse, not Whistler Mountain.

We have many posters in the archives from the 1970s through the 1990s, ranging from World Cup races to Music in the Mountains advertisements, but surprisingly few from the past 20 years.  The posters are a great example of what events were happening in Whistler, what milestones the area was commemorating, and what art styles were popular at the time, and we are always looking to add to the collection.

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.  Once 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!

Visiting a Different Whistler

There is a lot to do in Whistler in the summer, even with the restrictions currently in place across British Columbia.  You can go up the mountains to hike and ride the Peak 2 Peak, hike throughout the valley, relax at a lake, or even visit Whistler’s Cultural Connector (which includes the Whistler Museum).  What about, however, if you had visited Whistler during the summer of 1980?

Thanks to Whistler News, a supplement published by The Whistler Question, we can get an idea of what summer visitors to Whistler could have expected forty years ago.

The Whistler Village at the base of Whistler Mountain as visitors would have found it in the summer of 1980. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The first step to visiting Whistler was getting here.  Though it’s relatively easy today to find your way to Whistler, in 1980 there were no directional signs in Vancouver pointing the way and Whistler News encouraged drivers to obtain a road map and head north on Highway 99.  The drive up included a 12km section through the Cheakamus Canyon that was set to be realigned and improved by 1981 but was still somewhat treacherous.  This was still an easier route than those from the north.  The route to Whistler through Bralorne was suitable only for 4-wheel drive vehicles and the Duffy Lake Road would not be paved until 1992.

Visitors had a choice of lodgings, both in and near to Whistler.  While some of these lodgings, such as the Highland Lodge and Whistler Creek Lodge, are still standing, others such as the Alpine Lodge (a lodge and cabins located in Garibaldi, which the provincial government declared unsafe in 1980) and the White Gold Inn (more commonly known as the Ski Boot Motel) have since been demolished.  Those looking to camp had quite a few options, including a BC Hydro campground at Daisy Lake and a forestry camp at the Cheakamus and Callaghan Rivers.  Supposedly, the summer of 1980 was also going to see the construction of new camping facilities as part of Lost Lake.

Lost Lake south shore showing where a beach and picnic ground will be built. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

Whistler also offered a variety of dining options, from Chinese cuisine at the Alta Lake Inn Dining Room to the Keg at Adventures West.  Those looking to provide their own meals, however, were encouraged to plan ahead, as the only grocery shopping in the area was at the Gulf and Husky Mini-Marts.

Visitors could still do many of the things that have brought people to Whistler in recent summers.  They could go hiking around the valley (Lost Lake was recommended as having the “spectacular sight” of the ski jump) and spend time around and on Whistler’s lakes, where windsurfing was becoming increasingly popular.  Those more interested in snow could attend the 15th year of the Toni Sailer Ski Camp, perfecting their skiing under the direction of Toni Sailer, Nancy Greene, Wayne Wong and Bob Dufour.

The group at the Sailer Fischer Ski Camp party catered by the Keg. (L to R) Wayne Wong, Wayne Booth, Schultz, Nancy Greene, Toni Sailer, Rookie, Alan White. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

The summer of 1980 was also a season of huge changes in the area and would have offered visitors many opportunities to view construction in the valley.  There was not yet a Whistler Village as we know it today.  In the Town Centre the first buildings of Phase I were expected to open that season and construction of Phase II buildings was underway.  Late in the summer Whistler Mountain installed its first lifts that ran from what would become the Whistler Village.  At the same time Blackcomb Mountain was building its first lifts, as well as on-mountain restaurants and utility buildings.

Blackcomb’s President and General Manager Hugh Smythe shows Whistler Mayor Pat Carleton the new ski runs from the base of Lift 2 during a recent tour by the mayor of the Blackcomb facilities. Whistler Question Collection, 1980.

With all this construction, changing businesses and development, it’s no surprise that summer visitors to the museum will often tell us that Whistler is almost unrecognizable as the same place they visited in the 1970s or 1980s.

Whistler Mountain’s Expressions

Over the last year we’ve written about some of the newsletters we’ve come across in our collections, including one written by the Whistler Museum in 2001 and a whole series of newsletters published by Blackcomb Mountain (the Blabcomb) in the 1980s and 90s.  While the museum was closed to the public from March through June we continued to receive donations to our archives, including a few issues of The Whistler Expression, Whistler Mountain’s counterpart to the Blabcomb.

Copies of the Whistler Expression, presumably named after the Whistler Express gondola.  Whistler Museum Collection.

The issues donated come from the 1990/91 ski season, Whistler Mountain’s 25th Anniversary season.  Much of the content of the newsletters is what you would expect to find in a company publication – a start of the season welcome from Executive Vice-President & COO Don Murray, an end of season message from President Charles Young, announcements of new programs (for example, a paper recycling program that featured prominently for two months) and introductions to new staff members (such as Bruce Warren, then the new Controller for Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation (WMSC)).

Though today many visitors and even residents may not know that Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains were once competitors, there are a few references to a seemingly friendly rivalry throughout the newsletters.  At the time Charles Young served as the President of the Fundraising Committee for the Dandelion Daycare Centre and made a promise that Whistler Mountain would match any donation made by Blackcomb Mountain, who promptly donated $10,000, showing that this competition could be good for the community.

Dandelion Daycare Society president Sharon Broatch and WM Young Foundation Maury Young unveil the special plaque painted by Isobel MacLaurin which lists the sponsors who made possible the creation of the new Whistler Children’s Centre. Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

Despite being published almost thirty years ago, many people, organizations, and even events mentioned in the newsletters are familiar today.  In November 1990 the Whistler Mountain social club held a (by all accounts successful) ULLR party to sacrifice skis to the Norse snow god.  In January 1991 Kevin Hodder won the contest to name the staff social club.  His entry was Club Shred (Staff Having Really Excellent Days), a name that can still be found on staff passes.

During this season WMSC introduced Peak Performer Awards “recognizing those employees who contribute to giving Superior Guest Service at Whistler Mountain” (not unlike Blackcomb Mountain’s ICE Awards) and published the names of those who were recognized.  If you worked at Whistler Mountain in 1990/91, there is a good chance you could find your name on the four-page list alongside Pat Beauregard, Ruth Howells, Pat Bader, Viv Jennings, and many more.

The newsletters aren’t all made up of lists and two of the most exciting incidents related in The Whistler Expression featured Bill Duff, fittingly the same person who donated the newsletters to our collections.  One day in December a call to all radios about a pair of stolen skis was promptly resolved when Bill saw a man exit the Express with just such a pair.  He had apparently mistaken the skis for his own and so the incident ended with “one very happy skiers who got their skis back, one very red-faced gentleman who had to wait until his own skis were brought down and one very proud validator who saved the day.”

Whistler Mountain celebrated its silver anniversary with a mountain of cake! Whistler Question Collection, 1991.

That same month, Bill (or “Ticket Validator Extraordinaire”) saw a family tobogganing on the busy run at the base of the mountain and went over to advise them of the danger.  As reported in The Expression, “After speaking with the father, Bill said, ‘Has anybody ever told you that you look like Chuck Norris?’  To which the gentleman replied, ‘I am Chuck Norris!'”

While we have almost a full run of the Blabcomb, we currently have only four issues of The Whistler Expression.  Newsletters are a great source of information about an organization, who worked there, and what was happening in town around them.  If anyone happens to come across copies while cleaning or reorganizing, we would love to see them!

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.