Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain

Making It Snow

For the first decade of operations on Whistler Mountain, an abundance of snow was normal for the ski season. The season of 1973/74 was a record-setting winter, with Whistler Mountain recording a base of just over 5 m in the early spring. After so many seasons, most people had grown to expect Whistler always to have lots of snow. According to John Hetherington, who was working on ski patrol at the time, “We just thought it would go on forever.” Then, just a few years later, it didn’t.

The season of 1976/77 is often described as one of the worst ski seasons Whistler Mountain has ever had. The Whistler Question reported that over the American Thanksgiving weekend, “a few hardy souls went up the mountain to hike up & down either at the top of the red or the ridge behind the top of the blue chair.” By Christmas it had snowed a little bit more and Whistler Mountain was able to open, but skiers had to download by the Red Chair and the gondola. Then, in January 1977, it rained to the top of the ski area and washed away what little snow there was. The lift company closed for the rest of the month and well into February.

The Whistler Question, January 1977.

This complete lack of snow inspired the first attempt at making snow on Whistler Mountain. While today snowmaking is carefully planned, has a large infrastructure, and follows procedures, that was not the situation described by Hetherington and fellow patroller Roger McCarthy. According to Hetherington, “Back then, Whistler was pretty wild and out there and things were pretty loose… Nobody gave a damn what you did on the mountain.” In this case, what ski patrol did was use an entire case of Submagel (the explosive often used in avalanche control) to blow a huge crater in the creek at the bottom of the Green Chair.

They built a dam at one end of the crater, got some pumps, borrowed a snow gun from Grouse Mountain (Grouse had installed the first snowmaking system in British Columbia in 1973), and began making snow to get skiers to the bottom of the Green Chair without having to carry their skis for the last 100 m or so. Once the crater slowly filled, it could support about two to three hours of snowmaking. However, McCarthy recalled that the system was far from perfect: “The challenge was that any time we tried to make snow, it got cold enough to make snow, the water would stop running and stop filling the little creek and we’d end up sucking mud into the pumps. So it wasn’t that successful, but it was the beginning.” Packer drivers were able to spread what snow they did make to form a narrow run to the bottom of the Green Chair, providing some temporarily skiable terrain.

Ian Boyd demonstrates the ins and outs of an SMI snow-making machine capable of producing enough snow to cover one acre one-half inch deep in one hour in 1982. With the addition of more machines and proper reservoirs and infrastructure on Whistler, snowmaking became more common through the 1980s. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

This first attempt at making snow signalled a shift in thinking as the lift company was forced to realize that they would not always get the snow there were used to. In 1981, Sandy Boyd was hired as Gondola Area Coordinator for the lift company and, already having experience with snowmaking, Boyd brought more snowmaking to Whistler through the 1980s. Today, as the questions of snowfall and the impacts of climate change on Whistler are never far from mind, snowmaking is an important part of mountain operations and it is not uncommon on a clear night to see the snowguns at work on both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

How to Lift Some Spirits

Looking through the photographs in the Whistler Museum archives, it is clear that Whistler has thrown a lot of parties. Whether attending a formal dinner at a restaurant, a Halloween costume contest in a bar, or a dance that got moved into an underground parking lot due to rain, residents and visitors alike have found many reasons to celebrate. At times, parties have served not to celebrate an event or person, but to boost morale during difficult periods. During an interview in 2019, Lynn Mathews described such a party held for Whistler Mountain staff, though the reason behind the low morale might today seem backwards: they had too much snow.

During one of the early years of Whistler Mountain’s operations, according to Lynn, it had snowed all through January and well into February and staff were getting tired of moving so much snow. Each day was “day after day after day of shoveling,” first digging out the gondola, then going up to dig out Midstation, and then shoveling out the top of the Red Chair (not unlike Hugh Smythe’s early memories of riding the Red Chair in 1966). It was decided that a party was needed to raise people’s spirits.

The gondola barn (easily identified by the word GONDOLA on its side) had much more space to host staff than the A-frame to its side. Wallace Collection

At the time, there weren’t many venues in which a party could be held. The gondola barn had reportedly hosted a staff party in a previous season, but questions about it were afterwards raised by the insurance company and the lift company’s board of directors. Lynn decided to hold the party in her own home, one of the two A-frames at the base of Whistler Mountain occupied by the lift company managers (Lynn’s husband David was operations manager, while the other A-frame was occupied by area manager Jack Bright and his family). The A-frame structure was quite small, but that didn’t stop Lynn from issuing invitations to all members of the staff, with the mysterious instruction to bring a pillow.

In preparation for the party, the Mathews moved all of their furniture outside. Lynn recalled that David even put an ashtray out on the coffee table that was set up with the sofa on their deck. Various people were organized to make food, silverware and dishes were borrowed from the cafeteria, and two sheets of plywood were covered in aluminum foil. When it came time to eat, the covered plywood was brought out and set on the floor as tables. Those who remembered their pillows were instructed to use them for seating.

A-frames built by the lift company were not very large, though over time some additions were made. Wallace Collection

There were so many people gathered in the house that Lynn remembered thinking at one point during the evening, “It’s a good thing there’s so much snow around here, because I’m afraid otherwise the A-frame might slide down the hill.” At the height of the party, lift company president Franz Wilhelmsen’s nephew and his two friends arrived from Montreal to pick up the keys to the Wilhelmsens’ condo and seemed taken aback by all the people crammed into the building.

According to Lynn, the party did exactly what it was supposed to do. It lifted the spirits of the disheartened employees and, for days afterwards, staff could be heard exclaiming over how many people they managed to fit into the A-frame.

First Trips to Whistler

When Hugh and Hilda McLennan first heard about Whistler Mountain in the early 1960s, they didn’t know exactly where it was or what was planned for the area. This, however, did not stop them from buying shares in Garibaldi Lifts Ltd.

Hugh and Hilda McLennan moved to Vancouver with their two children, Catriona and Neal, in 1957, when Hugh took a position at the University of British Columbia as a professor in the Department of Physiology. The family were already skiers before Whistler Mountain became known to them, often skiing at Mount Baker and even thinking about purchasing property there. Despite buying shares in the company, the McLennans didn’t believe that they would ever ski at Whistler, though they thought that their grandchildren might enjoy it. This didn’t stop them from investing further in the area, however, and when Sandy Martin brought his model of Alpine Village to their living room in 1964, the McLennans agreed to buy one of the units of his proposed development.

While we don’t have any photos of Alpine Village from the 1960s, we do have a photo of Alpine 68, condominiums built just a few years later right by Alpine Village. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

In the summer of 1965, the McLennans decided to take their first trip to Whistler. According to Hilda, the highway around Squamish was still new to them and so they missed a turn and ended up driving into Paradise Valley. After a dusty lunch and new directions, they set off again and eventually came upon a sign on the edge fo the road that read “Site of Garibaldi Lifts.” They continued driving and found another sign that read “Site of Alpine Village.” There wasn’t too much to see at either site, but Sandy Martin had told the McLennans that they could be in their Alpine Village unit by Christmas that year.

The McLennans made their next trip to Whistler on December 17, 1965. It was a short but eventful stay. In an oral history interview in 2016, Hilda recalled that when they moved in, many of the units were frozen. As they were built on a rock cliff, much of the plumbing for the units was housed in cedar boxes above the ground. Before going back to Vancouver, the plumber had wrapped electrical cables around the pipes in the boxes to keep them from freezing. Not only did some of the pipes freeze anyway, but a fire started in one of the boxes in the night.

Hilda McLennan, Richard Heine, and Eleanor Bishop at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club Benefit Dinner. Whistler Question Collection, 1978

That evening, just as Hilda had put dinner on the stove, the water to their unit thawed and began coming up under the toilet. She, Catriona, and Neal were trying to mop up and control the water, but didn’t know where to shut it off. At this point, Hugh, who had been visiting the unit of the Alpine Village architect near the top of the hill, returned. He observed that, in comparison to the architect’s unit where “they’ve got a lovely fire going and the table is all set for dinner with candles,” their place was “a mess.” This was not incredibly well received by those dealing with the flood.

According to Hilda, they didn’t notice the fire until they had no electricity in the morning. She got up to make a cup of coffee and discovered that they had no power. She asked a construction worker who was living in the next unit what had happened, and he told her how the people at the Cheakamus Inn across the highway had seen the fire and come over to put it out. As a precaution, they also turned off the power to the other boxes, especially as some had already shown signs of smouldering. Despite their efforts, Hilda and Neal recalled that some of the units in a different section sustained serious damage. Not surprisingly, the McLennans decided not to stay for another night.

Alpine Village units had another major fire in 1985, though it was reportedly different units that were affected. Whistler Question Collection, 1985

This was just the first of many trips the McLennans made to Whistler, and they returned to Alpine Village with friends for New Years. Though they hadn’t ever expected to ski on the mountain they’d never seen, they became founding members of the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, helped run international ski races on the hill, and Hugh even served as president of the Western Division of the Canadian Ski Association in the 1970s.

Adeline the Alta Lake Donkey

The cover of the February 1969 edition of Garibaldi’s Whistler News featured a photo of Tex Rodgers guiding cars through the parking lot for Whistler Mountain on horseback. Over the years that Tex worked for the lift company, it was not uncommon for skiers to see him astride his horse directing traffic, but his was not the only four-legged mount that could be found in the area. Also glimsped around Alta Lake and, at times, at Whistler Mountain was Karen Gow’s donkey Adeline.

Tex Rodgers directing traffic for Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation Collection

The Gows first moved to Alta Lake in 1955, when Don Gow began working as the station agent at the Alta Lake Station. He had previously worked for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (PGE) as a relief agent, traveling with his family from station to station to provide relief for agents going on holidays. Alta Lake was the family’s first permanent station and Don and Joyce moved into the “PGE green” station agent house with their two young daughters, Connie and Karen.

When the Alta Lake Station closed around 1959 and became a flag stop, the Gows moved first to the station at Shalalth and then further along the tracks to the station in Clinton. However, they had fallen in love with the Alta Lake area and built a cabin on a lot leased from the PGE with their friend Bill Russell. They continued to visit Alta Lake on weekends and holidays.

In 1965, Don was given the choice of bidding on a station even further north or leaving the PGE. He contacted Laurence Valleau and was offered a position as the bookkeeper for Valleau Logging, and so the Gows moved back to Alta Lake. Connie took Grade 9 by correspondence while Karen attended the Alta Lake School for Grade 7 and Joyce began working at the post office at Mons.

The Alta Lake Station that first brought the Gows to Alta Lake. Photo courtesy of Gow Family

While living in Clinton, Karen had desperately wanted a horse. In a 2015 oral history interview, she recalled that she had spend many of her weekends with her friends in Clinton, who mostly lived on ranches and all had horses. Karen began saving up for a horse of her own, saving both her allowance and that of her sister, who generously contributed her 25 cents/week to the cause. When they moved back to Alta Lake, however, her parent’s didn’t think it was the best place to have a horse.

Around the same time that Karen was saving up for a horse, Tex Rodgers was opening a stable called Buckhorn Ranch in the area now known as Nicklaus North. He was arranging to bring his horses from California and, unbeknownst to Karen, Don arranged for Tex to bring a donkey along as well. Karen was told there was something for her to collect at Mons and so she and her friend Renate Ples walked down the tracks from the Gow house. There, they found a donkey tied up outside the post office. As Karen recalled, “I was excited, excited and disappointed all at once… I wanted a horse, and it wasn’t really a horse, but, oh, we had so much fun.”

Karen and Adeline at the gondola barn. Photo courtesy of Gow Family

The donkey was given the name Adeline by Myrtle Philip, who thought she was sweet like the song “Sweet Adeline,” and lived in the barn at the back of the cabin that had belonged to Bill Bailiff before his death. According to Karen, Adeline’s braying could be heard all around the lake.

Don and Joyce continued to live at Alta Lake until 1975, when they both retired and bought a sailboat to live on, which Karen said had long been a dream of her dad’s. Karen did eventually get her horse, and even got her coaching certifications and taught horseback riding. As far as we know, however, her donkey Adeline is the only donkey to have been photographed hanging around the base of Whistler Mountain.