Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain

Skiing Whistler Mountain Before the Resort

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.

Franz Wilhelmsen was a friend of Jack Shakespeare. Both were involved in GODA and Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. Although we do not appear to have any photos of Jack Shakespeare, we do have many of Franz.

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.

Skiing this area before the t-bar took a lot longer for some in their group, especially once they hit the trees.

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!

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Celebrating Peak Chair’s 30th Birthday

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.

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The first poster advertising the new Peak Chair.

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.

The Garibaldi Gruel

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.

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This is why Lakeside Bowl on Blackcomb has its name. These trails are now part of the alpine hiking trail network on Blackcomb, but biking is not permitted. Greg Griffith Collection.

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.

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The last stretch of the opening bike leg, coming into the Roundhouse plateau on Whistler. WMAS, Greg Griffith Collection.

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.

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The Last Stretch – Mathew’s Traverse, took riders from The Saddle to Whistler Peak, with the classic view of Black Tusk on their left hopefully distracting them (a little) from their physical suffering. Greg Griffith Collection.

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.

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The mass start kicked up more than a little dust on a hot September day. Greg Griffith Collection.

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!

Peak-to-Valley: A Whistler Tradition

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.

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Peak-to-Valley visionary Dave Murray came up with the brilliant idea to promote ski racing amongst the general public by creating a race far more gruelling than anything he had encountered on the World Cup circuit. It worked.

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.

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Hopefully the legs aren’t burning yet! A long way still to go for this racer running the upper section of the course, circa late 1980s. Note the absence of the Peak Chair. Greg Griffith Photo.

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.

 

A racer heads for a gate on Upper Franz, 2016. Brad Nichols photo.

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!

 

 

The Origins of Avalanche Control on Whistler Mountain

There are few truer mountain-town experiences than being awoken in the early dawn by the distant rattle of avalanche bombs. While providing an unmistakable announcement of fresh snow, they also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the mountains are a complex and potentially hostile landscape demanding caution and respect.

Often romanticized as “throwing bombs, skiing powder, and breaking hearts,” avalanche control at a ski resort is actually a highly technical profession requiring extensive training in explosives, first aid, weather forecasting, and snow science. But it wasn’t always that way. When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966, the concept of snow science barely existed, and the only technical avalanche manual in North America was almost 15 years old.

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Learning to safely harness the destructive power of avalanches took time and dedicated practice by hundreds of individuals. John Hetherington was one of those key folk, and his recollections give some fascinating insights into the nascent years of avalanche control work on Whistler Mountain.

After a brief, somewhat lost-in-translation introduction to the avalanche world as a rookie ski patroller in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the 1966-67 season, John “Bushrat” Hetherington joined the Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol in December 1967, the mountain’s third season of operations.

Back then, John recalls, “avalanche control consisted mainly of putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going ‘I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.’ Over time there was some experience that certain slopes had a tendency to avalanche… There was no science behind it, just ‘let’s throw lots and lots of bombs.”

That winter Monty Atwater, inventor of the Avalauncher, visited Whistler to demonstrate his avalanche artillery gun. “It would have given us the capability of reaching the remoter areas which today are now lift-accessed but back then were not (Peak, Upper Harmony, etc]” but issues with the system, the unreliability of the shells in particular, left Whistler uncomfortable with the powerful but crude technology. “It went away in storage” and patrollers continued to rely on setting all their charges by hand. To get a better sense of the danger such work entailed, the patrol team didn’t receive their first avalanche transceivers until 1973 (they didn’t become common equipment for non-professionals until the 1990s).

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After his inaugural Whistler season, John set our working as an avalanche professional for mines up north and in the interior. Meanwhile, an incident during the winter of 1972 served as an eye-opening and watershed moment for the patrol. A typical Coast Mountain winter storm blanketed the mountain in several feet of snow. Four skiers went missing during the blizzard, and it took several days to determine that they had been caught in an avalanche, whose debris had subsequently been buried by even more storm snow. After that incident it became painfully clear that avalanche control was a serious and crucial aspect of ski area management.

Norm Wilson, formerly the head of ski patrol Alpine Meadows, California was then hired to modernize Whistler Mountain’s avalanche control system. More sophisticated terrain analysis and systematic patrol routes were established to clear slopes of their slide risk, and an infrastructure was put in place to conduct more detailed short and long-term snow and weather study. From that point on, daily avalanche planning increasingly began from analysis of the overnight snow and weather readings, rather than gut instinct.

That same season, advances in the Avalauncher system brought their gun out of storage and it was installed on a platform near the top of the t-bars. Being able to trigger avalanches from such a distance made the daily control routine safer and less-gruelling.

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The expertise that developed in subsequent years, thanks to the system and infrastructure put in place by Norm Wilson, and the dedicated practice by a generation of Whistler patrollers, made a huge contribution to our understanding of avalanche forecasting, not just in Whistler, but Canada-wide. John Hetherington, returned to Whistler the following winter, and was soon second in command. He went on to become a widely respected avalanche consultant, heli-ski guide, SAR-member, and board member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Just for fun we figured we'd throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger's moustache had more staying power than Bruce's.

Roger McCarthy and Bruce Watt checking the anemometer printout, which provides crucial data on wind speed and direction, from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain.

Other major contributions include the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association by local patroller Bruce Watt, spurred by his own burial and rescue from a slide while patrolling on Whistler in 1979. Whistler Mountain was the only ski area with a large contingent at an inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver in 1981—most of the others worked for Parks Canada in Rogers Pass, Banff and Jasper. The meeting led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Pacific Ski Air – Whistler’s First Heli-ski Operation

With our upcoming Speaker Series about the origins of heli-skiing in Whistler, we thought we’d delve a little deeper into the Pacific Ski Air story.

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Among the many ski industry-altering innovations that have occurred here in Whistler, it is often under-appreciated that, as far as we can tell, Whistler was the first ski resort to offer heli-skiing. When Hans Gmoser’s Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH), the first commercial heli-ski operator, began their operations in April 1965 they were based out of an abandoned logging camp south of Golden, BC. They opened their first purpose-built backcountry lodge, Bugaboo Lodge, in 1968 in the same vicinity as the logging camp.

Pacific Ski Air, meanwhile, began shuttling skiers up from Whistler’s original Creekside base directly to exhilarating ski descents on the massive north-facing glaciers of the Spearhead Range during the winter of 1967-68.

The fledgling company had the huge advantage of working in partnership with Okanagan Helicopters. Originally formed in Penticton, BC with the intent of using helicopters to spray pesticides for large-scale agriculture, Okanagan Helicopters quickly grew into the largest helicopter operator in the world by supporting a variety of resource industries and industrial construction projects in the mountains of British Columbia. By the end of the 1950s,  OK Helicopters, as they were known, owned more than 60 aircraft and had relocated to Vancouver.

Glenn McPherson, President of Okanagan Helicopters, was also on the original board of directors of Garibaldi Lifts Limited, the company that built Whistler Mountain ski resort, so it’s no coincidence that OK feature prominently in early photos of the resort:

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Not surprisingly, OK was also heavily involved in Pacific Ski Air from the start as well, as a partial owner, in partnership with Joe Csizmazia, Al Raine, Jamie Pike, and Peter Vajda. Brian Rowley and Cliff Jennings were the original ski guides.

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The bread and butter of the operation was a 2 or 3 run package in the Spearhead Range, primarily on the Blackcomb, Decker, Trorey, and Tremor Glaciers, before finishing up with a drop on Whistler Peak where the guides and clients skied down Whistler Bowl and Shale Slope back down to the Red Chair. Special trips were also made to Overlord Mountain, Rainbow Mountain, the Brandywine area, and north of Blackcomb around Wedge and Weart Mountains.

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Pacific Ski Air only lasted a few short seasons, stifled by a number of factors including an inability to secure an operating tenure. Still, the pioneering folks at Pacific Ski Air were among the first to truly appreciate the Coast Mountains’ potential as an unparalleled destination for adventure-skiing.

Join us Wednesday January 20th at 6pm as Pacific Ski Air veterans Cliff Jennings and Jamie Pike share more photos and stories from this groundbreaking era.

When: Wednesday January 20th; Doors at 6pm, show 7pm-9pm
Where: Whistler Museum (4333 Main Street, beside the Library)
Who: Everyone!
Cost: $10 regular price, $5 for museum members

We expect this event to sell out, so make sure to get your tickets early. To purchase tickets stop by the museum or call us at 604.932.2019.

 

The Lone Bagel

The Eighties are often remembered, fairly or unfairly, for questionable fashion and pop culture aesthetics, but here in Whistler it was a transformative era that saw the resort reach brand new heights. One of the key figures in Whistler’s rise during this period is Lorne Borgal, and we were lucky enough to have him participate in our recent Speaker Series soiree, plus he recorded an oral history interview with us, which help us outline some of his many contributions to Whistler.

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Lorne arrived in Whistler in June 1980 with a fresh MBA from Stanford University, driving up from California within days of graduating. He had been hired by Hugh Smythe to help manage a nascent Blackcomb Mountain. As he recalls, “from accounting, marketing, sales, to any of the operating entities, ski patrol, lift operations or anything to be ready for opening day, on the operating side fell to me.” Needless to say, the days were long and the learning curve was steep.

All the business school in the world couldn’t have prepared him for having to wire the telephone lines himself when BC-Tel was on strike, or having to play traffic cop to help skiers get home to Vancouver after a busy day on the slopes. As is the case with so many of our resort’s leaders over the years, Lorne had an ingrained determination to get the job done by whatever means necessary.

As the following audio clip demonstrates, recorded during our December 2015 Speaker Series event, there was no shortage of challenges during Blackcomb Mountain’s early days:

After three seasons Lorne was ready to move on, but fate had other plans. While on vacation in Europe (his first vacation in three years), he received a phone call from Whistler Mountain marketing executive Mike Hurst (who, coincidentally, sat beside Lorne at the Speaker Series), informing Lorne that Franz Wilhelmsen was retiring and Lorne was being considered as his replacement as Whistler Mountain President. Lorne happily accepted the new job, but not before completing his Mediterranean tour.

Here he is at the the December 10,1983 ceremony dedicating the newly named Franz’s Run in honour of outgoing President Franz Wilhelmsen.

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For the next six years Lorne oversaw the mountain during a period of intense competition with the upstart Blackcomb. He was at the helm of major projects such as the construction of Pika’s Restaurant – Whistler’s first proper on-mountain eatery, the visionary installatios of the original Peak Chair and the Village Gondola, leading international trade missions to expand the resort’s global reach, and updating Whistler Mountain’s management and customer service to keep up with a rapidly changing world.

Since leaving Whistler Mountain Lorne has served as an executive for a global software company, President of two other resorts, and continues to consult globally for upstart ski resorts around the world. His contributions to Whistler are most notably recognized up in the Whistler alpine, where Bagel Bowl refers to a playful nickname of his, “the Lone Bagel.”