Building a Mountain - Part I
Vision, politics, Star Wars and Hugh Smythe were behind the development of Blackcomb
By G.D. Maxwell
Imagine Lewis without Clark, Marquette without Jolliet, Rye without Ginger, Wayne without Schuster, Bonnie without Clyde, Toast without Jam, Sonny without Cher. Okay, forget about that last one. The point, if there is one, is that truly great couplings are magic; once joined, they’re hard to imagine as solo acts existing in an unpaired universe.
Imagine Whistler without Blackcomb.
For almost 15 years that was the reality: one mountain, one access, not much in the way of a town. The daisy chain of events that led to the development of Blackcomb Mountain was a complex mix of vision, political arm twisting, financial wizardry, cussed determination and pure, blind luck. There were dozens of points along the journey where everything could have come off the rails and wound up in a flaming heap of ruined careers and lost fortunes. I imagine if it had, very few of us would be here today. I imagine Whistler would look a lot more like Rossland or Revelstoke than the vibrant mountain resort its supporters see today.
If you had to point to one person who had the imagination and passion to foresee the development of Blackcomb in those 15 years Whistler did its solo act, many people think that person is Al Raine. While it certainly wasn’t Al alone, it was principally Al who envisioned a village rising where the garbage dump sat, nestled between two grand mountains, and it was Al who saw the potential of Blackcomb as a ski mountain and the synergistic combination Whistler and Blackcomb might create. It was Al, in his role as provincial co-ordinator of ski development, who sold the NDP government on the idea, and Al who kept the flame burning when the Socreds took power before it became reality. Al’s burning passion in life — still evidenced by his bulldog fight for Cayoosh — has been to take a mountain and build a ski hill.
But it was Hugh Smythe who built Blackcomb.
In the beginning.…
With a year’s worth of volly ski patrol experience at Mt. Baker under his teenage belt, Hugh wandered up to Whistler the first year the mountain was opened, 1966. It was spring break and he volunteered his services, loading lifts and herding people onto T-bars. The mountain was magic and the magic was strong, and the next season Hugh was back volunteering for ski patrol in exchange for room and board, before becoming a full-time pro patroller a year later.
It was, for a young man, about as close to heaven as a job can get. "I was flying around in helicopters, dropping bombs, chasing women, and skiing every day," he remembered. It was a seductive lifestyle and, judging by the number of people working today at Whistler Mountain and celebrating 25 and 30 years of service there, one many have found impossible to leave behind.
But somewhere under the ski bum, unknown probably even to himself, burned an ambitious man. One who wanted to understand everything there was to know about mountain operations, one who saw a ski resort as an enterprise involving many more facets than just "uphill people transportation," one, as guys working with him at the time remembered, who worked hard, partied hard, then disappeared to study business or something during the summer.
Hugh Smythe, if you asked him about it, would have you believe most of what happened next was luck but in the fall of 1974, at the ripe old age of 26, an opportunity arose to manage Fortress Mountain, outside of Calgary. Owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (universally known as Fubdub in the financial community) since it sank into bankruptcy in 1971, Fortress had sat abandoned and neglected for three years. FBDB was looking for an operator, so with Dave Matthews and his wife, Hugh formed Hughmatt Management Consultants Limited and won the operating contract for Fortress.
"We arrived in September and had 40 to 60 days to rebuild operations and have them running by early December. The lifts had been shut down and cables and chairs were lying on the ground, rusting. The lodge people had gotten in and damaged it; some of the rooms were gutted. The place was a shambles," Hugh recalled.
Long hours and imaginative shortcuts opened the mountain in time for the ski season and Hugh began to really learn the ins and outs of not just mountain operations, but lodging, food and beverage, ski school and rental. But Fubdub threw another task into the mix; they also wanted him to get the place sold. They weren’t in the business of long term ownership and certainly weren’t in the ski business. "I told them Aspen was the largest player at that time in the ski business and they said, ‘Why don’t you contact them and see if they’re interested?’"
As luck — there’s that word — would have it, D’Arcy Brown, president of Aspen Ski Company, wasn’t really all that interested in "some pimple-ass mountain in Alberta", but he was interested in showing the people who ran Pitkin County, Colorado, that he was a force to be reckoned with. A Navy PT boat commander during the Second World War, D’Arcy was by this time the granddaddy of the ski industry, having successfully run Aspen since returning to civilian life. Approvals for projects and expansions proposed by Aspen for Snowmass and Breckenridge were running into a wall of opposition and foot-dragging at the time and D’Arcy was getting more than a little impatient. What better way to get the full attention of the county commissioners than to ship a couple of million bucks out from under their noses to a place where they wouldn’t derive any benefit?
That’s how Aspen Ski Company came to own 50 per cent of Fortress Mountain and become Hugh Smythe’s new boss. And the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Hugh. "I leave one uphill transportation company (Whistler), run a place for a year the way I think it should be run, then find myself back working for another uphill transportation company because Aspen wasn’t interested in the whole picture either. They preferred to contract out things like food and beverage and other non-core activities." But physical isolation has its benefits as well as drawbacks and Aspen pretty much left the running of Fortress to Hugh, their man in Canada.
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.…
Meanwhile, back in Whistler, things were starting to happen. The provincial government was in the final stages of preparing to call for bids for the development of Blackcomb Mountain. Hugh got a call from Paul Mathews — owner of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners and a close friend — who convinced him it was all going to happen pretty quickly and that the two of them and some financial partners should put in a bid. The thought of starting from scratch and being able to operate a mountain the way he thought it should be operated was too enticing to pass up.
Hugh and Paul formed Blackcomb Ski Corporation. "I’d tried to get Aspen interested in Blackcomb as early as 1976," Paul said. "I’d started to plan the mountain with Hugh and Jerry Blann (from Aspen) and thought they were interested in coming in, but at the 11th hour, D’Arcy Brown said Aspen had decided not to participate and told me I was free to pursue my own financing."
With the possibility of Aspen backing out of the picture, Paul and Hugh cast their nets for a financial partner and caught Allan Graham. Al Graham was a multimillionaire who owned the Cascade development and insurance group out of Calgary. He’d caught the ski bug and had taken a look at buying Fortress earlier but couldn’t make sense of it. He brought Cascade into the picture as an ambitious developer with a keen interest in the potential real estate gold mine Whistler Village and Blackcomb represented.
Ironically, Cascade — who had taken a run at buying Lake Louise — had also recently been victorious in a battle to purchase Panorama in Invermere, B.C. They had come in at the last moment and poured "a bunch of money into the deal" to snatch the mountain away from the other parties interested in developing it: Al and Nancy Raine.
So the Blackcomb Ski Corp. team was more or less complete. Hugh represented strong operating experience; Paul more than knew his way around the design and development of mountain resorts; Cascade had deep pockets. The other players, president Ken Farquharson, an engineer and environmentalist; Lloyd Muir, a developer from Prince George and VP of the Canadian Ski Alliance; Bob Wyman of Pemberton Securities, Lorne O’Connor, and Bill Janss, who owned Sun Valley, eventually rounded out the "all-Canadian" company.
But Al Raine, for whatever reasons — their name, their operating experience, their cachet —wanted Aspen to take another look at Blackcomb. He convinced them to reconsider the potential the mountain and the resort had to offer.
"At this point," Hugh recalls, "I have one foot over here in this camp (Blackcomb Ski Corp.) and the company I work for (Aspen) gets intrigued and asks me what I think about the potential for Blackcomb Mountain. I told them it was a really neat opportunity and we should look at it."
This obviously set up what Hugh referred to as a career decision point. On the one hand, sticking with Blackcomb Ski Corp. was an opportunity to come back to Whistler and do things his way with Paul, a friend he valued. On the other was a chance to run with the wolves, to maybe be involved with a start-up mountain backstopped by the hottest ski company in the business.
In the final analysis, he chose to cast his lot with Aspen, which chose to make its bid through Fortress Mountain. After meeting with provincial cabinet ministers, Aspen had been "convinced" the province wanted strong Canadian involvement, or at least the illusion thereof. With FBDB’s involvement and operations ostensibly spearheaded from Alberta, it only made sense to set Fortress up as the bidder. As it turned out, Fortress — a half Canadian, half US company controlled from Colorado — was one of only two bidders for development rights on Blackcomb Mountain. Blackcomb Ski Corp. — a B.C. company owned and bankrolled by a Calgary conglomerate — was the other.
The two bids, finally submitted in the waning weeks of the summer of 1978, were remarkably similar. Both foresaw about the same number of triple chairs, same base area, same skiable acreage and the importance of a primary lift coming out of the to-be-built Whistler Village. Both anticipated a multi-phase buildout running perhaps a decade. Both had ideas about how the adjoining real estate would be developed, but had competing philosophies on how it should be developed.
Aspen had agreed, in principle, they wouldn’t develop any of the benchlands real estate until the village was built out, or at least not for a number of years should development in the village be protracted. They eventually planned to develop the benchlands not as the primary base of the mountain but as single-family homes: cold beds with roads winding throughout, a Colorado model.
Blackcomb had a different idea. "Cascade met with council," Paul Mathews recollected. "Cascade wanted to ensure beds were built in the village. They demanded guarantees that a certain number of units would be built every year and if they didn’t get built, Cascade wanted to build however many didn’t get built and figure out the land price after the fact. They thought this would be attractive to council because it would ensure the bed units got built, but others on council saw it as a power play and a threat to take over the village."
By the middle of September, it was all in the hands of the province. The provincial government had hired management consultants, Woods Gordon, to work up an independent financial management report assessing the two proposals. The ministries of Environment, Economic Development, Municipal Affairs and Tourism all got a kick at the cat, as did Al Raine in his role as provincial co-ordinator of ski development.
Meanwhile, Hugh and Paul had agreed preliminary work on Blackcomb couldn’t wait for the outcome. "We needed a road to the top of the mountain so we could do snow studies the next winter. Paul and I had agreed to split the costs of hiring Seppo to cut a road up, with the bid winner agreeing to reimburse whoever didn’t win."
Paul got his money back.
On October 12, 1978, the Thursday after Canadian Thanksgiving, Hugh got the phone call in Calgary: the Fortress bid was the winner. He had a mountain to build. The decision was unanimous. All the ministries, Woods Gordon, everyone had preferred the Fortress proposal.
The battle for development rights had been dubbed "Ski Wars" by Jes Odam in a front page story of the Vancouver Sun, a reference to the seemingly endless pits of money 20th Century Fox, Aspen Ski Company’s parent, had made off the movie Star Wars since it had come out 15 months earlier. Environment Minister Jim Nielsen was dubbed "Victoria’s answer to Luke Skywalker" and Allan Graham, Darth Vader, battling the forces of a federal Crown corporation and a US resort operator.
Ken Farquharson, president of Blackcomb Ski Corp., said he questioned the decision. He felt it went contrary to the province’s stated preference for private capital as opposed to Crown involvement.
Al Raine said it came down to a matter of choosing between a competent resort operator and a local group of people who had never put together an operating ski resort. He said the municipality of Whistler objected to some of Blackcomb’s proposals regarding the control and development of real estate.
Paul Mathews said he was disappointed but turned his attention to building Ecosign into one of the biggest mountain resort consultants in the world, perhaps foreseeing the flood of business his friend and former partner might send his way.
And Hugh Smythe said, "Let’s get to work."
What the f..k am I going to do now.…
Imagine a mountain: trees, rocks, streams, elevation gain, cliffs, more trees. Imagine turning the mountain into a ski area. Ski runs to lay out and cut, lifts to plan and install, restaurants to build, menus to plan, people to hire, a million and one decisions to turn a forest into a playground.
"Operations is one thing," Hugh said. "But going in and developing an evergreen project, cutting trails, hiring contractors and logging companies are all big decisions. We had to be on time and on budget to open for 1980 and it was scary stuff."
Fortress, though still under Hugh’s bailiwick, was left to a manager to run while Hugh took up residence in White Gold, across from Al and Nancy. "I had a fuel tank in the front yard and a Tucker snowcat leftover from the Early Winters project in Winthrop Valley parked out front. The laundry room was converted to an office and we’d ride up the mountain every day, across the bridge, through the parking lot and onto the right of way Seppo cut. We never got the trees off but we limbed them and when the snow got deep enough to blade, plowed it and used the Tucker from then on."
Pretty much every day was spent skiing through the trees trying to get a "feel" for the mountain. Walking it in summer ended up providing more insight into where to eventually cut runs. "I spent more time lost in the summer than in the winter, learning how to read maps, using a compass and looking over to Sproat to figure out where I was." Despite the apocryphal stories about Blackcomb being computer designed, the work was done long before CAD-CAM technology was available. Slope analysis maps were drawn by hand, colour-coded and runs were roughed in on paper.
Logging contractors were hired, some ill-fated heli-logging was performed and soon, runs began to take shape on the lower flanks of the mountain. Much as they look today, they looked different from the runs on Whistler. Virtually all of the early runs were in the fall-line. It made for excellent cruising but it lacked variety and it lacked scope.
"Starting from scratch, we were able to design and build something that worked," Hugh said. "You could ski from one lift to the other and slide right in. The intermediate cruising was splendid. Aspen was adamant that this is what people were going to appreciate. Well, they may appreciate it but variety still outweighs good design and until we were able to get the variety, we were always going to be the underdog."
But variety would have to wait. In 1979 and the first 10 months of 1980, two dozen ski runs were cut, opening some 350 acres to skiers. A base lodge at 2,500 feet, at the end of a steep, twisting mountain road was completed. Four triple chairs — one from the village under construction and three higher up — were planted on the mountain. A second restaurant at 6,200 feet was built. Food preparation and service was contracted out to the Parsons family, who had been keeping visitors to the PNE well fed since 1929.
Key people were hired. A ski school was established. Six-hundred pairs of skis were secured for rentals. And everyone was trained to manage the skier’s total experience. Had Blackcomb been anywhere but across Fitzsimmons Creek from Whistler Mountain, what they were about to open with would have been sufficient, even superb. But with Whistler’s high alpine bowls, two downhill aspects and 15 years head start, it was going to be a challenge just to put in a good number two showing.
"It was always fun being number two," Hugh explained in retrospect. "It was a challenge to figure out how we would compete. How we could do better marketing. How we could do better customer service. We were going to be a customer service organization from day one and that’s what we felt our point of differentiation was: good food, good service, good experience."
Now all they needed to add to the mix was snow and skiers.
Next week: Building a Mountain - Part II: If you build it, will they come?