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A Whistler icon for all times

By Michel Beaudry There’s a great storytelling event being planned for Millennium Place this evening.

By Michel Beaudry

There’s a great storytelling event being planned for Millennium Place this evening. Called “Icon Gone”, the event is all about celebrating local culture by sharing tales of the bigger-than-life people, places and things that make Whistler the distinctive mountain town that we all know and love.

And lest you think things might get a little hagiographic tonight, don’t worry. It’s being set up as a sort of debating contest. On one side: the people who believe that their favourite Whistler icon is “gone” and that history in this valley quickly evaporates and disappears. On the other: the people who are convinced that their particular icon is alive and well and truly represents what Whistler is all about in 2007.

The organizers have also made sure to invite the kind of debaters who aren’t afraid to present contentious arguments or even get rowdy with their opinions. People like restaurateur Colin Pitt-Taylor, fellow Pique columnist G.D. Maxwell, comedienne Michele Bush and man-of-many-hats Kirby Brown (to name but a few).

I love the concept. I love the opportunity to discuss and argue and debate the Whistler gestalt. What is this place all about? Who are the people — living or dead — who truly represent the soul of Whistler? Are our icons changing? Are the people, places and things that defined us 10 — and even 20 — years ago still relevant? Or have we discarded these old Whistler symbols for more modern, more vibrant models? These are the kinds of questions that a community like Whistler needs to ask itself as it moves from adolescence to adulthood. And I applaud the Whistler Museum team for taking the initiative and creating such an event.

Alas, I won’t get a chance to participate in person. Family commitments have transpired to keep me away this evening. But I’m not giving up so easily. I’ve decided to mail my entry in. Or at least put it down on paper…

My dictionary defines “icon” (at least in its postmodern manifestation) as “somebody or something widely and uncritically admired, especially somebody or something symbolizing a movement or field of activity.” So for me, the answer to the Whistler Icon question is glaringly obvious. From the moment I first set foot in this valley back in 1973, one man has consistently represented what Whistler is all about for me. And that man is Jim McConkey.

As usual, I’m neither in one camp nor the other. For while Jim moved away from here years ago, he returns to Whistler often — to the great delight of his friends and fans. And every time I go up the mountain with him, I’m blown away by the emotion and nostalgia he triggers in others.

I mean — they don’t call the guy Diamond Jim for nothing.   Big mountain legend, skiing innovator, film star, bon-vivant, teacher — and father to that other extreme sport jester Shane McConkey — Jim’s place in the North American skiing pantheon is assured.

His connections in the ski business are all encompassing. From Warren Miller to Alf Engen and Junior Bounous, from Toni Matt to Hans Gmoser and Toni Sailer, Jim has skied, travelled, hunted and climbed with the biggest names in the sport.

Yet he’s the first to dismiss his role as a history-maker. “I just happened to be at the right places at the right times,” he’s told me more than once. “My goals in life have always been to have as much fun as possible and make people happy. That to me is way more important than how much money you make — or how much power you yield…”

Indeed. A funhog long before Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard coined the term in the late 1970s — and a big-mountain freerider decades before that movement got traction in North America — McConkey has always lived on the leading edge of adventure sports. He was a poster boy for the powder skiing revolution of the late 1950s (there are more photos of Jim in the old-school lodges of Alta, Utah than there are in all of Whistler). He was one of the first in the ski-business world to understand the life-changing experiences that helicopters could deliver to high-end skiers. And he was an inspiring mountain mentor to a broad swath of early Whistlerites — from Bob Dufour to Finn Saarinen; from Scott Carrell to Cathy Jewett.

But it’s not his prodigious physical talents that make him such a fitting Whistler icon; it’s his ability to connect with people. No matter where, no matter how, Jim McConkey has always managed to make his friends, clients and colleagues think that they are the most important people in his life.

My father-in-law, Tom Ladner, was one such person. A tough judge of character, and a man who didn’t suffer fools, Tom was an unabashed fan of McConkey’s. “I don’t know how Jim does it,” he once told me, “but he can make the nastiest ski day feel like a walk in the park.” And then he laughed. “I recall one heli-ski outing in particular. Our last run was from the peak of Whistler and down through the trees to the base of Creekside.” Another chuckle. “Given the kind of gear we were using in the late ’60s that was a tall order for me. And I was exhausted. I remember at one point just plopping down in the snow and thinking I couldn’t possibly go any further…”

McConkey would have none of it, however. “He came over,” recounted Tom, “helped me to my feet and in that booming voice of his said: ‘Isn’t this a great day, Tom? We’re so lucky to be here. Don’t you think?’ And suddenly I didn’t feel so tired…”

Last spring, only weeks before Tom’s death, Jim made a special trip to Shaughnessy to visit with his old friend. Although he was visibly moved by my father-in-law’s condition, he never let his voice betray his emotions. “Tom — you’re looking great,” he said in that same jovial tone he’s always used. And though he knew it for the lie it was, Tom’s eyes shone with enjoyment. It was clear that Jim’s impromptu visit had made his day.

Jim turned 80 this summer. Most of his contemporaries have either passed away or have radically slowed down their activities. But he wears his years lightly. A special guest at last year’s Words & Stories event, he spent his week at Whistler skiing with friends in the morning and golfing with his son in Pemberton every afternoon. Didn’t matter what the weather was like — sunny, stormy, soupy or even downright nasty — he didn’t alter his plans. “Everyday is a good day if you’re on the mountain,” he told me. And he meant it.

“There’s something very special about that man,” said Bonny Makarewicz, who had been asked by the Vancouver Sun to photograph the Whistler legend during his stay here. Another person with a well-developed bullcrap meter, Bonny was totally seduced by the McConkey chutzpah. “He seems to have so much fun with life,” she marvelled. “And it comes through so clearly in his photos. Even at his age today! The camera still loves this guy…”

And there you have it. To me, Jim McConkey embodies all that is exciting and inspiring and adventurous about this singular Coast Mountain community called Whistler. Accessible, generous, self-deprecating and totally unpretentious — but with a damn-the-torpedoes, risk-taking element to his character that has led him into countless adventures and more than his share of mishaps — Jim is far from perfect. Just ask his former wives: they’ll tell you.

But then neither is Whistler perfect. Which is the way it should be. After all, who would ever want to stay in some “perfect” mountain town?

As the forces of urbanization gather on the horizon and try to force Whistler into a box it doesn’t really fit into — call it what you will: DisneyWhistler, VanWhistler, whatever — there’s never been a better time to ask ourselves what this community really stands for. What do we want this place to become in 10 years? What’s worth fighting for — and what’s not worth fighting for? These are the questions that need to be asked, and discussed and argued, if we are to develop and grow in a coherent and intelligent manner.

That’s why my vote for Whistler icon still goes to Jim McConkey. For nobody represents the Whistler spirit (in all its manifest forms) as Diamond Jim does. I’m just thankful I got to know him personally…