News » Whistler

history_great race

Whistler: History in the making The Great Snow, Earth, Water Race By Bob Barnett In the days before Blackcomb and the Whistler Village there were two seasons in Whistler: ski season and off season. Ski season started whenever there was enough snow to ski, which could be any time from early November to mid-December. The off season was easier to define. It started the day after the May 24 long weekend. After the long weekend the population in the valley dropped substantially and the pace slowed, until the ski season started again. The three-day May long weekend marked the transition from winter to summer. Weekenders cleaned out their cabins, got in a few last runs and celebrated the end of another winter. "One of the big things that people used to do on the May 24th weekend was play volleyball and watch the gelendesprung contest. Basically people partied and sat around and got drunk," recalls Bryan Walhovd, who began teaching skiing on Whistler Mountain in 1969. "You look at the kids now days compared to when we were there, they’re doing the extreme activities. Well there weren’t any real extreme activities to be done, other than lifting your arm up and tossing back a couple." In 1975 Walhovd decided to organize an event to celebrate the end of the ski season and the start of summer. "I thought it would be neat to put together an event where all these spectators could become participants. It just came to me one night when I was sleeping. I just thought, why don’t we get an event that puts together all these keeners — because a lot of people wanted to do things. We had our volleyball and dinner and breakfast parties and our fishing parties and we cleaned out the cabin on that weekend and that was about it. It was a big wind ’er down weekend, and then everybody disappeared for the summer until things started up again in the winter." So Walhovd got a Gestetner printer and cranked out a bunch of 8 1/2 x 11 hand bills advertising a five-person relay race that included a downhill skier, a cyclist, two canoeists and a runner. Entry fee for the first Great Snow, Earth, Water Race was $10. The race wasn’t modelled after any events elsewhere, it just embodied a lot of the things Walhovd liked to do. "The first year the course started off on the top of Whistler Mountain. It was just a free-for-all, a Chinese downhill, down as far as the snow went. The snow petered out about the bottom of Jimmy’s Joker. From there it was a job to get down the mountain with all your gear." When the skier got to L’Apres at Creekside he or she passed a baton to a cyclist, who rode around Alta Lake to Wayside Park. From Wayside two canoeists paddled the length of the lake to a weir in the River of Golden Dreams. There, the canoeists passed the baton to a runner who ran back to L’Apres. "The first year was quite memorable," Walhovd recalls. "At that time I told people I don’t care how you get down the mountain. There was one person who said he was going to fly down. I hadn’t thought of that. "But what did happen, two or three people got motorbikes and ran them up the trail as far as they could. I don’t know who the people were who took the motorbikes up but Nancy Greene Raine was one of the first skiers coming down. She pulled a fast one and, I don’t know if I’ve got it straight, but she — being very brazen and forceful in her ways — saw this motorbike sitting there and ran up, slapped the kid on the back and said ‘Your partner had to switch right at the last minute. Take me to the bottom.’ "So this young kid whips her down to the bottom and she said ‘Thanks very much, now you’d better go up and get your teammate.’" There were 25 teams in the first race, which was held in the pouring rain. Walhovd’s ’65 Ford 4x4 was the stage for the award ceremonies, where the teams got T-shirts. Local businesses donated prizes, including first prize of five Whistler Mountain season passes for the winning team. The Great Race, as it came to be known, was a rallying point for everyone in the valley that weekend and it grew rapidly. By 1984 there were 160 teams of six people — cross-country skiing was added as the first leg of the race to reduce the potential carnage created by 160 downhill skiers all racing for a patch of snow. As the race grew in popularity the course and the strategies for winning evolved. Some people screwed handles to their skis so they could drag them down the mountain once the snow ran out. Others wore running shoes inside their ski boot shells. "There were all sorts of contraptions to carry equipment. Some of them would just about strangle themselves as they were running down the hill," Walhovd says. "We were a little worried about the downhill, it was pretty wild. We had guys like Dave Murray skiing down that thing. A few of the downhillers from the national team had it figured out. The snow would get patchy before it ran out, especially in later years when we went down the village side. There were patches of snow, patches of green grass, patches of snow. These guys would sit back on their skis through the grass — you had to sit way back because the drag would throw you on your head real quick — and they’d skip across the green patches then hit snow and keep going. They’d probably get another 300-400 yards on guys who were already running." And there were the hazards, natural and otherwise. Bears were sometimes encountered, trains could hold up cyclists and one runner who was chugging along with his head down ran into the back end of a horse. An enterprising lift company employee persuaded a number of skiers to ride the gondola down one year, and then stopped the lift with them on it while his teammate continued down the mountain on foot. "It was a lot of fun. There were no bounds on what you could do," says Walhovd. "That same weekend was the time they had the wet T-shirt contests down at the Christiana." As the race grew it began to attract national calibre cyclists, canoeists and runners, in addition to national team skiers. A Japanese TV network sent over a crew a couple of years in a row to film the winners of a TV contest who were participating in the race. "It was a great opportunity for Whistler at the time," Walhovd says. "Japanese television coming here, and we couldn’t get anyone to host them. Mike Jakobsson took advantage of the opportunity, put them up, and I think he got some heli-ski business out of it." Staging the race became a military operation, literally. The 442 Communications Regiment of the armed forces set up an information command post alongside the River of Golden Dreams, in what is now part of the Nicklaus North Golf Course. "They’d set up there and have satellite stations on the mountain and throughout the valley and it was a great exercise for them, recording and relaying information back to the computers," Walhovd recalls. "It was similar to a battlefield, with communications coming from each zone or sector." But by the late ’80s people had discovered Whistler in the summer and The Great Snow, Earth, Water Race was competing with lots of other events for attention. What had started as an unsanctioned, participatory celebration of the end of winter was drawing semi-professional teams from other countries, some of which expected prize money. "Towards the end it was becoming a lot more complicated to put on, there were more roadblocks and I was getting tired," Walhovd says. "Fifteen years the thing ran for; when people start to make it more and more difficult for you, you start to say what am I doing this for? "I always tried to keep it a non-money-making event. People paid their fee and got a T-shirt. But insurance costs went up... Highways wanted a special permit, the municipality wanted a special permit... I told them all to donate them." In 1990 the final race under Walhovd’s direction was held. There were expressions of interest from the mountains and the resort association to take over the event, but he wanted the community to own the race. A society was formed and a couple of editions of the Great Race were held, under a modified format, but the glory days were over. With Whistler now a year-round resort and community, the May long weekend was no longer such a significant time of the year. But even though Whistler may have outgrown the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race, many of the formats introduced by Walhovd, such as age categories and having both sexes represented on teams, have been carried on in events such as the Peak to Valley ski race. "We had great support here, pretty well everyone in the valley got in on it," says Walhovd, who never did the race himself. "It was sort of a common purpose for everyone in the valley."

Add a comment