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Museum Musings: Before the Fitzsimmons Express

Before Fitzsimmons Express and the Whistler Express Gondola, skiers could upload on the Village Chair.

In light of the new eight-person chair announced to replace the four-person Fitzsimmons (Fitz) Express chairlift (pending approvals), we’re taking a look back at how mountain access from Whistler Village has changed over the years.

The first lift from Whistler Village opened for the 1980-81 season, around the same time the Town Centre opened and lifts on Blackcomb started turning. Prior to this, everyone accessed Whistler Mountain from the area known today as Creekside. When Garibaldi’s Whistler Mountain officially opened in January 1966, it had a four-person gondola, the original double Red Chair and two T-bars.

Trees were eventually cleared on Whistler Mountain for the aspirationally-named Olympic Run, however, skiers who skied down the north side of Whistler Mountain were only met with a garbage dump where the Village now sits, and had to catch the bus back to Creekside. Olympic Run generally only opened on weekends when the bus was running, otherwise skiers had to hitchhike back to Creekside.

Janet Love Morrison described being a rebel and skiing the closed run on a school trip. “I remember we went under the rope to ski the Little Olympic Run and we were really cool until we got to the bottom and had absolutely no way to get back to Creekside. Suddenly we were super scared because we knew we had to get back to get to the bus, because we went to school in Port Coquitlam.” Finding no cars or people at the base of the mountain, the grade eight students followed a gravel road to Highway 99 where they were picked up by a tow truck driver. They proceeded to get a dressing down by the driver and then their teachers, a first-hand experience that helped when Janet was writing Radar the Rescue Dog.

When the lifts from Whistler Village finally went in for the 1980-81 season, multiple chairlifts were required to make it to the top. To get to the Roundhouse from Skiers Plaza, skiers first took the Village Chair, which finished slightly higher in elevation than today’s Fitz, and then skied down to Olympic Chair. Olympic Chair is still the original chair from 1980, however, it was shortened in 1989 to service strictly the beginner terrain. Originally, Olympic Chair met Black Chair at the bottom of Ptarmigan. If you wanted to continue on to the Roundhouse or Peak, Black Chair dropped skiers where the top of Garbanzo is today, then skiers would ski down and take Red or Green Chairs to the top. Four lifts to get to the Roundhouse, and they were all slow, fixed-grip lifts, not the high-speed lifts that service the mountains today. (Olympic Chair, Magic Chair and Franz’s Chair are the only remaining fixed-grip chairs in Whistler.)

Uploading from Whistler Village was simplified in 1988 when the Whistler Express Gondola replaced the four chairlifts, taking skiers and sightseers straight from the Village to the Roundhouse, in a gondola (apparently) designed to hold 10 people.

The four-person Fitz that we know and love was built in 1999 and, together with Garbanzo, eliminated the need for the Black Chair. Prior to 1999, the biking on Whistler Mountain was predominantly run by private enterprise, notably Eric Wight of Backroads Whistler, who mostly used the Whistler Express Gondola to access terrain. When Whistler Blackcomb took over and further developed the Bike Park in 1999, resort officials started using Fitz in the summer months to send bikers uphill as the sport rapidly grew. These days, the Bike Park sees way more than 100,000 riders a year, most of whom access the terrain from Fitz Express.

If Fitz is upgraded next summer, it will be the start of a new era, greatly increasing the number of riders and skiers arriving at midstation.