Thirty-six years ago a heavy-duty mechanic and volunteer ski patroller took a future ski industry executive under his wing, taught him to ski and turned him on to mountains forever.
The ski patroller was Ralph Latham, who volunteered at Mount Baker. At the time, Baker was where serious Lower Mainland skiers spent their weekends, the North Shore mountains being too crowded.
The future ski industry executive was 16-year-old Hugh Smythe, now the president of Resort Operations for Intrawest.
Latham, who passed away last month at the age of 84, was an early Whistler enthusiast, switching from the Mount Baker patrol to the Whistler Mountain volunteer patrol when the mountain opened during the 1965-66 winter. Smythe followed Latham to Whistler.
"As soon as there was word Whistler was about to come alive he got in his four-wheel drive and drove to Whistler," said Jackie Eccles, Latham’s partner of 20 years. "He fell in love with Whistler before it opened for skiing."
Latham, along with Whistler residents Smythe, Paul Burrows and Harvey Fellowes were some of the original members of the Whistler volunteer patrol, at a time when there was no medical clinic in the valley and evacuating an injured person to hospital meant a treacherous three or four hour drive to North Vancouver.
It was a love of the outdoors, the mountains and the camaraderie that went with those experiences that fuelled Latham’s enthusiasm for the volunteer patrol. He was over 50 when he joined the Whistler patrol for the mountain’s inaugural season and he remained a volunteer patroller until the late 1970s. He not only served on the mountain but helped build the patrol cabin in the summer of 1966.
"Being on the volunteer patrol in those days was a big deal," Smythe said last week. "Ralph knew everyone. He was always at the centre of the party, a great story teller — definitely not reserved."
"He kept all the records of the ski patrol and he kept the beer flowing," said Eccles.
"He skied funny," she added. "He was bow-legged and he had a strange style which worked for him but nobody else seemed to be able to do it."
Latham, who was born in New Westminster, worked as a logger, a shipyard worker and served in the army reserve before joining BC Hydro, where he spent 26 years as a heavy duty mechanic, working on the city buses Hydro used to operate.
In 1991 Latham had a stroke but he continued to keep track of goings-on in Whistler through newspapers. Four years ago Smythe invited Latham back to Whistler to have lunch on the top of Blackcomb.
"That’s his hill," Eccles says resolutely.
"He wasn’t someone who lived here, but he put a lot of energy into Whistler," Smythe said.
Latham died Aug. 21. A memorial service will be held Sunday, Sept. 26, from 2 to 4 p.m., at Douglas Park Community Centre, 801 West 22nd in Vancouver.