My father just turned 80 this summer. Outdoorsman, Olympian and ski resort visionary, Gaby (as his friends call him) doesn’t get out on the slopes much anymore. A couple of heart attacks and a stroke have taken much of the remaining spring out of his legs. Nevertheless, he still loves to trundle around the cross-country trails in the hills above his home in Vernon. “I never imagined a time when I wouldn’t be able to ski anymore,” he admitted to me recently. “But at least I can still strap on my Nordic gear and slide on snow some…”
As his friends and family gathered together a few weeks ago to celebrate his many accomplishments, it struck me once again just how young the sport of skiing really is. Indeed — it was my father’s generation that really set the thing in motion. Literally! To listen to Gaby and his pals wax lyrical about the old days is to participate in a history lesson on Canadian skiing.
Imagine being part of a group of teenagers involved in building the first ever rope tow at Ottawa’s Camp Fortune with a friend’s Model T engine as your power source — and then ski touring halfway back to town before boarding the city trolley bus that took you the rest of the way home. “It was a full day’s journey, that’s for sure,” my father tells me with a smile. “But we were a tight bunch of guys back in those days. It was pretty much a party from the time we left town to the moment we got home.”
Or how about spending a week travelling across the country by train with a group of army teammates to compete at the 1948 North American Skiing Championships at Mount Norquay — and carting along a full array of jumping skis, cross-country skis and downhill skis (because, as Gaby explains, a real skier did it all in those days). “Ski jumping was still the glamour sport back then,” he tells me. “That’s what turned on the spectators (and the ladies!). But downhill skiing was definitely catching on fast…”
To hear Gaby and his cohorts recount these stories is to enter a world where skiing was more than just a sport. It was an adventure, a lifestyle — a full-on celebration of winter fun. “It was never about how many runs you could get in your day,” he says. “It was about how much pleasure you got from being outdoors while everybody else was inside moaning about the weather.”
My father fell in love with Whistler on a trip to the West Coast in 1967. It was late spring and Sea to Sky country was at its seasonal best. From flowering cherry trees in Vancouver, to working tugboats in Howe Sound, to the towering white-clad slopes of Diamondhead, Gaby was already smitten with the Coast Mountains even before he’d arrived at the fledgling resort. But a week of high-mountain powder skiing easily confirmed what he’d heard back east. This was the real thing. Whistler represented a future for Canadian skiing — and outdoor recreation — that nobody, until then, had really envisioned. No matter that there wasn’t much here yet in terms of infrastructure. No matter that Whistler’s marketing budget was tiny. This was mountain resort development on a grand scale. Something that could eventually compete with the Alps — but still remain distinctly Canadian.
>Gaby returned home to Quebec infused with a vision that wouldn’t go away. He had seen the future and he wanted a part of it. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, he was thinking much bigger than just Whistler. His dream was to move to Squamish and open a guest lodge on the high slopes above the sound. To him it seemed obvious that tourism development would slowly expand along the corridor to take advantage of all the recreational possibilities that this unique ocean/mountain combination offered. I still remember family conclaves where he would argue his case passionately. “The Whistler region will become one of the great mountain resort centres of the world,” he would explain to us. “Like Chamonix in France, like St. Anton in Austria, Whistler will one day be the hub of an extensive network of outdoor businesses. More ski areas will develop. More four-season pursuits will be launched. Who knows? One day it might be possible to ski or hike from Squamish to Pemberton — just like the Alps’ Haute Route…”
My mother, alas, was unmoved by his arguments. She, a much more practical sort, had been less than impressed by Squamish. All she could see was a dilapidated logging town, a bunch of English speakers and a lot of rain — there was no way she was going to uproot her family for the mere promise of a great future. And so we remained in Quebec.
But my father’s words had tickled my imagination. Less than five years later, I became Whistler’s newest resident — and like my dad, I immediately fell in love with what this striking sea-and-mountain corridor had to offer me.
Over the last couple of months, we’ve heard from a number of distinguished sources in this column. And they all seem to agree on one thing: Whistler today is at an important crossroads in its development. Time and again we’ve been told that what worked in 1986 or 1996 or even in 2000 might not necessarily work in 2015. The country’s demographics are changing. The political instability around the world is altering the way people plan vacations. From global warming to the imminent energy crunch, from the aging baby boomers to their less active children, there are signs everywhere that the “same old, same old” formula just isn’t going to work this time. In short — nothing is written in a big book in the sky that says Whistler has to survive these changes.
Let’s get one thing straight here. Resorts die. Tourism is not stupid-proof. Just like logging or fishing or mining, if the tourism model one chooses to implement isn’t sustainable, then it too will go the way of the old-growth forests and sockeye salmon that were once so abundant on this coast.
Speaking of unsustainable, now that Joe Houssian and his friends at Intrawest have shown their true hand by selling out to an American investment firm (turning Whistler into yet another widget to be traded around by people who have no stake in the future of the community), isn’t it time that we took a more big-picture approach to Whistler and its outlying region? Now that there is no one working the back halls of Victoria to limit other ski area development in the corridor (What? You didn’t know?), isn’t it time to analyse exactly what 21 st century mountain tourism is all about?
Maybe Gaby’s 40-year old vision for a Whistler-as-tourism-hub model has merit. Maybe it doesn’t. But one only has to visit those great tourist centres in the Alps — places like Chamonix or St. Anton or even Cortina D’Ampezzo — for it to become immediately apparent that skiing is only ONE aspect of a visitor’s experience there.
People go the Alps for a mountain holiday. They go there to get away from their everyday urban experience. And yet none of these places feature the cornucopia of mountain pastimes that the Sea to Sky corridor provides. Whether hiking or ski touring, heli-skiing, snowcat skiing or snowmobiling — and even wildlife viewing! — the region around Whistler has few (if any) equivalents on earth. And we haven’t even touched on the aquatic activities available…
So what are we doing about it? With the Olympics fast approaching, we have a small window of opportunity to ally ourselves with neighbouring communities in order to develop a coherent image that reflects the needs and desires of the modern mountain tourist. We need to provide a variety of offerings — from the industrial size tourism of Whistler-Blackcomb to the more intimate model of places like Callaghan Lodge. We need a strong new vision for the future. After all, if we don’t create it, someone else will… and it won’t necessarily be to our advantage.
Is Whistler simply just another ski town? As hardcore a skier as I am — as much as I love those stormy peak days when I’m eating snow at every turn — I just don’t think that’s a sustainable image anymore. For Whistler — and the Squamish-Pemberton corridor — is so much more than that! It’s up to us to create that next great chapter in the region’s story. And we have to stretch ourselves to make it happen. As Doug Perry so wisely put it a few weeks back: “‘Good enough’ simply isn’t good enough for Whistler…”