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Museum Musings: Dining on the mile-high mountain

The smell of fresh doughnuts, french fries made from scratch, and fine dining on the mountaintop...
The original day lodge on Blackcomb Mountain was located in the area now known as Base II.

The smell of fresh doughnuts, french fries made from scratch, and fine dining on the mountaintop; baked goods (including those giant cookies), sandwiches and hot food worth freezing for—Blackcomb Mountain took on-mountain dining in the 1980s and stepped it up a notch.

When it opened in 1980, Blackcomb had a real focus on hospitality, making guests comfortable to encourage return visits. Before Merlin’s or Crystal or Glacier Lodge, you may remember dining at the cafeteria at Base II, the original base of Blackcomb, or the Rendezvous Lodge.

The Parsons family were the first concessionaires on Blackcomb, opening these venues in conjunction with the new mountain. Chris Leighton (née Parsons), her brother Steve, and their mom Lee were the brains and brawn behind the impressive operation. The Parsons family had the food business in their blood. In 1929, Chris’ grandfather had opened Jimmy’s Lunch at the PNE, which is still run by the family to this day. Christine’s father, Bob Parsons, also had a food stall that travelled the carnival circuit every year from May to October. He would be on the road all summer, then could spend the winter in the mountains, skiing with family and volunteering with Whistler Mountain Ski Club. Sadly, Bob passed away in 1979, one year before his family opened the food services on Blackcomb.

When the cafeteria and Rendezvous opened, the cafeteria had a large preparation space, and much of the food was made at the base and then transported up the mountain either by snowcat or by foot based on the amount of snow at the base. Unfortunately for Blackcomb, the first year of operation was a terrible snow year. There were three lifts to get up the mountain, and they did not line up perfectly, so food and supplies had to be skied from one lift to the next until they reached the snowcat. Inevitably, food would spill along the way.   

Once there was enough snow, success was still not a given. Visitor numbers would come in at 11 a.m., and when there was not a single guest on the mountain, the food services closed for the day.

According to Chris, the direction from Aspen Corp. and Hugh Smythe was, “‘We don’t want to be like Whistler [Mountain]. We want to be better.’ Hugh would come through every day and make sure the music wasn’t too loud and … it was expected that we were going to be bigger and better.”

When Blackcomb opened, there were caretakers that lived at the top who were responsible for starting the doughnuts and fresh baking so wonderful smells welcomed the guests. The caretakers also put soups and chili on to heat, because regular staff could only upload 30 minutes before the mountain opened to the public.

While it is common to find vegetarian options on most menus today, in the 1980s it was quite unusual to have the choice of vegetarian or beef chili, which Blackcomb offered. Food was served on real crockery with real cutlery. They even flew a “fry guy” over from England to train everyone in how to make french fries from scratch using a chipper.

The food up Blackcomb during the Parsons’ reign is still raved about today. They went on to open Christine’s Restaurant, fine dining on top of the mountain named after Chris herself (much to her chagrin; Chris thought Wildflower or Lupin were better names, but Smythe was adamant). Horstman Hut, Crystal Hut and Merlin’s were also opened during their time as concessionaires. After 10 years, and growing the staff from a daily requirement of 10 to about 100, the Parsons decided it was time for their next adventure, and Blackcomb took over on-mountain food operations.