November 20, 2014 Features & Images » Feature Story

Twenty years of pique'n into Whistler's affairs: a highly subjective recollection 

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It was 20 years ago... Yeah, it was. And even through my foggy, 1960s-addled memory, I remember it. I remember wandering through the village and seeing something I'd never seen before — an emaciated little newspaperish thing with a strange name: Pique. Being a mountain town, I liked the play on words. I liked the fact it was free. Free is good. Free and local is double good.

But good or not, I gave it a month or two at the most before it became another paper that used to be printed in Whistler. The Answer had disappeared, again. The Town Crier, a spunky little paper published by Jacquie McCarnan and Peter O'Donnell was circling the bowl. And — don't tell Bob I said this — but it looked, well, dorky. Like someone had dropped acid and begun to play around with fonts and half-tones on a black-and-white computer monitor hoping everything would look OK once it was printed on paper.

Then I opened it. Around page five was a short announcement titled, Introducing Pique. "Hey, I remember these people," I thought. Bob Barnett, wasn't he the editor at the Question? And Kathy Barnett, wasn't she the publisher? Kevin Damaskie? Great Question reporter. Dave Rigler? Production, whatever that is.

Then I began to read. "Another new Whistler newspaper?" As though they'd read my mind. "Pique will keep you up to date on what's happening in council chambers, with development issues and events in the community, but we will also feature in-depth analysis of larger issues, decisions and personalities that affect Whistler. Our intention is to go beyond straight reporting of events and bring you the issues in context."

Wow! Bold ambitions. More than a community newspaper, which in my experience had always been shorthand for last train to dullsville.

So I read it. It had good writing, good reporting, a feature-length story by Steven Threndyle on the best guess about how busy Whistler was going to be that winter. A tough story on backcountry tenures in the Callaghan. They weren't just reporting what was going on in Tiny Town, they were opining on what Tiny Town could be when it grew up.

I revised my estimate, gave 'em maybe six months. After all, free means you'd better have some traction with local businesses who you expect to pay for advertising. And you'd better be bringing in some dollars from classifieds, a section of Pique notably missing. And you'd better have some, for lack of a better word, personality... je ne sais quoi. Other than Michele Bush's Bushwhacked, a rambling, stream-of-consciousness column surrounded by photos of Whistleratics at various social events, I could only wonder how they planned to develop that elusive trait.

Little could I imagine.

And now, Pique's 20 years old and I'm plagued by an earworm of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon drilling through what's left of my brain. "And then one day you find, 10 years have got behind you." Only it's 20 years since those dark, early days.

How dark?

Only twice did I dare venture into Pique's inner sanctum on production day back then. Production day was aptly named. It took all day... and most of the night. Some large part of that was getting the layout camera ready. A not insignificant part was the — what would be a nice word to use here — discussions, heated discussions, that took place when midnight was a fading memory and there were still things to discuss, heatedly. The choice of that week's "Free" cover phrase for example.

Of course it wasn't about the "Free." It was about the general stress of getting out a weekly when not nearly enough revenue was coming in for the principals to make what passes for a dirtbag living even by Whistler standards. It was about fighting for quality, fighting for ad sales, fighting to establish a look and feel to Pique, fighting because that's what artists do when they're passionate about their art.

In case you care, the "Free" for volume 1, number 1, was Always. Then and now. Free but not easy.

Pique wasn't an overnight success, but it did capture the attention of Whistler's visitors and guests from the first issue, covering stories about the town's raging debate over video lottery terminals, Al and Nancy Raine packing up and moving to Sun Peaks, tragedy on the highway in Mt. Currie, and the effort by the Canadian Auto Workers Union and the United Steelworkers of America to unionize the lodging sector and mountain staff.

But tucked away within the news, long before the roundup of the week's entertainment, there were the stories unique to this place. Like the one about Davey Jones, 79 years young and a Whistler fixture, celebrating the opening of Whistler's new Harmony Express, a lift that did away with the half-hour walk back into Harmony Bowl. The same story explained, for those unaware, where the entrance to Glacier Bowl had disappeared. What had been a gnarly drop into the bowl was bulldozed 16.5 metres lower and became what intrepid intermediates today know as the Saddle. Welcome to the 1994/95 ski season.

Pique survived those first six months. And sometime just after the second six, they hired — and I use the word loosely — their first antisocial columnist, which is to say one who didn't attend parties and report on the beautiful people. I was that columnist and I'll never understand what it was about the letters to the editor I'd submitted, or the two features I'd written, that made Bob think I could write a weekly column.

I only gave myself three to four weeks.

Like I said, that was 19 years ago. And 18 times, I wrapped up the year with the annual Maxie Awards, honouring achievements great and small Pique had covered during the year. Forgive me if I take a few pages to remind you of things you might have missed if you hadn't acquired the Pique addiction.

Great — and Not-So-Great Events on the Mountains

Let's face it, if Whistler and Blackcomb were just mountains, few of us would be here. They're not; we are, and not surprisingly, many Pique stories over the years have centered on the mountains.

Right out of the gate, Pique's gate, Whistler stole the show with its new Harmony Express. It negated a long walk, opened vast terrain to skiers who had no business being there and pissed off hardcore locals who clung bitterly to the notion you had to suffer to be a real skier. Blackcomb naturally countered with Excalibur Gondola.

In many ways, Whistler was playing catch up to Blackcomb, which seemed to open up a new lift ever year. Unfortunately, shortly after the start of the 1995/96 season, the race temporarily became moot when two days before Christmas chairs fell off the Quicksilver lift at Creekside during a capacity download. It was a tragedy that rocked the town and is still only spoken of in hushed tones around WB.

But that was eclipsed a year later when Bigfoot was sighted on the mountain. Kidding... It wasn't Bigfoot, but it was of mythical proportions. After so many years of unsubstantiated rumours, Whistler and Blackcomb merged, a polite way of saying Intrawest bought Whistler. Goodbye Dual Mountain, hello Borg.

As unsettling as many long-time Whistler — as in Not Blackcomb — skiers found the news, their grief was partially salved by replacements to the pokey Red and Green show when the new Emerald and Big Red lifts opened the following season. Of course, they were also greeted by the dorkiest logo any ski mountain has ever come up with, the kissing rectangles quickly dubbed the Lego Logo.

But everyone considered the story of the year a real laugher when the MotherCorp braintrust floated the absurd trial balloon about building an aerial tram from the bottom of Harmony over to Seventh Heaven. Imagine, a tram from Whistler to Blackcomb. What a stupid idea.

Whistler Mountain kept benefiting from the merger. A new Peak Chair that made it to the top faster than you could say, "Hold this roach." The Fitz and Garbanzo chairs eased congestion from the village and eliminated the dreaded Black Chair dead thigh syndrome.

We were so happy that we celebrated the beginning of the new millennium by throwing a farewell party to the old Dusty's/Creekside that was so spectacular, the liquor inspector laid a 10-day forced closure on the bar to be served the next season. Great party though.

Of course, it wasn't always good news on the mountains. The human brain's ability to suppress really bad memories means many of us can't remember the first half of the 2004/05 ski season. Those of us volunteering for the snowboard World Cup do, however, remember what it was like to watch a torrent of rainwater run down the half pipe. But the mountain moved snow by every means known to man. Someone, either Doug Forseth or Kirby Brown, neither will say for sure, summed up the early part of the season, saying, "If we're goin' down, we're goin' down with shovels in our hands."

But no one went down. The snow came, admittedly on St. Patrick's Day, and those of us who stuck it out enjoyed 35 straight powder days. Just reward.

I think it best to skip over the Dark Years of Piracy and the Fortress mentality, notwithstanding the fact it was during those years Symphony opened up and, like it or not, Peak 2 Peak made good on that "stupid" idea of a tram between the two mountains. Instead we were happy to cover the story of Whistler Blackcomb finally becoming, more or less, its own company, celebrating by installing the Harmony Six and Crystal Express a couple of years later.

All Politics are Local... or at least interesting

Pique covered politics from the beginning. Especially municipal politics, often to the chagrin, or outright anger, of those sitting in the hot seats. But working under the belief that an informed public is more likely to be an engaged public, Pique did its best to keep everyone — at least those paying any attention — informed.

Bob found his voice, the voice of Opening Remarks, in just the third issue. In a plotline that would become all-too familiar in Whistler, a developer was offering a desirable amenity, a freestyle training centre, for the go ahead to build 22 single-family lots in Adventures West, encroaching on wetlands at the shore of Alta Lake and the mouth of the River of Golden Dreams.

A three-hour public meeting ensued wherein everyone wanted the freestyle centre but no one wanted to grant the 22 lots. It was an interesting time to be on — or covering — council. We ended up with neither.

Almost as interesting was the proposal to pave part of the Lost Lake trail system to complete the north end of the Valley Trail loop. The plan had been kicking around for a while but true to a pattern still in evidence to this day, Whistlerites hadn't really paid any attention to it until the 11th hour... at which point all hell broke loose. In the face of hell, council backed down and pulled the plug on the plan as, literally, the asphalt trucks were headed for the project.

And so it went. When council decided it was important to try once again — Tapley's Farm and Whistler Cay having failed — to seek a way to house employees within the boundaries of town, they trekked off to Aspen to see how not to do it. They came back with great ideas, but not quite enough conviction in the face of a skeptical mayor. After deferring action for seven months, awaiting a consultant's report carrying a price tag you might expect a consultant's report to carry, we were shocked, shocked to discover (1) the problem was worse than it had been six years ago; (2) it was even worst than anyone expected; and, (3) it was going to get worse before it got better. At least one person in town suggested those conclusions could have been provided by almost anyone who lived here for the price of a beer.

Not to be outdone in this era of Important Consultant Reports, a municipal transportation study, the TAG study, was undertaken, completed and released. Upon hearing the findings, one councillor quipped, "We spent a bazillion dollars on a study to find out we have a traffic flow problem some weekend afternoons heading south?" Well, yes we did. But at least we now officially knew we had that problem.

Municipal spending has always been a contentious topic, never quite so much as in 2002 when, in rapid succession, the municipality authorized a million bucks for a new municipal website, $1.8 million for what came to be known as the Fire Mahal at Spring Creek, and $12 million for a reno to the Conference Centre. This, of course, paled in comparison to what followed a few years later: a plan to spend $5.7 million to renovate muni hall, later scrapped when the budget for the job actually came in at $15.8 million; the ever-escalating library budget that eventually inched past $12 million and the, by comparison, bargain basement $258,000 roof over the recycling bins at the Nesters compacting site.

Since it's not possible to spend like that without some income, council proudly (?) announced they'd wrestled 2008 property tax increases to a draw, a draw being only 5.5 per cent. Their announcement was met by loud cheering, at least they thought it sounded like cheering. Perhaps to deflect some of the cheering — after all, they didn't want to get swelled heads — they struck a Blue Ribbon panel of economic experts the next year who recommended a 20 per cent tax hike over three years, explaining people should pay a premium to live in Whistler. Considering everyone who lives here already believes they pay a premium, that report was greeted with the same loud cheering.

But there are other methods of raising revenue or deferring costs. Staff and council thought they could achieve the latter by striking a public-private partnership to pay for the sewage treatment plant expansion. Council — Ms. Wilhelm-Morden excepted — thought it was a good idea. The public cheered extra loud. Sometimes, when you hold elected office, you have to be able to distinguish between what is politically possible and what is economically efficient. This was one of the times council failed to appreciate the difference. In the end, the cheering carried the day and the PPP was ignominiously dropped.

A good, on-going story illustrating the pitfalls of the raising revenue route was council's pay-parking plans, I, II and III. They were so popular and the cheering was so loud that in 2011 Whistler made provincial history when it failed to elect a single incumbent in that fall's election. Oddly enough, that too was greeted with a lot of cheering. This town's funny that way.

But two decisions made by two different councils were met with the kind of quiet cheering that only contentious issues, well decided, can be met. Both were rezoning applications. One was for a commercial property the proponents not-so-deftly wanted the public to see as a chance to bring London Drugs to town. The other was for a residential property the proponents not-so-deftly wanted the public to see as a play to build a university. What did both have in common? Both were defeated by unanimous councils. Both were decisions widely supported by the community. And both were chances to see first councillor, then mayor Wilhelm-Morden show why lawyers have reputations for being good with words.

The Spice of Life

It hasn't been all skiing and politics, of course. The richness of life in Whistler is made up of a crazy quilt of events. Pique covered 'em all. Some left us laughing, some left us crying, some just left us happy to call this place home.

Three happened in the first year of publication. The first was the kind of story that adds to the mythology of a place and took that year's award for the best Stupid Tourist Trick. It involved a visitor from Hawaii who flew into YVR, rented a van, packed the family's ski gear inside and headed up to Whistler. He parked in the labyrinth beneath the Fireplace Inn where he and his family stayed and enjoyed a wonderful week of skiing. Until it came time to head back to Vancouver, at which point he discovered his rental van had been stolen, which he dutifully reported. Imagine his surprise — not to mention the rental company, their insurer and maybe the RCMP's surprise — when an employee power washing the underground four months later found the van... where it had been parked... half a cup of cold coffee still inside... not stolen, just misplaced. We don't know how it all worked out and, frankly, who cares?

The second story was either comic or tragic, depending on which side of the lens you were on. A helpful, 20-something gent seeing a Japanese tourist stopping to take a photo of his partner, offered to take one of both of them. He carefully posed the grateful couple, removing the burden of their skis, composed the shot, took the photo and then skied off with their camera, leaving them both smiling and bewildered, with Black Tusk in the background.

The third may have also been either comic or tragic but those of us not directly involved simply found it hilarious, in that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing way. Someone, presumably either someone with a sense of humour or two different people, booked ski weeks and events for both the Texas Ski Council and Gay Ski Week during the same week... on the same night... in the same facility. Quickly dubbed Steers and Queers, it was decidedly not funny to a number of the gentlemen from the Texas Ski Council who so feared using the men's room at the Conference Centre they tried to both drink themselves insensate and hold it all night.

Remember, these are all true stories.

There were three years in the late 90s when Whistler tried to host a World Cup downhill. In early December. Conditions were, shall we say, never exactly right; you know how picky those World Cup racers can be, wanting snow and such. The good news, such as it was, was the official reason the races were cancelled often mentioned "too much snow." The funny news, never widely reported, was the spectacle of watching the best ski racers in the world, as a consolation for those who really wanted to watch ski racing, playing a stand-up, full-motion video ski race game someone had borrowed from a local pub, in the Conference Centre. I don't remember who won.

When Ross Rebagliati returned home in 1998, with his first-ever snowboard gold medal reinstated — and possibly the only time the second-hand smoke defense was ever successful — Whistler threw one of its biggest parties ever... until we threw a bigger one in the same square when we were awarded the Olympics five years later. Pique was there.

When Chris Kent, Edi Podvinski, Luke Sauder and Dominque Perret skied 353,600 vertical feet one spring day, crushing the existing one-day record by 50,000 feet, Pique was there.

When Bones, Binty and Fly Boy made a daring, helicopter rescue of a kite skier who couldn't judge the thickness of ice on Green Lake and were awarded the Governor General's Medal of Bravery — and showed up in suits! — Pique was there.

When we celebrated the Olympics, and decried the excesses thereof, Pique was there.

For 20 years, in more than one thousand editions, Pique's documented life in Whistler. In the days before people read the news on their phones — the last time we checked — more than 90 per cent of locals took a Pique each week and somewhere around three-quarters of visitors checked it out. Like the ski runs and the village, it's easy to imagine Pique's always been here and always will be. But like the ski runs and the village, it's never been easy. It took vision, hard work, a willingness to fight and lose and fight again and, well, cussed determination to make it happen, week, after week, after week.

So here's to the last 20 years... and here's to the next 20.

Take a Pique.

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