As the Games wind down to their closing ceremonies and the blush of new gives way to the comfort of well-known, maybe it's time to put your feet up, grab a refreshing beverage and gather 'round the virtual campfire for a few stories about the 2010 host town north, Whistler.
What's that? You've heard 'em all before? Maybe, maybe not. After the hundreds of thousands of words printed by the world press, enough hours of video to cross your eyes and make life off the grid seem like a wistful paradise, and a non-stop whirlwind of parties, events and press conferences, you can be forgiven for thinking there are no story stones left unturned, no tales untold. You can be forgiven... but you're wrong.
Whistler's cultural history may be thin soup - a statement for which I'll be roundly criticized by those who have lived most of it - but our larder is full of fun stories. Some are well known, some have nearly been forgotten. But the fact is, I'm willing to bet you've never been to a place like this before unless you've been to this place. Now, that's a bold statement and here are two nuggets of local lore to back it up.
Without culturally appropriating or completely dismissing tales of the Before Time, tales that belong to the First Nations peoples who lived here long before the rugged pioneers of Euro-American stock showed up, and with a nod to those early settlers who built the town of Alta Lake, Whistler isn't really much older than many of you. What you see around you only dates back to, let's say, 1960. So how many towns have you been in - Olympic host or not - whose history is contemporary with your life? How many towns have you visited where you can talk to the people who sunk the first shovel into the ground for the first foundation, built the first building, raised the first chairlift? In a very real sense, it's kind of like time travelling... without leaving home, assuming this is your home.
Which leads us to the second unique nugget. Everyone you meet in Whistler, with the exception of a very few lucky souls who were born here, moved here of their own free will. There isn't a soul in town who is "stuck" in Whistler. We're all willing victims, channelling our inner ski/mountain bike bum. And make no mistake: this town might look like a weird mélange of Disneyland and Barbie's playhouse right now but scraping out a living here ain't no walk in the park. Whistler locals are as resourceful and resilient as they are weird and whiny, an interesting combination for an interesting resort.
Without leaning on the crutch of chronological order, let me tell you a few local stories the world press haven't covered in the past few weeks.
Racers Ready... Sort Of
The first ski race on Whistler Mountain took place... well, nobody really knows. It might have been in March, 1960 - and I'll tell you that story a bit later - or it might have been even earlier when two friends skinned up and raced each other down. Sometimes when friends are sliding down snowy mountains it's hard to tell whether they're skiing or racing, harder to know whether there's any real distinction between the two.
But formal ski racing, that is to say organized club racing, began on Whistler Mountain in 1968 when the Whistler Mountain Ski Club - prep school for many of the current crop of Canadian downhillers - began. A year later, Whistler hosted the first of many Canadian Championships on a course virtually identical to the one used in last week's downhill.
The World Cup White Circus first came to town in 1975 and it wasn't too many years later the first World Cup was cancelled in Whistler due to weather and course conditions. Such are the trials of operating a WC ski hill 30 kilometres from the ocean with a peak elevation lower than many resorts' base.
The year was 1979 and the famed Crazy Canucks - Dave Murray, Steve Podborski, Ken Read and Dave Irwin - had made Canada a World Cup power, however temporarily. Whistler was hosting the final stop on that year's circuit and the weather was, shall we say, spring-like.
Warm temps and liquid snow had made a mess of the course. Long time local Steve Anderson remembers, "It was ugly. Goat's Gully had avalanched to midstation. Lower Insanity had slid all the way across the course at the end of the Sewer. The Weasels attacked it and managed to build the deposition up into a wicked, banked curve at Coaches Corner."
It's probably a good time to remember the safety systems pretty much consisted of soggy hay bales and this was the last race of the season. There was very little chance the results would impact overall standings.
With cancellation a near certainty and the year's racing over, stories of racers partying hard the night before the scheduled run can't be dismissed when considering what happened next. "There were a lot of drunken racers," recalls Anderson.
As it did last week, the temperature plummeted overnight and the next day dawned with blue skies, a blazing sun and a rock-hard, icy course. Was the race on? Was the course safe? Did FIS have the stomach to find out?
Race officials tossed the hot potato to the racers themselves. In an unofficial vote cast by first-seed racers, 11 voted to flush, four voted to race... three of them were Crazy Canucks, Murray, Podborski and Read; Austrian Uli Spiess joined them. The race was off; the Canucks were pissed. After all, this was a hometown crowd.
Nancy Greene was the one who offered up a compromise. In the best spirit of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movies, she said, "Hey gang, let's hold a fun race for everybody who's come out to watch," or words to that effect.
The downhill was truncated and reset as a GS race starting at the top of the Sewer and a quick pro-am draw was made, pairing World Cup racers and Weasel Workers. Still stewing in disgust, Ken Read decided he'd put on a show for the local audience and prove to the Europeans a real ski racer could have easily run a downhill that day.
"You have any objection to us being DSQed?" he's reported to have asked his Weasel when his turn in the start gate came around. With no objection, Read abandoned his helmet, doffed a toque, got into a tuck and, completely ignoring the GS gates, screamed straight down the course in the finest tradition of downhill racing. Whether or not he was yelling, "Euroweeniesssssss..." all the way down is, perhaps, apocryphal, but the word became quite popular around town and was bandied about enough during the non-stop party that followed to make the chastened European racers more than a bit uncomfortable.
You Call That Racing
World Cup racing at Whistler cruised along for the next dozen years, drawing enthusiastic crowds and building the international reputation of the mountain's Weasel Workers. But with word the FIS was going to wipe Whistler off the circuit, a 10-year deal with the devil was struck in the early 1990s - Whistler would host the first race of the year, scheduled for late November, early December.
Anyone who's ever booked an early December ski vacation knows conditions are, at best, a crapshoot. But beggars can't be choosers and any North American resort desperately wanting to host World Cup events knows in the Eurocentric world of FIS, they are beggars. Whistler - under the auspices of the newly formed community-based W5 Foundation - took what it could get and hoped for the best.
The first year of the deal was 1996. Early season snow was bountiful and everything looked good when the circus came to town. The course was in perfect condition, safety systems had come a long way since hay bales, and the town was primed for an early season party.
Then the snow started to fall... and fall... and fall.
Powderpigs were in ecstasy. Racers romped in the alpine, freeskiing to their heart's content. Organizers fretted, fumed and finally called the race. Whistler made lemonade from lemons when the PR machine started spinning in earnest. "World Cup races cancelled due to TOO MUCH SNOW AT WHISTLER!" Skiers across North America rejoiced.
Only problem was, with all those racers - and assorted hangers-on - and all that party vibe in town, talent went a-wasting.
The next year, Whistler welcomed the World Cup with a new colour scheme: earth tones. The weather was beautiful... for September. With barely any snow on the mountain, the Dave Murray Downhill course looked, well, weird. A ribbon of glowing white ice from top to bottom - thanks to the concerted efforts of snowmakers and seasonally cold temperatures - was flanked on both sides by dirt, rocks, grass and trees. But hey, the course was in great shape and racers were ready to roll.
Then the snow started to fall... and fall... and fall... again.
The race was cancelled but this time organizers were ready. Sort of. With the town prepared to party hearty and the conference centre decked out for medals and pomp, someone came up with a brilliant idea. Okay, an idea. Okay, a half-assed idea.
Those of you who hung out in après ski bars or video arcades in 1997 might remember a bigger-than-life video ski game. Holding on to pole tops, feet fixed to "ski" pads, the big screen before you would unwind a challenging downhill course. You would use your articulated "skis" to wind your way between gates. Kind of fun if you were drunk, bored or both.
But not particularly fun when you were treated to the spectacle of the world's best downhillers "competing" against each other, on stage, indoors, when you were hoping to see real ski racing.
I don't remember who won and I'm certain there are any number of people who wish they didn't remember it even took place. But desperate times call for desperate measures and the only happy people in Whistler that weekend were skiers - it was finally snowing - and the spinmeisters who could, once again, fire out press releases telling the world that Whistler's World Cup was cancelled because of too much snow.
You Call That Racing: Redux
The Olympic races have been exciting; downhill, Super-G and GS races always are. But in the world of Whistler ski racing, they're - try not to take this the wrong way - kind of wussy. The courses have been fussed over like a Hollywood starlet's hair on Oscar night. Safety systems are so extensive, racers feel compelled to push the boundaries of human endurance, safe in the knowledge they may end a career but probably not a life. And with men's times under two minutes and women's under a minute-and-a-half, well, it makes a guy wonder why they even bother holding them on big mountains. Why so short? And with a few exceptions, racers are over-specialized: downhillers who don't compete in technical disciplines, slalom racers who can't even make it the length of a downhill. Yawn.
With historic races like the largely underground Sextathalon - six skiing disciplines, including moguls and a gelandesprung, all skied on the same skis - and storied races like the Couloir Extreme, formerly the Saudan Couloir race before someone's estate got greedy, Whistler has a history of balls-to-the-wall ski racing that makes World Cup downhill seem like a debutante cotillion.
But one race stands out from all the others: Whistler's Peak to Valley.
The brainchild of Dave Murray, Peak to Valley is a uniquely Whistler race. According to Stephanie Sloan, Dave's widow, she and Dave were standing atop Whistler peak one day, looking almost a mile down at Creekside through their skis, when Dave - then director of skiing at Whistler - said, "Wouldn't it be cool to hold a race from here down to Creekside?"
Yeah. It would.
The race will hold its 25 th anniversary in a month, having been moved to the end of March from the beginning of February to accommodate the Olympics, and only once has it been held from the actual peak of Whistler. But in the world of ski racing, it's still a unique challenge.
How so? Let's put it in perspective. The typical GS race has a vertical drop of about 250 metres, has maybe 25 gates and takes under two minutes to run. The Peak to Valley starts at the top of the Saddle in Glacier Bowl, runs past the Peak Chair, down Old Man before plunging down Upper and Lower Franz's and ends at Dusty's. The vertical is 1,443 metres and between start and finish, racers have to negotiate upwards of 180 gates over the course of five-plus kilometres!
Teams of four, with at least one being a member of the opposite gender, are categorized according to their cumulative age. Two favourite strategies for winning your category are including a ringer, generally a recently-retired or still-carded racer, or larding up with geezers who can still rip it up, there being no shortage of fast skiers in this town in their 70s and even in their 80s. As a side note, the oldest Peak to Valley racer was 92. Racers run over two days and start 60 seconds apart. Passing is permitted and frequent!
While Peak to Valley is generally considered a recreational, citizen race, make no mistake: this is one tough race with stiff competition. Switzerland's Didier Defago won the downhill last week in a time of 1:54.31. While taking nothing away from his victory, the fastest time recorded for the Peak to Valley was 4:52.03 by Chris Kent in 2000 under comparatively sunny skies. The course was well over twice as long and contained many times more gates.
And to punctuate what a fun race Peak to Valley is, the slowest time ever recorded was just under half an hour. Did I mention it's been run in the foulest weather and worst visibility the mountain can throw at skiers? With the occasional need to shorten the course, Peak to Valley runs like the legendary U.S. Postal Service - rain, sleet, snow, gloom, blizzard.
Now that's ski racing.
You've probably heard it was an Olympic dream that got Whistler started. True enough. But why Whistler? Let's be honest, more than one naysayer has pointed out Whistler's drawbacks: low elevation and challenging weather. But in 1960, they were the least of the challenges. To them you could add the fact that London Mountain - yup, that's what it used to be called - wasn't even on anybody's radar screen, there was no real road up here from Squamish and not a lick of infrastructure existed to fuel the dream of an Olympic ski hill.
So how, you might ask, did it all come about?
Let's review. Dave Mathews was in Squaw Valley covering the 1960 Olympics for CKNW, a Vancouver radio station. Erwin Swangard, newly appointed Managing Editor of the Vancouver Sun and formerly the sports editor was there too. So was Sidney Dawes, Canada's IOC representative.
Canadian skier Anne Heggtveit took gold in the women's slalom and Dave Mathews had a brainwave. "Swangard," he's reported to have said, according to Sandy Martin (who will be introduced shortly), "we've got to have the Olympics in Canada." Bringing Dawes into the conversation, Mathews worked to convince them both that Garibaldi Provincial Park would be a perfect place to host the Winter Games. Thus was born the idea that culminated in the spectacle we've just lived through.
As was readily apparent even in 1960, the north shore mountains around Vancouver were no place to hold alpine events of Olympic calibre. So the search was on. Vancouver in 1960 was far from a world-class city. While provincial backwater might be a bit harsh, one did not have to travel too far from Vancouver before one encountered Canadian wilderness. The search for an appropriate Olympic mountain was going to be an air search, not a ground search.
Mathews enlisted Glen McPherson, president of Okanagan Helicopters and along with Dawes, began looking for an Olympic-worthy site. Since they needed skis on the ground as well as eyes in the sky, they enlisted Vancouver hotshot skiers Al Menzies, Bill Robinson and the aforementioned Sandy Martin.
Because there was already a lodge - Diamond Head Chalet - in the meadows of the eponymous Diamond Head Mountain in Garibaldi Park, they tried it first. Sandy recalled having skied at Diamond Head previously. "We used to take the Union Steamship up to Squamish and then Jeep up to the chalet. But this time, Glen dropped Al and me off on Diamond Head and we skied down. Al said he was sure glad I was there and I said the same thing to him because, frankly, neither of us knew exactly where we were. But we skied it."
Dawes wasn't convinced though. He had misgivings about Diamond Head, given its proximity to the warming waters of Georgia Strait and its development potential. The decision was made to continue the search further inland and to the north. After consulting topo maps, a foray was made to London Mountain.
It looked promising enough that on March 3, 1960, Martin, Menzies and Robinson were dropped off on the upper slopes of what everyone thought would become the Olympic downhill run. Sandy remembers, "There was a couple of thousand vertical feet between where we were and this gorgeous valley. The snow was, of course, untracked and I'll bet it was waist deep. There weren't any runs, no gladed paths to the bottom, no nothing. But it was a great day to ski so Al led us and we picked our way down to where Whistler Village would eventually be built."
Dawes remembered, "Our helicopter landed (after dropping off the skiers) at the 2,000 foot level, where the Olympic Village would be located. The snow, early in March, was still over six feet deep. The runs down from the top of the mountain would have a 4,000 foot vertical drop and we were satisfied that all events should be held in this one location. The slopes were beautifully timbered so that we should find lots of soil that can be graded and grassed to prevent erosion."
As an aside, there was only one race ever run on Whistler Mountain that ended where the Olympic dreamers planned. In 1982, to showcase the opening of the new Whistler Village - in the spot Dawes had pictured his Olympic Village - organizers rejigged the time-tested downhill course that ran down to Creekside.
Instead of turning left to the Weasel at the bottom of Toilet Bowl, the course veered right, following the newly-cut Tokum down the north side of the mountain to Crabapple and into the village. Austrian racer, Harti Weirather, battling Steve Podborski for the overall World Cup title that year, dismissed the course as too flat and unchallenging after training runs and seemed to lose interest. Pod took the overall title that year though Swiss Peter Mueller won the Whistler race.
But back in 1960, with a good report from the skiers, subsequent evaluations from other outside experts, and the backing of the newly-formed Garibaldi Olympic Development Association - remember, there wasn't so much as a road, let alone a ski lift - an outrageous bid was made for London Mountain to be the site of the 1968 Winter Olympics. The Canadian Olympic Committee, noting the fundamental shortfalls of the nascent site, backed Banff as the Canadian nominee. The Games were awarded to Grenoble, France.
The rest, as they say, is history.
What's In A Name
Whistler isn't called Alta Lake any more. London Mountain is now called Whistler Mountain. Wha' happened?
With all due respect to our British friends and mindful of the fact we live in British Columbia, London Mountain was simply a nonstarter as a name for a ski hill.
On Aug. 27, 1965, six months before Whistler Mountain officially opened for skiing, London Mountain ceased to exist; Whistler Mountain was born. Every book you read and every long-time resident you ask will tell you the same thing. Whistler was named after the high-pitched whistle of the resident hoary marmot living on its slopes who, it must be said, bears a striking resemblance to Quatchi, sans earmuffs and hockey stick, of course. (Note to Bob: If the production guys can find a pic of a marmot standing up, run it next to a pic of Quatchi, uncanny resemblance)
"Everybody always called it Whistler, even back in 1955 when I came here," says local historian and marriage fairy-godmother, Florence Petersen. "Back when Myrtle and Alex (Philip) came up here, according to Myrtle, people were calling it Whistler Mountain. They called it that because the whistling marmots were everywhere. 'Oh, the whistlers are kicking up today,' they'd say."
I believe it. I've written it numerous times. And having collected Whistler stories for almost two decades, I didn't doubt it. But A.R. (Bud) Ryckman has an addendum to the story I'd never heard until last year. Bud and Franz Wilhelmsen, Whistler Mountain's first president, were good friends right up until Franz's death. "Our wives were both ballerinas and they were good friends," he explains. Bud and Franz were both European, both had a background and passion for mining and skiing and were both dragged dutifully to the ballet by their wives.
As Bud tells it, "I came into Franz's office at Creekside one day in the early 1960s. He didn't have much of an office down there but he did have an enormous table full of blueprints and plans and papers scattered everywhere. On this day, he also had a large banner or poster spread out on the table and said, 'Come look at this.' It was a CN Railways advertisement for Whistler Mountain... in Jasper (Alberta)."
"I said, 'So what?' And Franz told me he'd been talking to the CN people and he'd secured the right to rename London Mountain Whistler Mountain. The idea was CN was going to advertise Whistler Mountain all over Europe and in North America." Jasper was one of the vacation destinations served by CN Rail at the time. "Franz thought he could get on the bandwagon and get some free publicity for the new ski hill."
So was Whistler named after the marmot or was it a cunning business move to leverage free publicity for the new resort? Was it a combination of both, an opportunity to take a name in broad usage among the small population and ride the coattails of CN's ad campaign? And why hadn't I ever heard this before?
"I always used to ask Franz how come he never said anything when someone said Whistler was named after the marmots," explained Bud. "He'd just smile and hold his finger to his lips as if to say, 'Sssh, it's our secret.' But that's what I know about how Whistler came to be called that."
CN's archives now live in Library and Archives Canada. Included among them are "thousands" of advertising posters, banners and leaflets, according to an archivist. Somewhere among them may well be that ad memorabilia Bud claims spawned Franz's idea to change the mountain's name to Whistler. At my request, they're searching for it.
Whistler Mountain in Jasper is now Whistlers Mountain and is a tourist favourite owing to the aerial tram that goes to its peak.
And Bud? He's lively as ever and sticking to his story. Time will tell whether the story of Whistler being named after the marmots needs an addendum.
Welcome To Seventh Heaven
There are those who mourn the innocence of skiing's early days, times when rugged ex-GIs from the 10 th U.S. Mountain Division mustered out of the service and spread across the mountains of North America to build local ski hills that grew into major ski resorts. They inevitably were started on a shoestring budget, a wild-eyed dream and an old Ford tractor engine providing the motive power for a primitive rope tow.
Ski areas now are sterile, corporate environments by comparison. Fearful of liability and trapped in economic and social forces that demand high-speed, multi-million dollar lifts, opening new terrain is no game for the faint hearted.
The story of Blackcomb's 7 th Heaven bridges those two worlds. Entrepreneurial doesn't begin to capture the nuances of how the south-facing slope got started. Felonious is, perhaps, a bit overstating. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Opening Seventh Heaven was not Hugh Smythe's idea. "Peter Xhignesse came up with it," Hugh happily recalls.
In 1984, Whistler Mountain opened the Village Gondola. It took the wind out of Blackcomb's growth. Skier visits dropped off and 50 per cent owner, Aspen Ski Corp - yes, that Aspen - was growing weary of its Canadian outpost.
That's when Peter approached Hugh with the idea of opening up Seventh Heaven, not called that at the time. As the mountain's weatherman and avalanche forecaster, Peter was familiar with the area and fascinated by the expansive, intermediate slope. He was convinced it was not only good skiable terrain but an entree into the real alpine the mountain had to offer: Horstman Glacier and beyond.
In 1984/85 he convinced Rich Morton, vice president of Operations, to hike out and look at it with him. Shortly thereafter, he brought the idea of developing it to Hugh, Blackcomb's president. "Why would we build a lift on the south-facing slope, the windward side no less, of the mountain?" Hugh asked. Intuitively, it didn't make sense. And besides, Aspen was completely not interested in spending a dollar on capital improvements.
Hugh was intrigued though. Pushing a lift to the ridge would give Blackcomb 5,280 feet of vertical, a whole mile and immeasurable bragging rights. It would be a marketer's, not to mention a skier's, dream.
Hugh and Aspen were still involved in Fortress Mountain, the Alberta ski hill that had brought them together. By 1985, Fortress' numbers had dropped off significantly. Hugh remembered a T-bar he'd installed on Fortress and, thinking he'd get approval from Aspen, sent Rich over with a team to take it down and bring it back. "We didn't want anyone to know we were moving stuff off Crown land in Alberta, so we got the lift down and out in a day and a half. It just disappeared. Sort of like one of those undercover stories," he explained.
But putting it in wasn't so easy. "We had the coldest, toughest fall ever. It went to -20 degrees in October." To make matters worse, Aspen's approval proved illusory. They refused to fund the undertaking, estimated to cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars.
"I told them I was going to sell enough incremental season passes to pay for the lift," Hugh said. With an advertising campaign promising the highest vertical drop in North America, the Mile High Mountain, enough new passes were sold - $380 early bird rate, $480 thereafter - to fund the lift's installation.
"It was hare-brained. It was crazy. Doing it was crazy. Where we put it was crazy. Trying to keep the track was almost impossible. It was icy; wind was blowing; we had a rope down the side, rocks on both sides, if you fell near the top, you bounced into the rocks. But to go over the top and down off the saddle and ski Horstman Glacier, that was the turning point. It opened up the mountain."
But it needed a name. Being the seventh lift on Blackcomb, where other lifts were ingeniously named Lift 1, Lift 2, etc., it was destined to be named Lift 7. "That's when it struck me," Hugh recalls. "I'm 16 years old, riding up a double chair in a wet, wet snowstorm. Heavy big flakes are coming down like crazy at Steven's Pass in Washington. It's just puking. I'm bundled up, slouched down and miserable. I get to the top and the window opens to the operator's hut. A fellow, I can still see his face, full beard, twinkling eyes, sticks his head out and says, in a deep voice, 'Welcome to 7 th Heaven.' I hadn't thought of it since then, but this was our seventh lift and out of my head pops Seventh Heaven."
Aside from newly-opened bragging rights, Blackcomb ended up selling enough T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "Go to Heaven; Ski Like Hell," to practically fund the next lift they put in. To this day, they're still a best seller and every sunny day, the lineup at the bottom of Seventh Heaven - now a quad, of course - attests to the power of crazy ideas.
If you've lasted this far, you know more about Whistler than when you started. If you come back again, I'll tell you some more stories you maybe haven't heard.
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