Opinion » Alta States

Alta states

The Norwegian connection – Creating a legend in Whistler

by

comment

"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."

Ornulf would not be denied. "So finally they give in and we head up north in the Volkswagen van together," he continues. Picture it: it's still September. Still beautiful outside. But the road beyond Squamish is barely passable. In fact, it's not much more than a gravel track for most of the ride. Fortunately there's not a lot of traffic and they make it to the base of the mountain safely. "We get there early - we have the whole day ahead of us," he continues, "so I convince them that a walk up the gondola run would be fun. Of course we take our skis with us..."

He admits he never imagined just how far away the top of the mountain was. "Well, we eventually make it all the way to the Roundhouse," he says. "I'm impressed - those guys have kept up pretty well. But they're definitely flagging." Their madness is rewarded however. "There's already snow on the ground - quite a bit up top actually - and we get to ski all the way back down to the mid-station shack on Red Chair," adds Ornulf. He barely finishes his sentence before a guffaw escapes. "Well, to be honest, there was a hell of a lot of logs and stuff still on the ground. It was more hop-skiing than anything else..."

Back in Vancouver, Johnsen set about his new marketing tasks with the zeal of a true believer. But it wasn't easy. "I figured the best way to get the word out about our school was by working through already-established organizations," he explains. "So I decided to set up some pre-season conditioning programs with the YM and YWCA." He stops speaking. Sighs happily. "I loved those YWCA sessions. That was my introduction to Vancouver women."

Meanwhile, Ornulf's relationship with his erstwhile partners was beginning to fray at the edges. "I soon realized that Roy saw himself as the ski school director, not me," he explains. "He wanted me to be the chief instructor instead. But that wasn't the deal we'd agreed on. I was super disappointed. I didn't really know what to do. Should I just drop everything and join my friend Per in Aspen? I didn't know..."

A ski bum at heart, Ornulf couldn't bear to skip town without spending a little more time exploring Whistler's vast domain. And once he'd strapped his skis on, he couldn't leave. "As soon as the mountain opened and I saw what was really up there, I decided it was worth sticking it out," he says with a little kid's grin splashed across his features.

Besides, Johnsen had come up with a unique scheme to boost the profile of the fledgling school. "I told Roy: 'I have a friend back in Norway who will set tracks on this mountain that will blow your mind!' And Roy said: 'Get him over here then.' So that's when I contacted Dag." He laughs. "Of course, Roy had no money. It was Franz who volunteered to pay his flight."

A child of the times, Dag Aabe was barely 20 when he got the call from Canada. Trickster, visionary, pioneer freeskier - call him what you will - Dag Aabe would set Whistler's performance bar extremely high in those early years. No matter who followed after him - Jim McConkey, Dave Murray, Rob Boyd, Eric Pehota, Mike Douglas or Mark Abma - no one has ever quite been able to match Dag's reputation as a wild and crazy mountain player. I know. I know. The world has changed since 1966. But take my word for it - were Dag 20 today, his name would be on everybody's lips. And were it not for Ornulf, one of Whistler's most enduring legends would have never set foot here.

"I first got to know him when I was working for the ski school in Geilo," explains Ornulf. "He was still a teenager back then, but already he'd dedicated his life to becoming a ski stuntman." So much so, he recounts, that people would worry for the young daredevil. "He built a jump in the middle of the hill. His goal was to master Stein Eriksen's famous swan-dive-to-front-flip. And he would go at it from dawn till dusk." Ornulf lets a chuckle escape. "I don't know how many times he landed on his head. It was a lot though."

Dag's sudden arrival at Whistler created even more headaches for the young director. "We had nowhere to stay," he continues. "So one day Roy calls me up and says: 'Eric Beardmore has some spare space at the Cheakamus Inn and he's offered you both free room and board for the winter. You interested?' We were. And that's how we ended up living together all winter."

Pound for pound, says Ornulf, "Dag Aabe is the strongest guy I've ever known." Hyperbole? Maybe. But I doubt it. "Each morning, the guy would do 50 handstand pushups," explains Johnsen. "Now I could do five or 10 in my prime. But 50? I've never seen anybody come even close."

As for his promise to Ferris, Ornulf had nothing to worry about. "Dag did exactly what I said he would," he says. "He set tracks on that mountain that blew people away." Another long pause. Another long stare into the past. "There was so much snow that year. So many opportunities to try new runs. But it was Dag who set the first tracks on the peak." He laughs. "That first time, he wanted me to climb with him to the top. But I wasn't ready yet so he went alone. Didn't bother him at all."

Dag Aabe stories are legion among early Whistler enthusiasts. And each is more outrageous than the next. I mean, this a guy who would regularly meet his ski school charges while walking on his hands with his skis on his feet. "Whistler wouldn't be the same place without him," posits Johnsen. "He's an original."

But back to our story. Ornulf's first year at Whistler would be a turbulent one. "It was a very intense experience," he admits. "Mainly because it was such a virgin place and there was so much to do." Alas there would be no second year...

Still, the high points far outshone the low points. "I got to set up the first summer ski camp at Whistler - that was really exciting," he says. "I almost got Stein Eriksen to come. But he told me: 'No Austrians!' Unfortunately, I couldn't guarantee him that..."

Meanwhile, Johnsen's contractual difficulties with Ferris and White were heating up. Ornulf knew he would have to find something else - soon. "So one day Franz Wilhelmsen invites me to the Vancouver Club. He says to me: 'There's someone I want you to meet.'" Another quick chortle. "Turns out it's the new president of Grouse Mountain, John Hoagg, and he needs a new 'ski man.'"

Although he didn't know it at the time, that meeting would result in a business relationship between Grouse and Johnsen that would endure for 23 years! And both sides would be extremely well served. Concludes Ornulf: "It's funny, you know, after I retired from Grouse in 1987, I didn't ski for nearly 10 years. But as soon as I got back to it I realized right away how much I'd missed it. I love skiing. I love teaching skiing. I haven't stopped since..."