"The ski business is broken. We've forgotten what it means to truly celebrate the joys of sliding over snow in wintertime."
- Bill Lamond
There must be a magic element in the Deep Cove air. Else, why would there be so many Whistlerites with roots in this legendary North Vancouver community? I mean, it's not like the place is all that big. Still, you can't discount its residents' unique energy. With the Coast Mountains on their western flank (and Mt Seymour almost literally in their backyards), the kids who grew up on the shores of this urban fjord have played an inordinately large role in the development of Sea to Sky culture. Snoweaters to their core - and immune to the most inclement weather - Deep Cove denizens are funny, unconventional, bold, courageous, innovative and entirely committed to high-energy fun.
Sound familiar? It should. After all, it's the platform on which Whistler Style has been built and promoted for years. Seems obvious to me: without those Deep Cove influences, I fear this place would be a far more boring community than it is now.
Take Bill Lamond of Wild Willie's ski shop fame. Energetic, tech-savvy and irreverent as all get-out, the 49 year old has been defying the odds - and almost insurmountable economic conditions - by owning and operating his own old-school ski boutique since 1990. The acclaimed choice of longtime locals, and a perennial "Whistler Favourite" in Pique's annual survey, Wild Willie's has become an institution in this valley. Personal service, knowledgeable staff, insider info and leading-edge gear: this is what the store's winning reputation has been built on over the years.
"We actually fix things," says Bill with a grin. And then he gets serious for a moment. "I don't believe you have to replace everything all the time. Unlike some of the new generation, I don't think two-year-old skis are out-of-date..."
Alas, that may all come to an end soon. "I'm not saying Wild Willie's for sale," confides Bill in an all-too-sad tone. "But if somebody came along today and put some real dough on the table, I wouldn't hesitate to sell." He sighs. "Don't get me wrong. I still love doing what I do. I'm still as passionate about ski retailing as I've ever been. It's just that it's getting harder and harder to make ends meet at Whistler." Unreasonable taxes, silly regulations, shrinking margins - it all adds up he says. "Besides, it's almost impossible to attract staff today that really care about the nuts-and-bolts of the business. Nobody wants to take the time to learn anymore. Forget delayed gratification. They want it all now..."
It's a beautifully clear day on Whistler Mountain and we're sitting outside the Chick Pea Restaurant enjoying the fleeting warmth of this late-winter sunshine. I've known Bill for more than half my life, since the late 1970s to be exact. And during all that time he's never wandered far from his "wrencher" roots. From ski tech to ski rep, from shop employee to product tester to store owner, Lamond has certainly paid his dues. "It's who I am," he explains. And then he laughs. "As absurd as it may sound, I really care. I spent a lot of time educating myself over the years and I believe my customers appreciate that."
But enough shop talk. Back to my story. The youngest of five kids, Bill readily labels himself a "Seymour Rat." "My whole family skied," he tells me, "So I just followed along. Mt Seymour was our hangout. We loved it."
What the Lamond family didn't love however, was "standing around in the rain," says Bill. "So every year, my parents would take us to a different mountain in B.C. - Forbidden Plateau on the Island, Lost Mountain near Westbank and of course Silver Star, which was a much smaller place than it is today." Another smile. "Skiing was definitely one of our prime family activities." And then he reveals why the retail business might have attracted him initially. "Being the youngest, I never, ever got to ski on new gear. It wasn't until I actually got into the business that I was able to purchase my first pair of new skis..."
Bill was not yet seven when news of the opening of this big ski resort up near Garibaldi Park hit the North Shore. Like all Lower Mainland skiing families, the Lamonds were intrigued by the new place. Soon the family was making the four-hour trek to Whistler.
"My earliest Whistler memories?" A burst of laughter erupts from deep inside him. A couple of whiskeyjacks look up from their mid-day repast on the picnic table next to us. "I remember getting lost on the Blue Chair in a complete whiteout," he says. "And I still remember thinking 'Why didn't we stay and ski on the T-bar at the bottom of the hill?' We were so far from our food and dry clothes. Being the little kid that I was, I wasn't sure we'd make it back down alive..." He stops speaking. Throws a few crumbs the jay's way. "Skiing was serious business back then. Especially here at Whistler. I mean, by the time you rode the old Red Chair to the top, you were a frozen Popsicle. If you weren't tough, you didn't come back."
The family stayed at Rainbow Lodge in those early years. "House lots were going for $5,000 a piece," Bill tells me. "But my dad thought Whistler would never work out. For him, the four-hour drive from Vancouver was just too big an obstacle to overcome."
But Bill was smitten. The ski life, he decided at a young age, was where he wanted to devote his energies. "I wrote my first binding certification exam at 17," he tells me. "It didn't matter what it was though - instruction, retailing, tech stuff - I was keen to take any course I could that would help me get involved in the business."
And involved, he surely got. By 1979, he was living part time at Whistler. "I got to sleep on a lot of floors," he says with a grin. By 1987, however, he'd made his decision. "I was coerced into working retail for Blackcomb Mountain," he says. "We worked day and night. But we loved it! It was an exciting time. We were the underdogs. We believed in doing things differently. The fact that we could ski out the back door didn't hurt either..."
A traditionalist by nature, Lamond opens a quick sidebar to address another one of his pet peeves. "So what the heck happened to the Orange Chair?" he asks rhetorically. Given that we're sitting just below its former upper terminus, Bill's question is more relevant that it might appear at first glance. "I mean, they just took it down one day without a word and without a gesture. Yet that chairlift was a big part of the early Whistler experience. Goat's Gully (the run right under the chair) used to be a serious test piece in the old days. So why wasn't there a ceremony - or at the very least a chair auction - to acknowledge its passing? Heck, I would have bought one..."
Good question. But then the lack of respect for the past by W/B's management simply reflects today's business environment. Forget culture. Forget heritage. It's all about the bottom line. Whether Intrawest or Fortress - or ABC Corporation - it doesn't matter anymore. Bean counters have taken control of the ski business.
And that's a sick concept, says Bill. "The people who run this valley's agenda now don't even ski. They've totally lost touch with the reality of what it was that brought us all to Whistler in the first place. We used to be an edge culture. People who moved here chose to do so for the lifestyle. Not for the money." He snorts in derision. "People move here now and they want Walmart, they want The Gap, they want Starbucks and Eddie Bauer. Why? If they wanted those things, they should have stayed in Mississauga!"
He takes a deep breath. Lets his gaze wander to the line of mountains to the west. "I look at Whistler now and it really makes me sad. I can tell you - it won't be long before there are virtually no small business owners left here. And what will happen then?"
The sun is quickly setting and the cold air is making itself manifest. Time to go skiing. But before we go, there are still a few things that we need to cover. Like how he came up with the catchy name for his ski shop?
Bill smiles. "It's a great story," he says. "I got the nickname, Wild Willie, during a work stint in the Yukon. In 1986 I started an adult ski racing program on Mt Seymour and had a whole bunch of business cards made up with the Wild Willie name."
A few years later - and now a full-time resident of Whistler - Lamond suddenly found himself doing business with a group of Japanese tour operators. "If you remember, the Japanese were buying everything in sight in the late 1980s. Well, I'd left Blackcomb at that point - we'd had a difference of opinion over the importance of retaining staff - and I was guiding Japanese skiers during the day and tuning their skis at night." He laughs. "I did a little rental, sold accessories - it was strictly a one-man-show in those days."
But his Asian associates wanted more. "They were printing a new promotional brochure for their customers and they desperately needed me to come up with a name for my business." He pauses for just a beat. Keeps a straight face. "A friend of mine who owned a bike store told me: 'the weirder the name, the easier people will remember it.' I already had the business cards. So I figured: why not? Besides," he adds with just a hint of mischievousness, "I thought it would be kind of fun to use the Wild Willie's name because the Japanese couldn't pronounce Ws very well."
And therein lies his crazy genius. How sad for Whistler should Wild Willie decide to sell and move on...