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Museum Musings: Need a lift?

When Whistler Mountain opened for skiing during the winter of 1965-66, it had four lifts, all supplied by GMD Mueller of Switzerland.
The original gondola on Whistler Mountain.

When Whistler Mountain opened for skiing during the winter of 1965-66, it had four lifts (one gondola, one chairlift, and two T-bars), all supplied by GMD Mueller of Switzerland. The company founded by Gerhard Mueller also won the contract to install the gondola and chairlift, and two of his employees arrived in the area in the early summer of 1965. This past spring, Ed Schum, one of those two employees, came into the Whistler Museum and sat down with Cliff Jennings and our director Brad Nichols to share his memories of constructing Whistler Mountain’s first gondola and Red Chair.

Schum was already planning to come to Canada with a friend when he saw an ad in a newspaper for ski-lift technicians. He and 15 other people were hired by Mueller, who hadn’t officially received the contract to install the lifts at Whistler yet. They worked for Mueller for about a year and a half before four were chosen to go to Canada. Schum and another man named Walter were sent to Whistler Mountain, while two others were sent to install a gondola in Quebec.

According to Schum, he and Walter arrived in Vancouver in mid-June and were flown up to the Whistler area by Quadra Construction, which built the foundations for the lifts. Schum fell in love with the area during that flight, and predicted he wouldn’t be going back to Switzerland after the job was done. Upon arriving at Alta Lake, they found the Whistler Mountain site was pretty much as it had been described to them by Mueller: a nice parking lot where the gondola station would go, and then, up the mountain a little bit, “it gets really rough.” The pair went back to Vancouver to buy a truck and some tools, met with Franz Wilhelmsen and a couple other directors of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., and then drove back up the “highway” to start work while staying at Cypress Lodge.

There were pieces of tower all over the parking lot they started assembling. They quickly discovered the Swiss way of raising the towers wouldn’t work with the rough terrain and limited vehicle access (Schum estimated it would take about 18 months to put in the towers that way), and so Quadra Construction put them in touch with a pilot named Buzz at Okanagan Helicopters who had helped with the construction of the tower foundations.

Together, they worked out the rigging needed, and Buzz flew in the towers of the gondola and Red Chair. It took a day or two, a dozen sets of rigging, and “crews all over the place” to install more than 30 towers for the two lifts, and Schum remembered all of the flying was completed by his 24th birthday in early October.

Once the towers were installed, the gondola still required a cable and cars. A splicer came from a cable company in Vancouver to oversee the splicing of the Swiss cable, a process that required at least six people and very careful oversight. Both Schum and Jennings remembered an unexpected mishap when the heavy cable, still on its spool, broke the floor of the midstation, but the cable itself was unharmed. Additional workers were also hired to assemble the gondola cars, which were cheaper to transport in pieces.

Schum recalled that Walter went home once the lifts were running, while he stayed to ensure they continued to run smoothly. After the first season, it was decided the gondola was too low in some places and some of the towers needed to be raised, which Schum took part in. When Mueller opened an office in British Columbia, Schum went to work there, but would occasionally return to Whistler Mountain for maintenance work, where he worked closely with Doug Mansell, who was in charge of the lift operations.

As he predicted on that first flight, Schum ended up staying in the province, though the place and occupation changed over the years. The lifts he built remained on Whistler Mountain until 1992, when both the gondola and the original Red Chair were replaced

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