I moved to Whistler at the end of the 1990s, finally lured from my then-Toronto lair after many sojourns here during a decade as a ski journalist and magazine editor. Enamoured of the Euro-style high alpine, endless diversity of terrain, and oodles of snow, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. It didn't hurt that Whistler was also the most happening, hip place in all of the snowsport universe, and whose denizens' relentless creative energy — from go-go dancing to filmmaking to events — impressed the hell out of me. Some of this was just "mountain-people" mojo and some of it was leaking off the hill, where snowboarding was still a force but the ski scene had cracked wide open with both park and pipe and big-mountain invention in your face and underfoot. Whistler, it seemed, was a place where anything was possible — the same mindset, I would discover, of the pioneers who'd started a ski hill and shepherded it through infancy to become a driving force in the ski industry after only a couple decades. By the time I moved here in December 1999, Whistler was legendary not only to snow riders, but the entire outdoor world.
I found my way to the parallels with the hardscrabble early days of Whistler Mountain this summer, when I took on a project for Whistler Blackcomb to create a commemorative book for the auspicious occasion of the mountains' 50th anniversary — Whistler Blackcomb: 50 Years of Going Beyond should be landing in town sometime around December. Digging into the many heroic (occasionally tragic) stories of the past was an eye-opener that made me even prouder to call myself a Whistlerite. And the critical mass of what often seemed a chaotic ascent that I came to admire wasn't simply that focused on putting this place "on the map." Much of it had to do with the mountains' majesty and, I think, related creative ethos so instilled in the town's DNA.
For leading me through these peregrinations, I can't thank the folks at the Whistler Museum enough for not only curating such a fantastic archive, but for knowing where most of the files, photos or printed matter I needed to look at actually resided. The museum is a top-notch resource and more of an important treasury of our experience than most of you can imagine, and this town should support the hell out of it.
In thanking all of those who generously shared their stories, I also owe big thanks to my buddy Mike Douglas and his award-winning Switchback Entertainment, who were simultaneously crafting an excellent movie on the same thing for WB. Film is a very different medium than print, so the products of our separate endeavours were bound to reflect that. For one thing, the time-limitation of short film means the story must move relentlessly forward (no digressions, tangents or sidebars allowed) with limited ways to accomplish this (voice-over narration, interviews, text panels). Print, meanwhile, allows you to wander all over hell's half-acre, stuff more words and parenthetical mentions into a space, and augment it with photography.
"A lot of hard decisions were made about what could stay or go," says Douglas. "I looked for things that moved the story along in painting the big picture of what the old days of Whistler were like. Beyond that I focused on the significance of an event — from within and outside of the community. So, for instance, Whistlerites might see something like Dave Murray's Masters camps as important to WB's image on the international stage, but outsiders would point to something like Stump, Plake, Schmidt and Hattrup showing up here to film."
Tough calls, and yes, even book size imposes limits that require you to winnow what you'd like to include. Regardless, with both projects drawing from the same history, it helped immensely that Douglas had done most of the groundwork, offering me unlimited access to on-camera interviews that had yielded 20 to 25 hours of footage which he'd already boiled down to the best bits in segments of 10 to 60 minutes. As I reviewed the material and we talked about it, it became apparent he'd experienced a similar reaction to my own in journeying through the past — a whole new respect for the place he called home, something the film (and, hopefully, book) had also engendered in viewers.
"One of the most common comments was that the film gives you a sense of pride to be part of this community," he recalls. "People who remember the milestones it depicted all have fond memories, and in an age when we're so focused on the future it's great to be able to look back and go 'Wow — we've actually come pretty far.'"
Some of the film's challenges, of course, were unique to filmmaking — like tracking down archival footage and photos that weren't always easy to find. Here, the museum often came to the rescue, if not with the goods then leads to follow. Whatever the path, it was the constant discoveries made along it that most excited Douglas.
"My first big revelation was that the modern style of avalanche bombing from helicopters started right here with Hugh Smythe. First ski-school director Ornulf Johnson was a guy I didn't know about before who was super cool to meet and hear stories from. I also liked humorous stuff — classic old stories that made you laugh and boosted your energy in the editing studio. Like Smythe stealing the T-bar from Fortress Mountain and Jim McConkey's stories about mountain operations, like when Franz Wilhelmsen thought it would be OK to let people hike to mid-station for free, thinking no one would do it — but hundreds did."
In the end, pulling both projects together was much like the history of Whistler itself: a lot of dedicated people and cool things coming together to make it all happen.