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Jayson Faulkner: One person’s Whistler story

It's late September and a bright, sunny day in Whistler. I've arranged to meet with Jayson Faulkner at his store, Escape Route, in MarketPlace.

It's late September and a bright, sunny day in Whistler. I've arranged to meet with Jayson Faulkner at his store, Escape Route, in MarketPlace. When I walk in, I notice how much the store has expanded; once a tiny, cramped space with an old Whistler Guide's Bureau desk in the very back, around which groups of excited guests would squeeze while they waited for their guide's instructions and collected their backcountry gear, it's now a spacious split-level store with lots of room for merchandise.

Jayson is late - a mix up at the printers - so I wander over to the bookshelf and pick up a peculiar title: Strange and Dangerous Dreams: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Madness , by Geoff Powter, a collection of short stories that explore the driving force behind extreme adventure. As I'm reading it, I notice a loud creaking sound, the screech of metal on metal and I look out the window and discover the culprit. An aged, ungreased, yellow bulldozer is creeping across Lot 1/9, preparing the foundations for Celebration Plaza. Jayson walks in and invites me to his office, and I reminisce about the forest that once stood on the lot.

"It seems a shame to be losing it," I say.

Jayson is diplomatic about it. "The area was always intended to house a public space," he says.

Okay, I think, and mentally pull up my socks before asking the first question.

 

Inspired by surroundings

When people speak of Whistler's past and present, they tend to simplify what it is about this place that they are drawn to. Books like Geoff Powter's glorify the excitement of extreme sport and more straightforward histories tirelessly return to two central themes: Whistler's closeness to the expansive and awe-inspiring beauty of the surrounding mountains, and the problem of how to turn one's passion for wilderness into a profession. How to make a living doing what you love.

The founding and development of Whistler as a World Class Resort is the result of the relentless efforts of a handful of people who, believing in the concept, pushed it through to partial realization. The generation who inherited the dream want to defend against over-simplifying the process. It is difficult for the many tourists, seasonal residents and members of the younger generation to imagine what Whistler was like before it became the finely-

nestled labyrinth of stores and hotel rooms it is today. A time before alpine quads and avalanche control. The transition wasn't easy and it's not surprising that the people who negotiated through the early conflicts and hurdles resent the assumption that turning Whistler into today's seasonal community was a piece of cake and that it was accomplished at the expense of the natural environment.

There is no doubt that Whistler's core community understands the awesome power of nature. They also understand risk taking and living unconventional lifestyles. However, to look at Whistler's history through this somewhat simplistic lens is to ignore the nuances of its social history. After all, the community made the conscious decision to become the Resort Municipality of Whistler, Hugh Smythe initiated the sale of Blackcomb to Intrawest and the village was built in such a way as to support, above all, commerce. Whistler's history cannot be said to be a byproduct of mountain culture alone; there was a whole set of well-orchestrated objectives.

The founding Mothers and Fathers of the Whistler Blackcomb project, Franz Wilhelmsen, Jim McConkey, Nancy Greene, Al Raine, Pat Carleton and Hugh Smythe, among others, served in many ways to influence the generation that followed. As Michel Beaudry recalls in his book, Whistler: Against All Odds , Jim McConkey was the King of the Mountain. Today, however, it is the generation who came up here in the '70s who make up the stable component of Whistler's community. They are the people who own the businesses, sit on the councils and boards, and run the mountains. Perhaps more importantly, they are the individuals who care most about what happens in the community, aiming to set in place an infrastructure that ranges from conservation and environmental initiatives, to writers groups, film festivals and art shows. They continue the task of negotiating the delicate relationship between Whistler's heavy reliance on tourism and meeting objectives dedicated specifically to its community members. It's the creation of a balanced and dynamic environment that will, with time, naturally turn into history.

 

Caretaker of history

Since its inception in 1986, it has been The Whistler Museum and Archives' mandate to protect and support initiatives that preserve Whistler's history. Originally founded by Florence Petersen, the museum grew out of a promise she had made to Myrtle Philip and Dick Fairhurst. As two of the earliest non-Native settlers of the area, Myrtle and Dick were afraid that the history of the pioneer days along Alta Lake would be lost. Since 1986, the museum has expanded its mandate to encompass mountain as well as lake-side life.

The museum is dedicated to telling Whistler's history through the characters responsible for making it. This approach is evident in such projects as Community Now, The Walking Tours and Icon Gone. And it is becoming more apparent in its new Olympic exhibition, entitled Whistler's Journey to 2010.

"The Whistler Museum strives to tell Whistler's collective history through individual voice," says former museum programmer Jehanne Burns. "One of the roles of the museum," she continues, "is to facilitate story telling so that the individuals within the community have the opportunity to share their personal stories." She hopes this will encourage people to continue to contribute to the dynamic and sometimes contested histories of Whistler's past, at the same time creating a richer and more diverse set of histories.

When it comes to history, Whistler is in an interesting place. After all, the ski resort project was started just 43 years ago and many of the people who witnessed its beginnings are still here to tell the stories. Further, Whistler is at a notable point in its young lifetime. The dust from the large boom of the '90s is just beginning to settle and plans for a viable and healthy community future are being put into place. And perhaps most notably, Whistler is about to co-host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, two events that will be enscribed into a larger collective memory, namely the memory of an international community. It is in the combination of these circumstances that the task of collecting living histories becomes an intriguing endeavor.

 

One person's Whistler story

The purpose of my project at the museum is to give one person's account of the Whistler story. The idea behind it is that this person's contribution to the changing landscape of Whistler's present will land him a spot on the wall in the museum at some future date.

A self-described Jack of many trades, master of none, Jayson Faulkner has been stomping the grounds around Whistler since 1977. He opened his outdoor store, Escape Route, 20 years ago, but his professional career has had a number of twists. As a teenager growing up in West Vancouver, Faulkner worked at the Village Ski Shop, which he describes as "a super dynamic, gear oriented enterprise with a keen focus on customer service and a strong customer loyalty."

Following his completion of a Bachelor's in Business Administration, he landed the marketing director's position at Grouse Mountain, but his dream job was to work in marketing for Whistler Mountain. By his early 20s, he became interested in resort development and directed his focus to a Ski Area Management Diploma at Humber College in Toronto. And then Faulkner's dream job came up: Lorne Borgal and Mike Hurst hired him to work for Whistler Mountain.

At that point, newly married, happily settled on a career path and sharing an office with Dave Murray, Faulkner thought the world couldn't get any rosier. But in those days, Whistler was small and had little infrastructure, and Jayson's wife wanted the opportunity to finish her own degree in business. After doing consulting for the Whistler Resort Association as Summer Product Manager, Faulkner once again approached Whistler Mountain, this time pitching a business idea he hoped would take him to the best ski resorts in Europe.

The proposal was to do an overview of resort operations similar to Whistler's, compute the information into a report, and submit the report to Whistler Mountain and the Whistler Resort Association. That same year, Rocky Mountain Bikes was looking to launch in Europe, and Faulkner convinced the company founder he needed a report on export possibilities as well. With a couple of mountain bikes and a letter of introduction from Whistler Mountain Faulkner and his wife set off.

In retrospect, Faulkner remarks, "nobody in Europe had any idea about mountain bikes. They had never seen the equipment. Where ever we pulled them out, the bikes became a focus of curiosity." And the letter of introduction got them free skiing at most of Europe's World Class resorts.

Following the trip, Faulkner was offered a position with Rocky Mountain, but having completed his financial broker's ticket and low on funds from an extended trip, he was keen on getting into trading on the stock market. Faulkner suggested Rocky Mountain hire his wife, a move that eventually led to a division in their marriage. Negotiating a divorce and weathering the stock market crash of 1988, Faulkner took a position with Dr. Steven Funk, a merchant banker set on expanding in Europe.

He signed a one-year contract to work in the financial district of London, an environment he describes as a "stuffy class system riddled with old English money." But it was an experience he remembers fondly. The year passed and the contract was up, and Faulkner had to make the decision to commit to another three or four years. Confused and seeking options, he was looking at completing his MBA in Europe or committing to being in a suit and tie in London. In the end, he took advice he had read in a book: One should live close to the things that make him/her happiest.

Dedicated to climbing and the outdoor life, Faulkner decided to head home.  He knew Whistler lacked an outdoor gear shop and so the next step was to take his savings, get his friend Tom Duguid on board and found the Escape Route.

 

Escape Route

When the store opened in the spring of 1990 Whistler was quite different from what it is now. The village consisted of little more than the old town centre, and most retailers were Mom & Pop shops. Faulkner remembers a total of 3,500 year-round residents. The business objective he and Duguid shared was to supply locals with more than just quality gear. "We wanted to develop a real specialty store dedicated to outdoor culture," he remarks. The hope was that Escape Route would attract a real community of mountain people and, over time, develop some heritage. Faulkner's ambition had been inspired by a number of outdoor stores he had visited in his travels through Europe. Some stores had been around for more than a century; many of them owned by one family for a number of generations. This was the environment he wanted to emulate.

The success of Faulkner's approach is evidenced in the number of community projects Escape Route now sponsors. When I met with him he was in the process of organizing the Rubble Creek Run, a 26-kilometre race along the Helm Creek Trail. The race was founded by Vancouverite David Wong and had for years been an illegal run through Garibaldi Provincial Park. When Escape Route became its main organizer eight years ago, they approached B.C. Parks to formalize the race. Today, to the liking of both B.C. Parks and Escape Route, the race remains a low-key event with a few volunteers along the way.

Escape Route is also instrumental in organizing the Spearhead Passage Out of Bounds Race and the Best of the Banff Film Festival. It takes part in the annual climbing route cleanup at Nordic Bluffs and is a sponsor of the Squamish Youth Triathlon. Further, Escape Route fundraises for Keith's Hut (a backcountry hut off the Duffey Lake Road), is responsible for the founding and fundraising of the Alpine Club of Canada Whistler section, and initiated the building of the Wendy Thompson Hut.

 

Turning passions into careers

It could be argued that Faulkner is very good at turning his passion for rock climbing, mountaineering, skiing, ice climbing, mountain biking, adventure riding and paragliding (...the list goes on) into his living. It's also true that these are the kind of people Whistler is made of. However, the path of turning one's passion into a business isn't always an easy one and is an act that requires certain negotiating skills. Escape Route's clientele ranges from the extremely experienced, to those who visit every few years, to individuals who have never seen an outdoor store or a mountain slope. As a small shop, Escape Route offers a limited selection of merchandise and must keep its prices comparable to those of larger outdoor shops like Mountain Equipment Co-operative (MEC).

According to Faulkner, Canada's outdoor store industry is dominated by MEC, with three other small chains - Coast Mountain Sports, Atmosphere (in Quebec) and Valhalla Pure. There are approximately 60 other privately owned stores around the country. Faulkner says that MEC's status as a non-profit, non-taxpaying co-operative makes for an unequal playing field. "It was OK when they were a small company of $5-10 million, but now that they are a $300-million company, they crush and kill smaller competitors."

Founded in the 1970s through a Farming Co-operative loophole, MEC was established by a group of people intent on importing outdoor gear for themselves and their friends. As a co-operative set up, its members pay into the product cost pool and any annual profit is reimbursed at the end of each year. However, MEC is able to reimburse dividends at the time of purchase, driving merchandise costs down. As a consequence, MEC has the world's lowest prices and to compete, other outdoor merchants have to match or beat these prices. As Faulkner explains, for some products the wholesale cost for Escape Route is higher than MEC's retail price. In effect, Faulkner jokes, "With some products it is more economically beneficial for us to give our customer five bucks then sell them the gear and lose 10."

What's more, Faulkner argues, if this were any other industry in Canada the rules would have been modified, marking MEC as unreasonable competition. "MEC can accumulate working capital at over twice the rate of any other business because it doesn't pay any income tax on profit," Faulkner says. "And they make a lot of profit!"

Faced with such difficulties, what is it that keeps Escape Route successful and Faulkner dedicated to selling gear? One answer is Faulkner's belief that the current value system in mainstream society, which posits worth as determined by what one owns or doesn't own, is fundamentally misguided. Another explanation is Faulkner's conviction that the effect of the outdoors on an individual's emotional and spiritual perspectives is psychologically beneficial. This is an opinion he supports by pointing to the large literary component to climbing culture and the journeys practitioners of spiritual theology - monks and yogis - make into the mountains. Faulkner believes that "experiencing an epiphany in the mountains, allows people a clearer understanding of their role in the bigger picture." And further, that "one of the major issues of cities is that they isolate people from experiencing the natural world."

This can also be said to be the underlying philosophy of Whistler.

 

Environmental perspective

Escape Route has never marketed itself as an "eco-friendly" enterprise. Faulkner admits that most of the material used to make outdoor gear is non-renewable. As the vice president of Sales and Marketing for Arc'teryx from 1995 to 2002, Faulkner developed another angle to environmental sustainability: making and using products that last, thereby creating less waste. "We do carry organic cotton merchandise and are mindful of greener practices," he says, "but our objective on this subject is to be honest about our limitations and not greenwash our business strategies." Escape Route shares this perspective with companies like Arc'teryx and Patagonia. "There is an assortment of companies out there that claim to be 'green,' but in all honesty their practices don't hold any weight."

It is one of today's critical dilemmas that, all too often, business objectives run counter to environmental stewardship. However, it is also the case that over the last couple of decades the conservation movement has been strengthened by including various disciplines in the discourse, including law, business and politics. Such was the case of Yukon's Tatshenshini River conservation campaign in 1994.

Faulkner joined that campaign at the urging of two good friends. One was in conservation, the other ran a rafting company on the river. Faulkner was asked to participate because of his background as a broker and his experience with investment firms.

The campaign set out to preserve an area of nearly 90,000 square kilometres flanked by Kluane National Park in the north and Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay National Parks in the west. The region, rich with copper and gold deposits, was of particular interest to Geddes Resources Limited, a mining company intent on developing an open pit mine in the high alpine.

"In essence," Faulkner recalls, "Geddes Resources wanted to take the top off a mountain, causing harm not only to the highly sensitive alpine ecosystem but also disturbing the water quality of the river through sulfuric acid leaching. This would have threatened the salmon fishery downstream, the grizzly and black bear populations and all other wildlife in the region."

The conservation group formed a strong international coalition that lobbied for preservation of the area for more than two years. "After numerous negotiations with the Geddes Resources," Faulkner continues, "it became apparent that convincing the company on the grounds of environmental harm would get us nowhere. Instead, we had to talk their talk: we had to talk profits."

Faulkner's strategy was to bypass the mining company and go straight to the investors. "The company's project was fueled by investors, at the time one key investor in particular: First Marathon. We knew that cutting off the company's finances would lead to the collapse of the project."

In a meeting with the investors, Faulkner and his colleagues presented the environmentally damaging aspects of the mine, but focused more specifically on the financial risks presented by the project. "We presented them with facts concerning the mine's inevitable problems in meeting regulations, getting approval and the legal issues that would ensue with the attempt to secure permits. Further, we informed them of the international scope of the conservation coalition and the international treaties applicable to the area."

These were all issues the mining company had previously denied. A few weeks later, First Marathon withdrew its funding and the conservation group managed to lobby with the territorial government to form the world's largest internationally protected block of wilderness. "The Tatshenshini River project was a major win, and we are all incredibly grateful for the outcome," exclaims Faulkner.

It is this kind of experience, this practical dedication to an environmental ideal, as well as his ability to market and manage a business that is part profit and part dream, that has made Faulkner a typical member of the Whistler community.

 

History lies ahead

As our interview draws to an end, our attention is once again directed to the creaking of the bulldozer out in Lot 1/9. I ask Faulkner if he's excited about the Olympics. "I wasn't at first," he says candidly, "but now I am." I ask what has changed.

"I think the opportunity to invite an international audience to our community will create pride. People have worked very hard over the years to make Whistler Blackcomb a world class resort, and it would be nice to share that. The nightmare would be to have all the locals leave on vacation. After all, Whistler is what it is because of the inspiration and dedication of its community members."

 

 




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