A true history of Tiny Town...sort of 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LEON WANG / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

It was the best of times; it was, well, let's just stick with the best of times.

The Thanksgiving turkeys have headed back home, the opening week jitters are settling down, both mountains are open, new management is recovering nicely from self-inflicted wounds to both feet, there's good snow to be had whether you prefer yours groomed, au naturel or poached. The town is filled with enthusiastic instant locals who have been here long enough to get up the mountains, get hungover, discover how inadequate their paycheque is and phone home for "emergency" funds. Now is the time of our content. You'd better believe it.

In a couple of weeks, this moment of bliss will be over. Uncrowded slopes will be a thing of the past and the biggest freakshow you've ever seen will fall over Whistler as hoards of people from around the world scramble to have the best holiday ever... or else! If you're lucky, you can get a good chunk of season in before that happens.

Whistler's rolling out the white carpet, laying out its best clothes, lighting all the trees in the village and stocking the fridge with extra beer. Hotels — or those things that look like hotels — are primed, polished and ready to pamper happy tourists. Unhappy ones too, of which there always seem to be way too many. Restaurateurs have tweaked their menus, stocked their larders and trained their staff to pronounce the names of even the most obscure French and Italian dishes with barely a trace of an Australian accent.

While we enjoy this calm before the inevitable storm, it seems like a good opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint ourselves with a bit of Whistler history and lore. After all, what you see is not as Tiny Town always has been.

Though you may not know it, Whistler has a rich history. Many, many years ago, before there were even condos, there were First Nations Peoples, specifically members of the Xit'olacw tribe, living, at least part time, in what is now Whistler. Naturally, they didn't call it Whistler. I'm not sure they called it anything, but they ran a thriving ski resort for members of surrounding tribes and had handsome lodges on the banks of Green and Alta lakes.

These peaceful, original inhabitants were, of course, brutally run off by white settlers who, being unable to pronounce Xit'olacw, called them by the then popular name, Savage Indians. Being a forward thinking race, the white men banished the natives to inferior land further up the valley and immediately turned Whistler into a garbage dump. It was their way.

Nothing much changed until the early part of this century when Alex and Myrtle Philip settled into the abandoned native lodges on Alta Lake and founded Rainbow Lodge and shortly thereafter, Myrtle Philip Community School. They put Whistler —it still wasn't called Whistler — on the map as a world-class fishing resort, ranked No. 1 in North America for many years running by Field and Stream and other popular fishing magazines. This feat was all the more amazing when you consider getting to Whistler at the time was roughly akin to hacking your way through tropical rain forest.

It wasn't until the '60s that Whistler's potential as a ski resort was recognized. A small but dedicated group of drug-crazed hippies realized they could probably attract people to Whistler to ski and buy tie-dyed T-shirts. In their more lucid periods, they also appreciated that once the place really took off, they could sell these same people real estate, thus assuring themselves a comfortable, expansive middle age. And so it was, the Resort Municipality of Whistler was born.

But before that happened, Whistler had to become Whistler. Prior to being named Whistler the town, such as it was, was called Alta Lake. But since there was a lake called Alta Lake, things were, to say the least, confusing. The other lakes in the valley, Alpha, Nita, Green, Lost, Beta, Omega and Omicron were jealous the town was called Alta Lake, figuring having a lake called Alta was more than enough. So they convinced Franz Wilhelmsen, one of the drug-crazed hippies and who, ironically, had the same name as the run, upper and lower, on Whistler Mountain, which wasn't called Whistler Mountain then either, to rename the town after the shrill sound the mountain's hoary marmots make when they're looking for sex, which is something the drug-crazed hippies were doing whenever they weren't dreaming about selling condos in the future.

Having renamed the town, Franz was taxed for names and decided to rename the mountain, at the time known as London Mountain, Whistler as well. And that's how Whistler, both the mountain and the town, got its name. Maybe.

There is a competing story, but I haven't been able to uncover any verifiable facts to back it up, so we'll skip it.

Now, you're probably wondering how Blackcomb got its name. Glad you asked. Drifting in a canoe one day on Alta Lake, just offshore of Rainbow Lodge, Alex Philip was asked by a client who wasn't having much luck catching fish what the name of the mountain to the left of London Mountain was. Alex didn't know for sure but the first rule of running a resort — or working in one for that matter — is this: Never say you don't know the answer to a question; make one up!

So he did. "Blackcomb," Alex said... with authority.

"Blackcomb?" said his mark. "That's an even weirder name than London. Why Blackcomb?"

Alex mumbled something about how the ridgeline of the mountain looked like a rooster's comb, only black, it being summer and there being no snow left.

"A rooster's comb?" said the mark. "What have you been smoking? And do you have any left?"

"Fish," said Alex. "Been smoking fish and there won't be any more 'til you catch one."

Now if that seems far-fetched, imagine how different things might be if he'd been asked that question by someone ice fishing in the winter. Whitecomb? Makes Blackcomb sound pretty reasonable if you ask me.

Speaking of Blackcomb, Whistler Mountain was an only ski child for the first 15 years of its life. Then, in 1980, Blackcomb opened. Unlike Whistler, Blackcomb was the brainchild of drug-free hippies, also called businessmen. Oh, and Aspen Ski Corp., who owned 50 per cent. And here you thought Vail Resorts was the first Colorado carpetbaggers in town.

Blackcomb nearly killed Whistler's management in its first year of operation — 1980 was what is locally known as a really crappy snow year. In the rest of the world, it's known as a rain year. The mountain had no alpine yet developed and no mid-mountain snow. It closed for a while. And when the numbers were tallied up, they'd had just over 54,000 skiers... for the whole season. Whistler's management nearly died laughing.

Of course, that was then this is now and none of us know what tomorrow's history will be like. But now you know some of what was. Sort of.

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