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Alta States

The Generation That Started It All

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My father-in-law passed away last week. A member of the original investment group that launched Whistler Mountain back in the mid-1960s, Tom Ladner was definitely of the old school. A celebrated war hero (with tales of valour that underscored just how different his generation was from mine), Tom loved the outdoors with a quiet passion that was best expressed by his favourite expression: "Remember your next astern!" And he took that dictum very seriously. He lived his life by example, and like so many of his generation, he gave more than he took.

Tom was the quintessential elder statesman – courteous, gracious and full of wisdom. And his Vancouver ski stories always made me smile.

"Skiing was definitely a big adventure in the old days," he would tell me. "We would leave our house at Granville and 25 th early in the morning, take the trolley car down to Burrard Inlet, board the ferry to West Vancouver (there was no bridge across the Inlet in those days), and once across, start climbing to Hollyburn." That part of the trip would take up most of the morning. If the day was a good one, Tom and his buddies might get one or two runs on top of the mountain before having to hit the trail for home again. "It really wasn’t about the number of runs you made in your day," he’d explain. "It was more about the people with whom you hiked and skied. It was as much a social affair as a physical one…"

Excuse me? A social affair? The walk up from tidewater to ski hut was roughly 4,000 vertical feet. There were no ski lifts yet built on the mountain – every moment of skiing pleasure was earned the hard way: by using climbing skins and muscle power. And given the North Shore’s notoriously fickle winter weather – and the permeability of that era’s ski clothing – chances were pretty good that Tom and his cohorts would reach the ferry mighty wet and cold at the end of the day. "I don’t remember people complaining much," Tom would respond in his typically understated manner. "But then it seems to me that people complained a lot less back then…."

Vancouver grew quickly during the post-war years. And with that growth came an increasing demand for recreational amenities. Back before Whistler Mountain was built, frustrated Vancouver skiers would head east to Banff for the Christmas holidays. Indeed – it became something of a pilgrimage for many of the city’s most prominent families. But it never sat right with Tom. "I always thought that our mountains were big enough and snowy enough to support a top-level ski area too," he’d tell me. "If they could do it in the Rockies, we certainly could in the Coast Range."

It was the runaway success of the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, California that really galvanized support for that idea. Spearheaded by a group of local businessmen, the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) was established with the stated goal of bringing the Olympics to the region. But there was one small detail to take care of first. If they were going to go after the Olympics, argued GODA member Franz Wilhelmsen, then they would have to develop one heck of a world-class ski area.

And, oh by the way, he knew just where that ski area should go…

The 1960s witnessed an era of tremendous growth for skiing in North America. Remember – except for Aspen, Sun Valley and Mont Tremblant, there were few other destination ski resorts on the continent at the time. It was only after 1965 that such iconic resorts as Vail and Jackson Hole and Snowbird were established in the U.S. So when Wilhelmsen, acting as president of the newly-formed Garibaldi Lifts Limited, proposed in 1963 to build an all-new area in a region that had no road, no electricity and no phone service – and in a valley that was lost under snow for six months of the year – he was met with a lot of resistance.

It was an outlandish concept on all fronts. And one doomed to failure – at least that’s what all the experts thought…

"Franz was not a man to back down from a challenge," Tom would explain to me about his old friend. "In fact, he was a bit of a bull that way. He had convinced himself that Whistler Mountain was going to be built. And now he set about convincing sceptics of the same thing."

And he succeeded. But in the retelling of the Whistler Mountain story, we often forget that Franz was helped tremendously in his quest by the quietly persuasive talents of people like my father-in-law (and a host of other like-minded people). "These guys were on a mission," remembers long-time Whistlerite Garry Watson, then a young Vancouver-based lawyer looking for a way to get his foot in the door. "Men like Tommie Ladner and Ivan Quinn and Glen McPherson really believed that building this ski area would bring something of value to the community. It wasn’t about money or fame or glory for them. It was about creating a social/sporting centre – a place, a culture – that the whole family could enjoy. And they figured that it was the responsibility of their peers and colleagues to invest in this dream too. That’s why they didn’t hesitate to twist a few arms to get it done… "

In some ways that’s the magic of Whistler. For it’s in the strength of its supporters – full-time residents and part-timers alike – that one finds the true nature of this very special mountain town. Whistler has always been different. It’s danced to its own tune and forged its own path since its very inception. But more importantly, Whistler has always attracted strong, independent people who can make extraordinary things happen. "You don’t come across men like Tom Ladner very often," says past skiing master Jim McConkey. "He was the real deal – straight-up and as honest as they come. And he loved the mountains with all his heart. He was a real quality person – a true friend to skiing and to Whistler."

I still remember a World Cup downhill race in the early 1980s and watching Tom, in his shiny red Molson VIP World Cup jacket, standing in the finish area with Franz and a coterie of Whistler old timers. They looked so happy, so proud about the event and Whistler Mountain and its apparent success that for just a moment they were transformed into little boys and I got to see into their collective souls. And for just a moment I understood my father-in-law like I never had before.

In later years, after Blackcomb was built and the town centre was established, I would often query Tom about his response to the "new" Whistler. And while he was always too polite to really tell me what he thought – "Very impressive," he would always say. "Very impressive indeed…" – I always got the feeling he didn’t quite understand why Whistlerites were so keen on re-inventing city life in the mountains. Why all the glitz? His eyes would ask. Why all this ostentatious behaviour? Especially when all he ever wanted for Whistler was the simplicity of fresh tracks, clean mountain air and a group of good friends to share a glass of wine with…

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