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The Norwegian connection – Creating a legend in Whistler



"You don't get arrested as a vagrant when you carry a pair of skis. You can sleep under a bridge or on a bench, the cops take a look at the skis and they know you're all right. Don't ask me why, but it's a fact. Maybe because they smell clean. The skis, I mean. Snow."

- Romain Gary, The Ski Bum


He couldn't have timed it any better. For Ornulf Johnsen, the Vancouver ski scene of 1965 suited his skill set perfectly. "It was a pretty exciting place back then," says the old Whistlerite, a touch of nostalgia tinting his words. "It was still the edge of the world. Everything was a huge adventure..."

Adventure indeed. Barely 30 years old and already boasting an impressive ski teaching resume (see Alta States Oct. 15, 22), the young Norseman had just been parachuted into town to establish a ski school on some remote new ski hill north of the city. All he knew of the fledgling resort was that it would feature the biggest vertical drop in North America. And it had a lot of powder snow. Slated to open that winter, Whistler Mountain was promising to bring a whole new ski experience to West Coast adepts.

But first they had to get the thing established. "It was crazy those first few months," he says with a knowing grin. "Can you imagine it? Everything had to be done from scratch." His partners in the ski school venture, Roy Ferris and Allan White, had rented a small office in downtown Vancouver. Having convinced Franz Wilhelmsen to award them the school concession, the two businessmen now had to deliver on their promise. But neither one had any hands-on experience in ski teaching. That's were Ornulf came in. "I remember my first time in that office. Roy looks at me with a hint of panic in his eyes and says 'So what do we do now?' I just laughed..."

It was already September. Not much time before the proverbial merde would hit the fan. But before Ornulf could start marketing his new skiing program to Vancouverites, he needed to see what the hill actually looked like. "Roy had this Volkswagen bus with GLC Ski School painted on the side," recounts Johnsen. "So about a week after I get there, I tell him 'I want to go up the mountain.'" He pauses. Another smile creeps across his craggy features. "Ferris looks at me like I'm crazy. 'But it's not even open,' he says. 'There's nowhere to stay.' But I still insist. I want to see the mountain."