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“That Seventies Show

Whistler residents and visitors share their memories of a wilder and crazier time in the valley – and their perspectives on Whistler’s rapid change

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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).

“Everyone either 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.”

Burrows remembers 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.”

Before Blackcomb 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.”

Forget politically 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.”

Pint-sized 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.”

The 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 today.

“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 chocolate.”

“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.

The Roundhouse 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.

Long-time Whistlerite Colin Pitt-Taylor considers the air of sophistication that Whistler now exudes was an inevitable occurrence.

“Whistler became 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?

Burrows feels 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.

“Whistler Mountain (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.

“A well-rounded 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 town.’”

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?

“Establishing the 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.”

What hasn’t Whistler done well?

Burrows points 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 or skis.

But people like Burrows will always consider the resort’s early era as its glory years.

“Without question, 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 to that.

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