Building a Mountain - Part II If you build it, will they come? By G.D. Maxwell The history of Whistler Mountain, from the first dreams of securing an Olympic bid to raising the capital to building the mountain, is generally better known than the story of Blackcomb’s development. It is a part of the mythology of our town. Blackcomb, while not exactly an afterthought, is the new kid on the block, a Johnny-come-lately. That its development "made" Whistler the destination resort it is today is widely admitted, albeit sometimes grudgingly. That its rise in less than 20 years from a puny underdog ski hill to a major model of mountain resorts, at least in a North American context, is nothing short of miraculous. It’s becoming increasingly easier to take Blackcomb’s success and reputation for granted. But success wasn’t always a sure thing. Big, Bold and Beautiful.... Franz Wilhelmsen must have gotten a chuckle out of Blackcomb’s marketing literature that first season in 1980. "Over 4,000 feet of soul-stirring skiing," it proclaimed. 4,019 to be exact. Twenty-one miles of runs, filling 350 acres of skiable terrain, the top of which just touched treeline on some of the steeper pitches. Three-quarters was either beginner or intermediate with the final quarter of expert runs being, in the minds of many, occasionally overstated. For as long as he headed Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., Franz never took Blackcomb seriously, and never less so than that first year. Then again, Franz viewed the whole Whistler Village thing as something of a pain in the ass. It meant he’d been strong-armed into building lifts down the north side of Whistler Mountain and duplicating many of the services, already adequately provided at Creekside, in the new village. In that regard, Blackcomb, as a start-up, had a slight advantage. They had no existing infrastructure. Other than building the base of Lift #1 in the village as required by the municipality, not that they would have overlooked the advantage of doing so, their only other presence was a ski rental operation at the base of the newly-constructed lift. The daylodge, guest services, ski school, administrative offices and Rendezvous 765 were located up the mountain where Base II stands today. On the uphill side of the lodge was Lift #2. It lifted skiers 388 vertical metres during a 10 minute ride to Lift #3. (The discerning among you will begin to see a pattern emerging here.) The third lift got you high enough to ski off to skier’s left and reach the bottom of Lift #4 which whisked you a final 363 metres to let you off just above and to skier’s left of Elevation 1860, the on-mountain restaurant at, oddly enough, 1,860 metres elevation. The ride to the top was just over 37 minutes from the village, and about half an hour from Rendezvous 765 where most of the curious parked. Future lifts would continue to be numbered sequentially and it wasn’t until the 1987/88 season that names finally replaced numbers. Perhaps more widely known today, Lift #1 was the Fitzsimmons Chair, Lift #2 Cruiser, Lift #3 Stoker and Lift #4 was and still is the Catskinner Chair, but no longer considered much of a whisker in the world of detachable quads. Within the context of the mountains of its day, and certainly compared to the lifts up either side of Whistler, the ride was nothing out of the ordinary. But if it was your morning commute, it could be a wet, cold, miserable ride. "Cold days you hated it," Arthur DeJong remembered. "You had to ride four slow chairs. On mornings we had to do avalanche control work, you’d get to the top cold and it didn’t get much better from there." The new mountain’s ski school — called Ski-ed — enticed people to "Ski with a pro on Blackcomb and discover why Ski-ed is more than a ski school." Dennis Hansen, Ski-ed’s director, never got too specific about just how it was more than a ski school but there was some notion of "customer- defined" classes. Kids’ Kamp was offered for children 5 to 13 years old. A double lift just above and to the right of the lodge — Lift #5 — which perhaps because of its clientele actually had a name, Skidder, was shared between the kids and never-ever adults. In future years, Skidder was relocated to the new base of Blackcomb and still turns as the Magic Chair. Fifteen bucks bought a day’s skiing, $5 for children, and a season’s worth of fun could be had for $300. The ski area ran as far south as Catskinner and Gearjammer and was bordered on the north by Jersey Cream. There wasn’t a Jersey chair yet but the intrepid could pick their way down Cafe Wall into the upper reaches of Jersey Bowl and cruise back around to Cruiser, aligned much as it is today. The core runs of the early mountain were the fall-line, intermediate cruisers familiar today: Choker — currently the terrain park — Springboard, Gandy Dancer and Cruiser. And that was about it. Only masochists skied all the way down to the lodge and rode three lifts back up. Most of the skiing was done off of Chairs #3 and #4. What little skiing was being done, that is. 1980 was not a good snow year. "The problem we had when Blackcomb first opened was it didn’t snow," Hugh Smythe remembered. "It rained mostly, and we were actually closed for part of that winter. We didn’t have the alpine and if we didn’t have the snow at mid-mountain, there was no place to get up into it, unlike Whistler." Chris Leighton, then Chris Parsons, ran the restaurant at Elevation 1860 and remembers that first winter. "We were bored there were so few people some days. We had a pool to guess the number of skiers. Lots of days it was under 100 and I swear, one day there was only one person on the mountain. I got a call at 1:30 that we could go ahead and close because he’d gone home," she laughed. Arthur DeJong, then a patroller, recalls the mountain throwing a party the first time they broke 2,000 skiers in one day. He also recalls a warm spring day when he and Hugh O’Reilly got their golf game ready for the summer by driving balls off the deck of Elevation 1860 down into Jersey Bowl. "The only thing we could hit was another staff or more likely a raven." That first year, with interest rates climbing past 20 per cent and Whistler village sliding into dire financial straits, Blackcomb underwhelmed its owners by hosting about 54,200 skier visits, well below its projections of 225,000. Compared to Whistler’s 320,000 visits, David and Goliath looked like a fair fight. But no one involved with the mountain considered it a defeat. They had beaten the odds and opened on time. They had developed a small core of Vancouver skiers who liked the service on the mountain and liked its intimacy and lack of crowds. Passholders enjoyed the outgoing staff and were impressed when, after a few visits, they seemed to be known by name. "We did some things right," Hugh recalled. "I had some fairly simple philosophies. One was to hire good people. We did that. We started with two people, then three and pretty soon we had 20 supervisors who were hiring more people and building a culture based on outstanding service, friendliness, delivering the total experience. "Friendly lift operators and staff weren’t the norm then. For me, having design, having friendly people, having some way of differentiating ourselves from Whistler Mountain was personal, very personal. I’ve always seen myself as the customer. I’m the leading edge of the baby boomers and I’m always asking myself, ‘Do I like that? Do I like this music? Do I like the look of this person? How was the food? How did that person handle things? Was it above or below my expectations?’ To me, this just makes good sense." One of the areas where Blackcomb tried hard to outdistance Whistler was food. During an era when, apocryphal or not, collective wisdom had the Greeks only cooking one side of the burgers on Whistler to turn them out fast enough, Chris Parsons and her brother Steve ran hard to deliver a quality food experience. "Everything we made was made from scratch," Chris said. "The dry ingredients were brought up by cat — and partially by lift when the snow was too sketchy that first season to take the cat all the way to the base — and people who lived in quarters at Elevation 1860 would cook all night. Home-made muffins and fresh donuts were waiting for the first staff and skiers each morning. Soups, chili, clam chowder, made-to-order sandwiches, burgers and fries were the core menu. But our desserts were the big thing. Carrot cake especially." And, as it turns out, the now ubiquitous lemon poppyseed muffin got its start at Blackcomb when one of the early staff brought in a loaf of the stuff they’d made at home. People ate it up. And they came back next year. With virtually no changes to the physical layout of the mountain, visits during the 1981/82 season almost quadrupled to just over 205,000, almost one-third of the resort’s total skier visits. The worries of the first season were beginning to fade and it was time to think about expansion. The Long Run Mountain.... Maybe someone finally figured out Big, Bold and Beautiful sounded uncomfortably like a clothes store for large women, or maybe the new terrain that greeted skiers at Blackcomb at the start of the 1982/83 season just made it seem so much bigger. Whatever the reason, the new season saw the mountain recast as the Long Run Mountain. A new lift — you guessed it, Lift #6 — was planted at the bottom of the flats below Jersey Bowl and opened up terrain previously skied only by ski patrol and powder poachers. Its terminal station was only marginally higher than Lift #4, bringing the mountain’s vertical up to 4,068 feet, but according to the marketing department, "...more than doubled alpine skier capacity..." and opened "...the radical powder chutes of Blowdown, Staircase and The Bite." "Staircase was a natural run," Arthur said. "One of our original patrollers, Bruce De Graaf, found it one day and gave me a call to come over and check it out. It was like a natural staircase. We were hitting three to four feet of powder then dropping five feet and just bang, bang, bang, repeating it all the way down." Finding new runs was one of the bonuses of skiing Blackcomb. Depending where on the mountain ski patrol leader Ken Newington was, patrollers seemed to spend a lot of time checking for wayward skiers in virgin territory. Between patrol and poachers, the Saudan Couloir and most of the routes down from False Peak into what was then called Blackcomb Bowl were tracked on a good day. Secret Bowl and Chute, Cougar Chutes, Pakalolo and treed runs down to the base of Jersey Chair were explored by those not averse to the hike up. The lure and promise of alpine terrain was there but it would be a few more years before it was formally opened up. In the ensuing years, the pursuit was weighted toward improvements in quality. Dollars were invested in new Delorean cats to groom runs and build the mountain’s reputation for corduroy. Snowmaking was expanded. A special events and race centre was built on Catskinner and Greg Lee settled into the job of head coach and race supervisor. Discount day tickets were sold in partnership with SuperValu and complimentary tours — still a feature of both mountains — were offered twice a day. Skier numbers rose in 1983 and fell off the next year when Whistler launched its village gondola. Hugh was painfully aware of the problem even if he was having trouble convincing the braintrust at Aspen: Blackcomb was boring. "I kept harping that we could not compete against Whistler without more variety. Everything was in the fall-line whereas Whistler was a trek out, traverse, alpine experience and everybody was saying, ‘You’re boring.’ We solved some of that with Jersey but that still wasn’t the answer." Blackcomb was still David to Whistler’s Goliath. The alpine experience was there; it just had to be realized. The Mile High Mountain.... One of the first people to realize it was Peter Xhignesse. Peter was a trainer with the mountain’s ski patrol. He was known, in that role, as a consummate professional. "I preferred to do a medevac rather than do a route training session with Peter," Arthur DeJong recalls. "He would always think of a curve, something no one would anticipate. He would find that balance of instilling both confidence in yourself but also just enough fear so you were going to stop and think through everything you were doing as a patroller." As weatherman and avalanche forecaster, Peter became intimate with the further reaches of Blackcomb, the terrain out of bounds but in harm’s way where snow could let go and slide down into the ski area. One of the places that fascinated him was the expansive, south-facing slope of Blackcomb falling in an intermediate pitch towards Fitzsimmons Creek. He was convinced it was not only good skiable terrain but an entree into the real alpine the mountain had to offer: Horstman Glacier and beyond. In 1984/85 he convinced Rich Morton, vice president of Operations, to hike out and look at it with him. Shortly thereafter, he brought the idea of developing it to Hugh. "Why would we build a lift on the south-facing slope, the windward side no less, of the mountain?" Hugh asked, having never thought of it himself. In all the early exploring and cat skiing, he’d never skied that aspect of the mountain. Intuitively, it didn’t make sense. In the best of managers, there exists a vein of native empathy, an ability to understand and feel, at a gut level, what other people know but you don’t. It allows them to cut subordinates loose to follow a wild-assed idea and succeed or fail fantastically. Hugh hadn’t forgotten sticking his own neck out and selling D’Arcy Brown on a hare-brained idea shortly after Aspen had purchased Fortress Mountain. "I wanted to build the first triple chairlift in Canada. D’Arcy said there was no way triples work, they had one at Snowmass and it was a disaster. I said, ‘D’Arcy, this will work.’ So we built the lift and improvised to make it work. That was the advent of the single’s line, the maze system and lots of fine tuning and when he came back to see what we’d done, we showed him a lift operating at capacity without any empty chairs." Perhaps remembering the success of that brash idea, Hugh bought into the south-side plan. By 1985, Fortress Mountain’s numbers had dropped off. Competition from Banff had increased dramatically. Hugh remembered a T-bar he’d installed on Fortress and, thinking he had approval from Aspen, sent Rich over with a team to take it down and bring it back. "We didn’t want anyone to know we were moving stuff off Crown land in Alberta, so we got the lift down and out in a day and a half. It just disappeared. Sort of like one of those undercover stories," he explained. But putting it in wasn’t so easy. "It should have taken us a month and a half but it took close to three. We had the coldest, toughest fall ever. It went to -20° in October." To make matters worse, Aspen’s approval proved illusory. They refused to fund the undertaking. "I told them I was going to sell enough incremental season passes to pay for the lift," Hugh said. With an advertising campaign promising the highest vertical drop in North America, the Mile High Mountain, enough new passes were sold — $380 early bird rate, $480 thereafter — to fund the lift’s installation. "It was hare-brained. It was crazy. Doing it was crazy. Where we put it was crazy. Trying to keep the track was almost impossible. It was icy; wind was blowing; we had a rope down the side, rocks on both sides, if you fell near the top, you bounced into the rocks. But to go off the top and down off the saddle and ski Horstman Glacier, that was the turning point. It opened up the mountain." Lift #7 took the intrepid up the south side of the mountain and terminated uphill and east of where the current lift ends. Runs, mostly blue, were cut on the South Side: Sunnyside, Panorama, Southern Comfort. Sunburn, Halo and Lakeside Bowl were black runs and Last Resort was the way back to the main mountain. Unless you were an "expert" skier. Over the saddle, a run named 7th Heaven ran through Horstman Glacier, skirting the bottom of Secret Bowl, around Cougar Chutes and into the top of Blowdown. There was a high traverse to the Showcase Face and its open field skiing. The truly intrepid could challenge Blackcomb Bowl via the 42° face of the Saudan. All the black chutes from the ridge between Horstman and Blackcomb became lift accessible over night, and it didn’t take long for the poachers seeking untracked powder to discover Spanky’s Ladder and the Blowhole entrance to Blackcomb Glacier in Garibaldi Provincial park and another whole new world to explore. The whole of the area — Horstman, Blackcomb Bowl and South Side — was collectively referred to as 7th Heaven. "In 1965," Hugh explained, "I’m 16 years old, riding up a double chair in a wet, wet snowstorm. Heavy big flakes are coming down like crazy at Steven’s Pass in Washington. It’s just puking. I’m bundled up, slouched down and miserable. I get to the top and the window opens to the operator’s hut. A fellow, I can still see his face, full beard, twinkling eyes, sticks his head out and said, in a deep voice, ‘Welcome to 7th Heaven.’ I hadn’t thought of it since then, but this was our seventh lift and out of my head pops 7th Heaven." While the name might have tumbled out of the recesses of Hugh’s memory, the idea to develop the area belongs to Peter Xhignesse. Peter died of cancer a few years later, at the age of 32. And in 1993, some of the best skiing on that side of the mountain was named Xhiggy’s Meadow in his honour. Near the foot of Blackcomb Peak, around the lake that only appears in the summertime, close by a hiking trail, Arthur DeJong affixed a memorial plaque to his memory and his friendship and to consecrate his final resting place. Putting a T-bar on the south side of Blackcomb for the 1985/86 season changed things overnight. Suddenly, Blackcomb was a real mountain with real alpine skiing. Suddenly, Whistler Resort — coming out of its life-threatening recession — was a force to be reckoned with. Suddenly, even a naysayer like Franz Wilhelmsen — though Whistler still had over 60 per cent of the skier visits — could see the potential of Blackcomb Mountain. So could a guy named Joe who hadn’t been skiing very long but knew a thing or two about real estate. I liked it so much, I bought the mountain.... If it wasn’t perfectly clear from their refusal to fund the installation of the T-bar, Aspen made it perfectly clear: they wanted out. They had no interest in growing their Canadian investment; it didn’t fit any more. They were a reluctant partner. In 1984, Hugh had hired Gary Raymond away from the municipality to become his finance vice president. One of the first things he had to do was put together the numbers showing what Blackcomb was and what it could be for anyone who might be interested in buying out Aspen’s 50 per cent stake. "I did the dog and pony show with Hugh for two years trying to find a buyer," Gary recalled. "With expansion, we had a pretty compelling story of where the numbers could go from an operating standpoint. We also had some attractive real estate." "So on January 29, 1986," Hugh picks up the story, "I’m sitting across the table from Joe Houssian at a Young President’s Organization meeting. We’d had Dominion Securities trying to flog Aspen’s share and we’d had some interest. The conversation turned to that and Joe, who had learned to ski on the beginner slope at Blackcomb, was interested." It wasn’t the first time Joe Houssian had been interested in doing a deal in Whistler. Paul Mathews, owner of Ecosign, recalled, "Around 1984, Intrawest wanted to buy the village when it was having financial difficulties and vacancies were running high. They wanted the whole village and village north for the real estate play. Council had the same fears then — that it would become a one-company town — they’d had with the Cascade Group when Blackcomb Ski Corporation was making its bid to develop the mountain." It wasn’t the village, but in addition to the operations on Blackcomb Mountain, there was, as Gary had said, some attractive real estate to make the deal more interesting. Like 250 acres of zoned land guaranteed under development agreements and the right to build 7,500 beds on that land. "We did the same pitch to Joe we’d done to everybody else: skiing and real estate," Gary said. "To his credit, he saw in Hugh and the operations team a great group of people who could control costs and deliver on the operating side. He and his team could handle the real estate pretty clearly but when we showed him the whole development plan, he was able to see that there was some excitement here. He understood we weren’t going to be selling real estate here, we were selling a resort. Unless we were willing to bring the mountain along with the real estate, the real estate was always going to be a tough sell." The development plan, created by Hugh and his team and Paul Mathews was breathtaking. And expensive. Hugh warned Joe, "Joe, don’t buy this unless you’re prepared to take it to the next step." It took almost a year of work on the part of Blackcomb and Intrawest to get comfortable with the plan and the numbers but once everybody was on side, things happened quickly. On August 1, 1986, Intrawest purchased Aspen’s 50 per cent stake in Blackcomb and began the dramatic process of morphing from a sophisticated real estate development company into a resort developer and operator. That fall, Lorne Borgal, president and CEO of Whistler, opened the Peak Chair and made terrain people had hiked to for years lift accessible. Selling a resort.... The 1986/87 season passed without much fanfare on Blackcomb. Honeycomb was the obligatory new run, meandering down the north side of the ski area to Lift #3. The summit restaurant was expanded by about one-third, the mountain finally inched its way past 40 per cent of the total skier visits, but in the back rooms where big time deals are plotted and large amounts of money are raised, all hell was about to break loose. Well, if not all hell, about 26 million bucks worth. "Imagine skiing more than you can imagine," seasons pass sales brochures teased. In 1981, Paul Mathews’ vision for Blackcomb and other mountain developments changed fundamentally. That was the year he first saw a detachable chairlift. On opening day of 1987, the new vision came to life... in triplicate. The Wizard, Solar Coaster and 7th Heaven Express all started turning on the same day. Turning fast. While it had taken almost 40 minutes to get to the top of Lift #4, it now took just under 14. With a fast ski around to the South Side, you could be standing on the ridge overlooking the new T-bar planted into the ice of Horstman Glacier in under 25 minutes from the time you’d left the new daylodge at the new base of Blackcomb Mountain. Before you ever sat down on one of the Wizard’s covered, detachable quad chairs, you might have powered up with an espresso from the new cafe at the base. If not, you could warm up with a cup of coffee at the new food hut overlooking Horstman, or hold out until you dropped into the renamed Rendezvous which was three times larger than it had been the year before and had a reserved-seating restaurant inside. Après, you could enjoy a refreshing malt beverage at Merlin’s, the new bar at the base, across from where all the kids were being picked up at the new Kids’ Kamp and administration building. Maybe the only part of the megamillion bucks you didn’t notice outright was the new snowmaking equipment and the new groomers. Or maybe you did. Lots of people might have. "We had the largest increase in skier visits in the history of North American skiing," Hugh explained. "We went from 329,000 visits to 570,000 in one year. Doubled our revenue, doubled the employees, doubled everything. I’d never experienced anything like that in my career. In one year, we overtook and surpassed Whistler." Blackcomb grabbed 54 per cent of the skiers that season and for the first time in its history was looking over its shoulder at Whistler. If David had loaded a mighty stone into his sling and brought Goliath to his knees, he wasn’t just celebrating. He was reloading from a formidable pile of stones and had every intention of keeping the rounds coming. Almost lost amidst the hoopla of what was actually opened in 1987 was an item about what was coming down the road. Canadian Pacific Hotels announced it would open a $50 million, 337 room luxury hotel in 1989 at the base of Blackcomb that would anchor the development around it. Developments there would include the Glacier Lodge, Le Chamois, The Aspens, and numerous other condos built by Bosa Brothers and Intrawest on some of the "attractive real estate" they’d bought into. Those condo developments would ensure thousands of skiers would stumble out of their lodging right into Blackcomb’s hands. The final pieces.... On the 1988/89 trail map, there appears for the first time a warning letting skiers know if they enter Blackcomb Glacier they do so at their own risk. Being part of Garibaldi Provincial Park, it had never been within the ski area and its use represented encroachment. The mountain couldn’t control the dangers inherent in there and the dangers were considerable. The steep peaks surrounding the glacier drop a couple of thousand feet into a narrow valley. Natural slides routinely crossed its flat bottom. It was, as Arthur DeJong recalls, "...the wild west out there." And it was so attractive. With Horstman T-bar, and now Showcase T-bar, access was easier than ever. Something had to be done and that something was the creation of Blackcomb Glacier Provincial Park. Hugh remembers going on the road, lining up support among climbing organizations and other outdoor users, holding public meetings in Vancouver and jawboning the Parks Ministry. In the end, the mountain got the park’s lines redrawn and a special use permit for the glacier. They were told they could develop it commercially for skiing, even put a lift back there if they wanted to. And they were told never to come back looking to get the boundaries redrawn again. The next stone David flung at Goliath represented the final expansion of the ski area. The Crystal Chair opened up 568 more acres of terrain and gave people a new place to go on a busy day if they could stand poking along on a fixed-grip triple. With the new Jersey Cream Express, the mountains fourth quad, riders’ tolerance for slow chairs was waning. The reward for riding Crystal was not just four new runs though; a new hut restaurant with one of the best decks on either mountain was built at the top. Things could have ended there. Intrawest could have concentrated on building condos and hotels and devotees of Blackcomb would have been happy skiing the mountain’s 3,500 acres just as they were. But in 1978, when Fortress Mountain’s proposal was being worked up, Hugh drew an extra line on the map at Al Raine’s urging. Al had a dream about a lift rising high into the alpine on Horstman Glacier. The line was still there; the lift wasn’t. In Tokyo, on a promotional tour for Whistler Resort with the mayor and others, Hugh made a courtesy call on Nippon Cable, the Japanese representative for Doppelmayr lifts who’d engineered Blackcomb’s four quads. "They told me Arthur Doppelmayr was in town and invited Drew Meredith and me to come to dinner. We met Mr. Ohkubo Sr., and his son and had dinner with the whole family," Hugh said. Whether by luck or design, the meeting with Nippon led to them purchasing 23 per cent of Blackcomb in 1993. Their investment amounted to some $25 million over the course of the next five years, all of it earmarked for the acquisition of hard assets. Glacier Express, the mountain’s fifth quad, running from the Jersey Flats up into the alpine above Horstman Glacier, more or less followed the line on the map Al Raine asked be included. Glacier Express was followed in 1994 by Excalibur Gondola and Excelerator Express. The combination of these two lifts finally made getting up Blackcomb from Whistler Village as easy as getting around the rest of the mountain was and relieved the long lineups each morning at the Wizard. Lifts #2 and #3 — long since renamed Cruiser and Stoker — were dismantled, leaving Catskinner the only surviving lift from the original configuration. Glacier Creek restaurant, an expansive addition to Blackcomb’s on-mountain food service, was finished at the base of the Jersey and Glacier Express quads, taking pressure off an overcrowded Rendezvous. Blackcomb settled into a period of prosperity and in-filling. Each season saw new gladed runs cut in the Crystal zone, between the roads leading to and from 7th Heaven and wherever else they seemed to make sense on the mountain. After peaking at about 59 per cent of skier visits in 1993, Blackcomb settled into a fairly constant 56 per cent. Intrawest built condos like there was no tomorrow and began selling "interval ownership" units in their flagship Intrawest Resort Club. The future began to look settled. Until December 16, 1996, when the whole paradigm of "friendly competition" warped into a new dimension: Intrawest purchased Whistler Mountain from the Barker and Young families. Rumoured for years, the unimaginable yet inevitable finally happened. But that’s another story. There are still loyal Whistler Mountain skiers who have never set foot on Blackcomb. Of course, there are still people who think computers are a passing fad. But undeniably, the development of Blackcomb Mountain significantly altered the course of Whistler Resort for better or worse, and the synergy of the two biggest ski hills in North America created magic in Canada and chaos in Colorado.