Whistler in the
‘60s and ‘70s was geared more to the “young and the restless” than to families
in station wagons. Some long-time Whistler residents and visitors share their
memories of this wilder part of Whistler’s history — in honour of the Whistler
Pioneers Reunion that took place on April 12.
Paul Burrows, the
founder of the Whistler Question newspaper, moved to Whistler in 1966 and
remembers the “hot-dogger” years fondly. “Just getting to Whistler was a
challenge,” Burrows said of that early ski era, adding that the drive from
Vancouver took “five or six hours.”
“You left after
work on Friday and were lucky to get to Whistler by 10 p.m.” People would go to
the Cheakamus Bar (located in the Beardmore family-owned Cheakamus Inn in
Creekside) for a drink after they got to Whistler because the drive could be
harrowing (the road to Whistler wasn’t paved until 1967).
had a Land Rover, or a VW with a ski rack on the back with two pairs of skis
and a shovel. The shovel was for the Cheakamus Canyon — sometimes you had to
shovel your way through there if there was an avalanche. If you didn’t have a
shovel, you waited for the next person to drive along and help you.”
watching the traffic roll into Whistler from the Cheakamus Bar on a Friday
night (“which had a good view of the road”) and knowing “about half of the cars
coming into town. We’d say ‘Oh look, so-and-so made it,’ or ‘what happened to
so-and-so? He should be here by now.’ Looking back, we were living history but
we didn’t know it at the time.”
When did Whistler
become politically correct or as Burrows calls it, “mainstream”?
“I think it was
when the village and Blackcomb opened. With Blackcomb opening, there was
competition between the two resorts over who could deliver the best guest
experience. That eventually led to an improvement in the product.”
opened, in the wild atmosphere of the ‘70s, Whistler was host to many “hot dog”
skiers. “Hot doggers” skied down the lift tower lines and were definitely
“guided by ego,” Burrows remembers.
“We used to get
cheers and calls from people up in the gondolas above us. It was a captive
audience. We would ski off cliffs and bumps and do things that we thought were
daring — but nothing like what the kids do today.”
A typical hot
dogger would be wearing jeans as his preferred ski attire – a huge contrast
from the label-conscious ski crowd of later years.
For young skiers,
adult skiing activity was often eye opening, a reflection of a more permissive
mountain culture. “(My brother) and I remember seeing wild-haired skiers on
Whistler ripping through powder in nothing but tattered jeans and large woolly
sweaters, hair blowing in the wind,” said long-time Whistler skier Margot
MacEwen. “No hat, no goggles, no gloves, no helmets back then! We once skied on
New Year's Eve day and saw young hardcores cracking open bottles of red wine on
the chairlift in front of us! I remember the "liquor store" in
Whistler was some guy selling booze out of a trailer. Needless to say he was a
fairly popular guy.”
correct. Skiing Whistler in the ‘70s was not for the faint of heart, especially
for little people.
“I remember the
women’s “washrooms” at the top of Whistler, just below the Roundhouse,” said
one Pemberton resident who has been skiing in Whistler since her childhood in
the ‘70s. “I dreaded going in there – which was not made any easier with the
standard snow pant overalls that all the kids wore back then. This was well
before Blackcomb opened and there was no competition for your skiing dollars in
Whistler. The washroom was basically one long outhouse, and there were signs on
the back of each stall door that read: ‘Do NOT put ANYTHING other than toilet
paper down this toilet. Would YOU like to sit in the SNOW?’ For any person, let
alone a seven or eight year old, the tone was a little harsh!”
“Mostly I remember
the smell,” said long-time Whistlerite Sara Leach of the mountaintop washroom.
“Like sewage that had been percolating under the snow for a few months.”
Whistler memories of this era are a different breed from the “Whistler and
Blackcomb Kids” programs of the ‘80s to the professional babysitting services
of today. Rainbow Mountain was where many children learned to ski in the
seventies before they “graduated” to the top of Whistler. There was a bunny
hill and a more challenging hill for the “big kids” and a little cafeteria that
was full of kids trying to get warm and often kids crying from their first day
of skiing and falling on the hill.
“Skiing on Rainbow
Mountain was a thrill when I was seven or eight years old, and now, driving by
the hill, which in my mind was so overwhelmingly high, it looks like
a bunny hill,” said North Vancouverite Jennifer VanderMye, who was a frequent
Whistler visitor with her family in the ‘70s.
“I remember my dad
getting so annoyed at how our mitts were torn to shreds from the rope tow at
Rainbow,” said Leach. “He finally told (my sister) and I that we couldn't get
new mitts until we graduated to the big mountain.”
lodge/lunchroom (at Rainbow) smelled of damp wool,” said MacEwen. ”I remember
drinking tiny hot chocolates in Styrofoam cups; the rope tow breaking and all
kids sliding backwards and panicking (me included), crashing into one another,
screaming, skis crossing. My dad waving to me at the bottom as I boarded the
rope tow on my own for the first time.”
But the day came
for skiing the big mountain sooner or later, much to the pride of Kodak-toting
parents. Unfortunately, along with the excitement of skiing Whistler for the
first time, came the tedium of waiting in gargantuan line-ups at the Creekside
parking lot. And the liftees did not always kid-glove children as they do
“I remember being
thrown into the chairlift by the liftees, who often had cigarettes dangling
from their mouths,” said one Pemberton resident of her childhood ski days. The
good memories? “Making up songs with my sister and friends as we waited in the
gondola line on those hole-y metal stairs. Being proud of meeting the grown ups
and other big kids at the light station. Throughout all the changes that
Whistler has undergone, the best memories have always been about the mountains
themselves and skiing with my family, from Rainbow to Blackcomb.”
“The ‘70s were a
time when we all piled into the car without any cares (and no booster seats
either) and hung our backpacks with cold sandwiches from trees by the
Roundhouse,” said VanderMye. “I hated getting up early to make a
lunch. I remember those “hot spot” heat packs that we placed in our
mitts to stay warm on the lift. I remember getting scolded for banging my
skis together on the lift for fear they would fall to the earth
below. I remember that actually happened one time and my Dad was
furious of course. He had to navigate under the lift to search
for my missing ski. That took forever in my mind. I remember I
was always desperate for hot chocolate. ‘Just one more run’ my Dad would
say. And five or six runs later we'd stop and grab that backpack and eat
cold sandwiches and ice-cold apples. More prayers for hot
“One liftee, Joe
Horn, worked at the bottom of the Green Chair (what is now Emerald Chair on
Whistler) and he shaved the ridges out of his boots,” Burrows recalls. “On his
lunch break, he would ski down to the gondola on his ski boots. No skis. He
couldn’t be bothered to get his skis on, and he loved the attention he got from
the people above on the lifts. It was pretty daring,” he said with a laugh.
menu (pre-competition from Pika’s at Blackcomb) consisted of fries, greasy
burgers, hotdogs and much coveted hot chocolate. Custom sandwich bars that
skiers now enjoy on breaks between runs were nowhere on the horizon. In time,
Whistler would change.
Whistlerite Colin Pitt-Taylor considers the air of sophistication that Whistler
now exudes was an inevitable occurrence.
what it was meant to become. Word got out,” he said with a shrug.
Was there a shift
in the air at any particular time in Whistler, or was the change from
hot-dogger ski town to swish mountain resort a slow and undefinable transition?
there was a palpable change in the valley with the arrival of Blackcomb.
“Before there was
an organization like the Whistler Chamber of Commerce in existence, Whistler
was famous for very different things than what it is known for now: incredibly
long line-ups at the Gondola, bad weather, deep snow and poorly groomed
trails,” Burrows said. “You needed six feet of snow to ski in a lot of areas
because when the snow melted in April, you’d be skiing over pick-up sticks. You
had to be careful.
(in the ‘60s and ‘70s) was full of surprises – you skied it by guess and by
God,” Burrows added. “Blackcomb was like the Holiday Inn – no surprises. And
that is because there was a huge lag between designing the two mountains.
Whistler was designed in the mid-‘60s Blackcomb was designed in the late ‘70s
and not operational until the ‘80s. Blackcomb had the advantage of computers to
figure out sun angles, avalanche paths and where trails should be cut.”
Burrows and his
wife left Whistler in 2000; they wanted to move to a more “normal” community.
He is saddened that so many Whistler workers reside in Pemberton and Squamish,
and laments the fact that there is still no seniors’ housing in Whistler.
community needs to have a broad range of ages,” Burrows argued. “If a community
is mainly old, like Palm Springs or Parksville, that is not normal. If it is
mainly young, like Whistler, that is not normal either. Around the time we
left, I said Whistler is a world-class destination and is a great place to
visit. But it is slipping badly as a community to live in. There are not a lot
of old people in Whistler. With the exodus of older people, you lose the
culture and the history. An older person wants moderation. If you want to live
an average life, Whistler isn’t the place.”
“The issue of
affordable housing for seniors was first brought up in 1993,” he continued. “I
remember having this conversation with Ted Nebbelling about the need for
seniors’ housing, just like there was a need to house the firefighters, the
teachers and the nurses affordably. I thought that old folks fall into the same
category. He was not in favour of it. He said, ‘Whistler is not an old folks
Like many people
who have lived in Whistler for more than a decade or two, Burrows is astounded
by the pace of development.
“The scale of
development here is so steep – what happens in 15 years in Whistler would take
fifty years in an urban environment. And it would take 200 years in Europe.
“Whistler has been
an experiment,” Burrows continued.
What part of the
experiment has been successful?
RMOW (Resort Municipality of Whistler) in 1975 and using tourists’ dollars to
fund infrastructure like sewers, the water system, the street lighting and
bridges. This could never have been done by the Whistler taxpayers.”
Whistler done well?
again to the affordability question.
“We still get the two Whistler
newspapers delivered every week,” he said. “The same issues are being discussed
— garbage problems, sewer issues, bears – and affordability. If you have to
drive an hour to get to work and put a smile on your face and treat the
customers like God, are you going to want to do that if you’ve had a heck of a
time just getting to work? All resort towns have had to learn this: Aspen,
Banff, and Whistler. Revelstoke is realizing this now with the sharp increase
in land value. The resort business is a double-edged sword.”
While the resort
has changed in countless ways since the ‘60s and ‘70s, many aspects of what
many call “Whistler’s golden years” remain, no matter what the latest casualty
of rocket-speed development is – on the mountains themselves. Cruising the
slopes is still what most people come to Whistler to do. As long as that is still
the case, Whistler Mountain founder Franz Wilhelmsen should be proud –
regardless of whether that person is wearing Spyder or blue jeans, on snowboard
But people like
Burrows will always consider the resort’s early era as its glory years.
they were the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when this place was still Alta Lake, in
spite of the absence of sophisticated infrastructure and glam frills!” he said.
Raise your stubby