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The house that UBC built

One of Whistler's original club cabins was a race against time

Whistler's early years as a ski resort were a fascinating time with a future that was by no means assured.

Even 50 short years ago the town of Whistler - officially Alta Lake at the time -was little more than an outpost in the Coast Mountains, a summer fishing retreat that was also put to heavy use by logging and mining industries. Given all the challenges the early residents faced, it's nothing short of amazing that this place exists at all. To get from there to here it was literally one leap of faith after another, but luckily Whistler - always renowned for its reliable snow - is all about soft landings.

The first to jump off the Whistler cliff were a group of four Vancouver businessmen, witnesses of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley. If it could be done there, they argued, then we could do it here. And so in 1962 a group called the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) formed with the goal of turning Whistler into a host for the 1968 Winter Games. They also formed a group called Garibaldi Lifts Limited to develop and operate the ski area, with Franz Wilhelmsen at the helm. Under his direction the construction of a resort would go on now matter what happened with the Olympic bid.

In order to make the ski area a success independent of the bid, however, they needed people. And rather than trust skiers to eventually find their own way up to Whistler they decided to go for the hardcore market right from the start - ski and outdoor clubs in Vancouver, as well as various corporate teams and clubs that dotted the landscape.

This is the story of one of those groups: students from the University of British Columbia who were members of the Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC). This group was among the first to break ground in Whistler, racing the clock to establish a warm, dry foothold in the area before the snow fell in the fall of 1965 - the first year of operations for Whistler Mountain. They succeeded, aided by literally thousands of hours of volunteer work and a leap of faith by the club's tight-fisted treasurers.

That building, now called the UBC Whistler Lodge, turns 45 this year - one of only a handful of buildings to remain occupied from that era. It is still used by UBC students, passing from the VOC to the Alma Mater Society two decades ago, as well as budget-minded travelers.

When Whistler finally hosted the Olympic Games, in February 2010, there was a lot of interest in renting the space. But the Alma Mater Society passed, preferring to keep the building open to students during the Games, many of whom helped out teal-jacketed volunteers.


A seed of a nugget of a sliver of an idea

Whistler's Karl Ricker - a geologist, mountaineer and backcountry skier from the days when it was pretty much all backcountry - was there from the beginning. He was construction manager for the project. He was also a member of the VOC who pushed for the construction of a new lodge in Whistler to replace a lodge in the Lower Mainland that wasn't quite cutting it anymore.

"What really got it going was the fact that the VOC was located on Mount Seymour - and because of climate change, and because of the desire to improve our skiing facilities by moving elsewhere in the province," said Ricker.

While the peak of Mount Seymour still gets a lot of snow - and more than Whistler some years - the snowfall was becoming more inconsistent at lower elevations and the snowline was creeping further up the mountain from the VOC's cabin.

As well, some of the club's members had been to the new resorts at Big White (1963) and the upgraded Silver Star (1958), and wanted a bigger mountain to play on. Then the Whistler opportunity came to light.

"GODA was having a tough time convincing the Vancouver public that this venture of theirs was going to get off the ground, so they began beating the bushes," Ricker recalled. "GODA shares were $500 each, and a share got you a place in a draw where the winners would get pieces of property in Whistler - in Blueberry Hill no less.

"What happened was they finally got enough commercial interest," added Ricker, "but only barely enough to start launching the project. They felt they needed a lot of ski and outdoor clubs to really make it a go - just like the mountains in Vancouver at the get-go when there were several clubs at each mountain."

A member of GODA by the name of Jack Shakespeare, who happened to be the father of a casual member of the VOC, addressed the club's membership about the opportunity to build a club cabin in Whistler - on land that would presumably be given to them by the provincial government. There was a lot of skepticism at first, but after the third visit or so, around 1963, it actually looked like it wasn't going to happen.

So in the spring of 1964, VOC members took a boat to Squamish, then jumped on a train that brought them to Whistler to scout out the area. It seemed like the province was willing to give up parcels of land to clubs to build those cabins, but it was a while before they could settle on a location. Meanwhile GODA hired an architectural firm to design a village at Whistler Creek and decide where things would go.

Through more back and forth it was determined that 16 lots would be given to clubs in the Nordic Estates area, although the land inspector had no idea of the lay of the land and also suggested an area that is now the site of Kadenwood.

"In the spring of 1964 we went and inspected the Kadenwood lot, and discovered it wasn't going to work because it was too far up the hill to go on foot to get to the damn property and there was no road up there at all," said Ricker. "So that fell through."

The land inspector then suggested another parcel of land on Alpha Lake - but alarm bells went off.

"We smelled a rat," was how Ricker put it. And sure enough, when the land registry office dusted off the file they discovered the land was still owned by a logging company - something the logging company wasn't even aware of. The VOC even looked at the island property before deciding that building a bridge would be too difficult.

The Nordic Estates area was a better choice, although there was no road there either, above the handful of developments on the side of the highway. Also, there was no water system or sewage system, and the lack of a road made the use of a septic tank impossible. Still, it was a starting point, and most members were relatively sure that with 16 club cabins in the area (less than half were actually built) that all that would come later.

By this time it was more or less official that clubs were going to get land to build cabins. A meeting was called by all prospective groups to hear the final pitch. About 20 interested clubs showed up, said Ricker, including a group from Simon Fraser University (which didn't start classes until 1965), the UBC Thunderbirds Ski Team, The Tyee Ski Club, the Alpine Club of Canada-Vancouver section, the Tyrol Ski Club and the B.C. Hydro Ski Club.

There were issues right from the get-go. For one, the Creekside ski lifts didn't have any overnight parking - and with no road into that area of Nordic that was kind of a big issue.

"About half the groups funneled out then and there, they didn't want anything to do with financing a parking lot," said Ricker.

By then it was summer of 1965. You could drive to Whistler, but it was a dirt road from Squamish north. You had to drive over the Daisy Lake Dam. Heavy trucks weren't welcome, which also put a damper on construction plans.

Another bridge was under construction over the canal that transports water to the penstock of the dam- and if nobody was around sometimes drivers would move the barrier and cross the incomplete bridge to save time.

The VOC wasn't worried about the drive, or the lack of parking - they later had a lot built just off the Nordic entrance near the pedestrian bridge.

Their biggest concern was time.

"By this time things were desperate for the outdoor club because our architect, Byron Olson, was only going to be around until after Christmas and we wanted to get this project off the ground," said Ricker.

There was some resistance in the VOC to the move. It was viewed as too expensive for one thing, while others preferred a cabin a little closer to the city. The Whistler contingent won out, however, as many members had already fallen in love with the place. The VOC hosted one hike in 1964 to the top of Whistler and groups from the club were regularly touring in the Whistler area during the winter of 1964-65. Ricker himself was part of a group that did the first exploratory lap of the Spearhead Traverse from Blackcomb to Whistler while circumventing the Fitzsimmons Creek drainage. What people now do in an afternoon took Ricker and party a week.

Club members also knew Garibaldi Park pretty well by then. At the end of every school year they would host an expedition into the park that would last up to three weeks.

"It was the highlight of the year for the club, people would go in for a week, two weeks, three weeks to Garibaldi Lake and stay in the cabin that was at the lakeshore there, so everybody knew there was bloody great skiing and mountaineering to be had in late April and early May," said Ricker.

The financial obstacles were overcome to the satisfaction of the group's treasurers when they agreed to sell the cabin at Mt. Seymour, then use the money to help finance the construction of dormitories that would accompany the club cabin. They also cashed in some savings bonds and borrowed money from the UBC Alma Mater society. It was a go.


Racing the snow

After the site and building area was selected, a decision was made to start construction on the Labour Day long weekend - the same weekend a helicopter began installing the first lift towers on concrete slabs set into the side of Whistler Mountain. That gave the VOC four months to clear the site, dig and set a foundation, frame the building, put on the roof and walls, install the chimney system and finish the interior.

That first weekend they managed to survey the site, get the concrete footings poured, survey trails at Singing Pass and Cheakamus Lake and flag off what would be the club's ski run down through the Northwest Passage area to the cabin. It would be a ski-in/ski-out cabin after all.

They didn't have all their government approvals when the work began, but were pretty sure they were coming. Almost 100 per cent sure, after a land inspector visited the site in August and was satisfied there was little or no logging potential in the area - the province's first order of business. There was a tense moment after the second weekend when a pair of government surveyors from Victoria showed up at the site and found a foundation in place and a cabin under construction.

The work continued, although there was a question why the lots were so big, but with a few modifications they were satisfied and left.

The VOC scouted the area around their lot and found a skidder road that they used to get gravel to the site, as well as a cement mixer. Then the rain came and the road turned to mud, forcing volunteers to go back to Plan A, which involved hauling all of the materials in by hand.

That's part of what makes this story so great. Volunteers came out in droves, with groups of 100 to 150 willing workers every weekend for the first month or so. Even by the time the snow was flying they could count on 30 to 40 people showing up - more than enough people power to get the job done. Even UBC grads still affiliated with the VOC came out to help the students as they literally played a game of beat the clock.

"We were racing," said Ricker. "Supposedly the resort was going to open for Christmas of 1965 and we wanted to get it done by then."

They established a base camp within view of the cabin. Workers slept in tents. The camping area was flooded at one point, then moved to another location.

The first snow fell on Nov. 14, but the roof and most of the walls were up, and people started to sleep in the basement area instead of the cold and soggy camp - although the camp remained in place through to December, when crews began to get a little smaller around exam time.

Ricker remembers how they worked long days, dividing their time between hauling in materials and building the cabin. At one point they formed a chain of people hundreds of metres long to pass cedar shakes up to another crew that was nailing them to the roof and walls as fast as they could. That went on for days.

But for all the speed, the cabin was well-built - and sometimes overbuilt. The focal point of the cabin was a room that would be used as a dance floor. Given the fact that the floor of their previous cabin at Seymour seemed on the verge of falling in during the more active club socials, they overbuilt the floor at the Whistler cabin.

"This one was all four-by-sixes, with a double tongue and groove to make sure it was strong enough - and they were nailed horizontally to one another, as well as down into the joists," said Ricker. "It was solid."

The chimney alone had a crew of five guys working for several weeks. It's a massive structure with three flues - one for the furnace exhaust, another for the huge main floor fireplace and another for the upstairs fireplace.

When they had too many bodies to manage on the construction site - or for the human chains bringing materials from the road to the cabin site - the VOC sent the extras out to do trailwork. The VOC built the first trail into Cheakamus Lake as well as the first trail up into the Singing Pass area (partly following a road that led to a mine in the area). It took three or four years to get that trail completed, although about five years later B.C. Parks put in their own trail at a slightly higher elevation.

Ricker is proud of the effort, and the fact they met their goal of being open for the holidays. But there was still a lot of work to do - the furnace and power hookup weren't installed until the fall of 1966. The parking area off of the highway and the dorms weren't constructed until the following summer. But it was a warm, dry place for that first winter, and an instant hit for the VOC.

"We managed to get it all closed in and the shakes on the sides of the cabin and on the roof, and get the fireplace operational by Christmas for that Christmas crowd to go skiing at Whistler," said Ricker. "At least that was the plan, though it didn't quite work out that way."

While the VOC reached their goal of finishing their ski cabin by Christmas, the ski area was a different story.

"So the Christmas crowd arrived and on Christmas Day everybody marched down to the lift with skis and crampons to discover that the gondola wasn't going yet," Ricker recalled. "This happened every day to us and all the people staying at the Cheakamus Inn and Highland Lodge, but there was no ski facility operating.

"Finally, right around the January 1 st weekend they had a test run of the gondola. They sent it out of the barn and it fell right off the lift line - so they shut it down again."

VOC members hiked up the mountain to go skiing anyway. It wasn't until the end of January 1966 that the lifts were up and running.

"And then it went haywire," said Ricker, with lines of skiers winding through the parking lot to the highway. Whistler as a ski destination was a month late, hard to get to and its runs were barely existent or downright dangerous. But Whistler Mountain was an overnight success.

"When they opened they had the gondola and the Red Chair - which had a mid-loading station because it was very difficult to ski down the Toilet Bowl to the gondola interface, because it was a rock canyon," said Ricker.

"There was no Franz's Run and everybody was wondering when we would get good skiing on the mountain because there was basically one run under the gondola and it was barely cut out. They had a T-bar that went up to Kadenwood which was pretty steep with one or two runs cut  - but there was no grooming, so the snow was pretty crappy most of the time.

"Finally, in March they got the T-bar going (near the base of the Peak Chair) and everybody breathed a sigh of relief. Once everybody saw what the skiing was like up there, they were hooked. Up until then nobody knew if the resort was going to make it or not."

For three or four generations of UBC students the cabin was the place to be. The dormitories opened in 1967, after the Seymour cabin was finally sold and the money was raised to build them. They provided ample space for club members - and other students - to get together and ski. Most people slept in the basement of the cabin, underneath the indestructible dance floor, until the dormitories were built.

Unfortunately, the VOC was not able to hold on to the cabin. Basically, the cabin became extremely popular with members of the UBC Ski Club - many of whom were members of the VOC club as well - and a deal was struck where the skiers would maintain the club. Many VOC members were more into the mountaineering side of things but they could continue to use it for low rates.

By the 1980s, with both groups fighting over the cabin and fees, the UBC Alma Mater Society took it over. Originally they weren't going to compensate the VOC for its investment. But after a student court battle it was decided that the Alma Mater Society should pay $40,000. VOC members could still use the facility but they wouldn't have any special access. Use of the dorm space was opened up to all students (and later to the public, as well).

The VOC used the $40,000 to keep building, putting every cent towards backcountry huts. The first one was the Mt. Brew Hut. Then came the Harrison Hut at Meager Creek. Some money also went to the Phellix Creek Hut.

Ricker is proud that the VOC was among the visionaries that believed in Whistler from the start. He's also proud of the contributions that the club - and UBC grads - have made over the years. And he likes the idea that the building is still being used by students, a group that would be hard-pressed to enjoy the Whistler experience without an affordable place to go.

"At the time we were thinking about the skiing and mountaineering and snow, but we also wanted to build something that would last," he said. "I don't know how much studying got done, or how many people had to repeat that semester, but I remember it was a lot of fun as well."