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Peter Alder: A Whistler life

The Whistler pioneer passed away last week at 91
Peter Alder
Peter Alder, pictured here celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Whistler Question, helped shape the development of the resort since its inception. He passed away last week aged 91 years young.

Many people have shaped the “modern” Whistler, a period that could be defined as roughly from the time a ski area was first contemplated up to today. But there are a precious few whose influence has spanned that entire 60-plus years.

Last week we lost one of them when Peter Alder closed his umbrella.

Peter was a constant in Whistler, like gravity.

He first came to the valley in mid-1950s, when he worked for B.C. Electric building the power lines between Bridge River and Squamish. In the early 1960s he and a group of investors acquired the Jordan Lodge property, 160 acres west of Highway 99 at Creekside. They hoped to work with Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., the new company developing Whistler Mountain. Instead, Franz Wilhelmsen threw Peter out of his office when he discovered Peter’s group owned land Garibaldi Lifts thought they’d bought.

From there, as if to show Garibaldi Lifts what they’d missed out on, Peter began his career in ski area management: General manager (GM) of Red Mountain in Rossland from 1960 to ’68; GM of Silver Star from 1968 to 1975; GM of Big White for one year and then a year working for the provincial government as senior inspector for ski lifts.

In 1978 he was appointed GM and Vice President of Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., returning to Whistler to work for Franz Wilhelmsen just as competition from Blackcomb—“the one on the left”—was about to begin.

Peter also served on the board of directors of Whistler Mountain Ski Corp., did a stint as general manager of the Whistler Resort Association (now Tourism Whistler), and for years was a consultant with Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners.

But Peter’s resume only reveals a fraction of the man.

He was a builder, and not just of physical structures, although he did lots of that. He was a key figure in the creation of the Canada West Ski Areas Association and of Selkirk College’s ski area management program. He built businesses himself—PACO Road in Squamish is where the Peter Alder Company established a concrete ready-mix plant and a building supply store—he helped others build their businesses and he helped many others build or rebuild their lives.

What he built most was relationships, relationships that endured. Walking down a street in Rossland nearly 40 years after he left Red Mountain people still recognized Peter. He was known in corporate boardrooms, within government ministries, by local business people and by people in the ski business around the world.

Part of this was Peter’s natural ease in interacting with others but it was polished during his family upbringing in Switzerland. Peter’s father and mother were both skiers and introduced Peter and his two sisters to the sport at a time when the social aspect was a big part of skiing. His father, a dentist, also invested in a few small ski operations. After the Second World War they hosted U.S. troops at these ski areas.

In 1951, at the age of 20, Peter left Switzerland for Canada and new opportunities. In the weeks prior to leaving his mother gave him a little cookbook and put him in charge of the household so he would learn how to look after himself. Peter became a good cook and to the end he always kept his mother’s cookbook nearby … although he did have a weakness for burgers from Hungry Herbie’s in Cache Creek.

In 1955 Peter and his mother made a driving tour of the United States. When they reached Alabama, they were hosted by several of the troops who had stayed at his father’s ski areas years earlier. The value of maintaining relationships reinforced.

One of Peter’s rules about driving was that spouses should always sit side-by-side. He emphasized this during an afternoon jaunt to Pemberton a few years ago, insisting that my 5-foot-1-inch partner sit beside me in the front seat while he stuffed himself into the tiny backseat of our two-door coupe.

Driving around B.C.’s interior with Peter was a history lesson in itself. “Have you ever been up that road?” he’d ask, pointing at a forestry road up some mountain between Nakusp and Nelson.

When you replied that you had not he would tell you about the abandoned mine site part way up the mountain and the aerial tramway that was used to ferry the ore from the mine to a long-since abandoned railway line. His curiosity may have been sparked by his background in engineering but his appreciation for the history was bred of his love of this land.

And Whistler was the place he loved, and marvelled at, more than anywhere else on Earth. He was a satellite, constantly orbiting the community, dropping in on friends, businesses, watching people. He took everything in, sifted through it all and then sat down with others to discuss where Whistler was headed, why it should or shouldn’t go that way and what to do about it.

He recognized the importance of our history and his place in it, contributing numerous records and papers to the Whistler Museum as well as publishing several personal history books. But he was energized by the future. At heart he was an optimist. And much of that optimism came from his belief in, and wonder at, what each new generation could accomplish.

He would hold up his iPhone, amazed at how Ecosign’s planners could in minutes share maps, data and drawings of mountains and drainage basins—information that used to take months to compile and evaluate.

However, it was people, rather than technology, that stoked his fire. Young people with passion, a head on their shoulders and a willingness to work stimulated Peter, excited him.

It’s unlikely there is any record of who or how many sought guidance and support from Peter Alder over the years but their stories will surface over the next few weeks, testaments to his belief in people and the future.

Testaments to Peter.

Even in his last years—as he was “becoming middle aged”—he was still looking ahead, anticipating needs. A few years ago, Peter and his beloved wife Trudy thought carefully about how Whistler had evolved and decided what the community needed was a place for reflection, celebrations and life events. They envisioned something like the original Whistler Skiers Chapel, where Peter and Trudy were married—a non-denominational yet spiritual place, open to all.

Peter secured a space on Whistler Mountain with views over Creekside and south toward Powder Mountain. He commissioned an architect to design the building and had quietly started a targeted fundraising campaign. The hope was that a foundation could be in the ground in 2020 and a public fundraising campaign would follow. Those plans, like so many others, were sabotaged by COVID-19.

Several times during the 16 months of lockdown, a time when both Peter and Trudy had stopped driving, he mentioned how many people had offered them assistance or dropped off packages at their door. “We live in a wonderful community,” he’d say.

Most of us worry about errors of commission, things we do that turn out to be mistakes. But it is often our errors of omission—the things we didn’t do—that we most regret.

Peter Alder didn’t leave much undone. I don’t think he left with any regrets.

But Whistler has lost its constant.

A memorial service will be held Friday, July
23 between 3 and 5 p.m. at Our Lady of the Mountains Chapel in Whistler. Space limited due to COVID protocols. Zoom link 859 2617 7995 code 913523. In lieu of flowers a donation to Whistler Food Bank or the Whistler Skiers Chapel (on CanadaHelps.org) would be appreciated.