My father just turned 80 this summer. Outdoorsman, Olympian and ski resort visionary, Gaby (as his friends call him) doesn’t get out on the slopes much anymore. A couple of heart attacks and a stroke have taken much of the remaining spring out of his legs. Nevertheless, he still loves to trundle around the cross-country trails in the hills above his home in Vernon. “I never imagined a time when I wouldn’t be able to ski anymore,” he admitted to me recently. “But at least I can still strap on my Nordic gear and slide on snow some…”
As his friends and family gathered together a few weeks ago to celebrate his many accomplishments, it struck me once again just how young the sport of skiing really is. Indeed — it was my father’s generation that really set the thing in motion. Literally! To listen to Gaby and his pals wax lyrical about the old days is to participate in a history lesson on Canadian skiing.
Imagine being part of a group of teenagers involved in building the first ever rope tow at Ottawa’s Camp Fortune with a friend’s Model T engine as your power source — and then ski touring halfway back to town before boarding the city trolley bus that took you the rest of the way home. “It was a full day’s journey, that’s for sure,” my father tells me with a smile. “But we were a tight bunch of guys back in those days. It was pretty much a party from the time we left town to the moment we got home.”
Or how about spending a week travelling across the country by train with a group of army teammates to compete at the 1948 North American Skiing Championships at Mount Norquay — and carting along a full array of jumping skis, cross-country skis and downhill skis (because, as Gaby explains, a real skier did it all in those days). “Ski jumping was still the glamour sport back then,” he tells me. “That’s what turned on the spectators (and the ladies!). But downhill skiing was definitely catching on fast…”
To hear Gaby and his cohorts recount these stories is to enter a world where skiing was more than just a sport. It was an adventure, a lifestyle — a full-on celebration of winter fun. “It was never about how many runs you could get in your day,” he says. “It was about how much pleasure you got from being outdoors while everybody else was inside moaning about the weather.”
My father fell in love with Whistler on a trip to the West Coast in 1967. It was late spring and Sea to Sky country was at its seasonal best. From flowering cherry trees in Vancouver, to working tugboats in Howe Sound, to the towering white-clad slopes of Diamondhead, Gaby was already smitten with the Coast Mountains even before he’d arrived at the fledgling resort. But a week of high-mountain powder skiing easily confirmed what he’d heard back east. This was the real thing. Whistler represented a future for Canadian skiing — and outdoor recreation — that nobody, until then, had really envisioned. No matter that there wasn’t much here yet in terms of infrastructure. No matter that Whistler’s marketing budget was tiny. This was mountain resort development on a grand scale. Something that could eventually compete with the Alps — but still remain distinctly Canadian.
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