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Hugh Smythe announces his retirement

Intrawest senior VP plans to enjoy the Olympics ‘as a local’

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One of the founding fathers of Whistler, and "one of the smartest guys in the ski business," is retiring.

Hugh Smythe, who moved to Whistler in 1966 at the age of 19 to work as a ski patroller, will be stepping down as Senior Vice President of Intrawest Mountain Resorts on March 12.

"It's one of those days. There's the euphoria and excitement of doing something new, and the nostalgia of leaving something behind," Smythe said Monday.

Family, friends and health were some of the personal priorities he cited in deciding to shift his focus after 43 years in the ski business.

"I've had a few friends with health problems, a few who've passed away. I just looked in the mirror," Smythe said.

But he emphasized he's not going anywhere. He will remain an advisor to Intrawest and is looking forward to the next year, particularly the Olympics.

"I want to experience that as a local."

Smythe, 61, has been present at, and played a role in, almost all of the key moments in Whistler's development as a mountain resort. Among the highlights he listed are: leading the group that was awarded the rights to develop Blackcomb in 1978 and the opening of Blackcomb and Whistler Village in December 1980; meeting Intrawest CEO Joe Houssian in 1986 and convincing Intrawest to buy into Blackcomb; bringing a T-bar to Blackcomb from Alberta's Fortress Mountain and opening up the 7th Heaven area in the fall of 1985; spearheading Intrawest's expansion to other mountain resorts; bringing Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb together as one company in 1996; the awarding of the 2010 Olympics in July 2003; and the opening of the Peak 2 Peak gondola last December.

"It feels like a chronology, points in time you look back and go 'wow, that was amazing.'

"I was extremely lucky to be given opportunities and challenges at a young age," said Smythe, who was leading the Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol at the age of 21 and was mountain manager at 24. "I wanted to make sure our staff had the same opportunities."

Smythe's career spans personalities as well as eras. He recalled working with Stefan Ples and Whistler Mountain's first president, Franz Wilhelmsen.

"It was fun in those early days to do stuff with them," he said.

He recalls marking the original base terminal for the first Green Chair with Wilhelmsen, an area at the confluence of Ego Bowl and Jolly Green Giant. Wilhelmsen was in a helicopter above, dropping rolls of toilet paper to mark the location. Smythe was on the ground trying to spot the toilet paper in the trees.

Despite rising through the ranks at Whistler Mountain, Smythe left in 1974 to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta. Fortress, which had gone into bankruptcy in 1971, was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank. Smythe got the contract to run the resort and learned about the whole mountain operation at Fortress.

And then FBDB asked him to find a buyer for Fortress, which led to the involvement of the Aspen Ski Company.

In October 1978 the partnership of FBDB and Aspen Ski Co. won the right to develop Blackcomb, which brought Smythe back to Whistler.

The simultaneous development of Blackcomb and the Whistler Village was the point at which Whistler began to change from a weekend retreat for Lower Mainlanders to an international resort. But it didn't happen overnight and it wasn't all smooth sailing.

"It hasn't been all up from day one," Smythe said Monday.

The winter Blackcomb opened it rained steadily through January, and Smythe had to lay nearly everyone off. A few months later the recession hit Whistler hard. For several years the village was a mess of parking garages and foundations. But eventually the corner was turned.

"What's extremely satisfying... I think back to the early days, what people have been able to realize on their investments. In some small way, I feel like a catalyst to that," Smythe said.

He was certainly the catalyst that brought Joe Houssian and Intrawest into the mountain resort business. They met at a Young President's dinner in January 1986. By July Intrawest had bought out Aspen Ski Co.'s 50 per cent stake in Blackcomb. The recession was over, Intrawest put capital into new lifts on Blackcomb and the Benchlands real estate began to be developed.

Smythe is recognized throughout the ski business as one of the best mountain operators anywhere. Roger McCarthy, who worked for Intrawest, Vail Resorts and other ski areas in Europe and North America, has called Smythe "one of the smartest people in the business."

Asked if he felt some satisfaction from Whistler's ascendancy to an internationally recognized ski area Smythe said: "When you ride a lift you naturally ask people where they're from... that's quite satisfying.

"But we still have a ways to go. That's one of the reasons for the Peak 2 Peak, and getting it done before the Olympics.

"When I hear people say they came because they heard about the Peak 2 Peak, or they read about it or saw it on TV. That's extremely satisfying."

And despite the economy and strange weather this winter, he remains bullish on Whistler's future.

"We're not short of anything here. With the Callaghan and the things the Olympics have delivered, it bodes well for the future," he said.

"This is a spectacular resort hosting the Olympics. I'm not sure people have decided to vacation in Lillehammer, Nagano or the resorts around Torino (because they hosted the Olympics). But we've got a spectacular resort to show the world."

There's a generational element to Smythe's retirement. His son Adam is now the assistant food and beverage manager at Cypress, which is also hosting Olympic events.

And Hugh is now seeing the third generation of skiers, and boarders, on Whistler and Blackcomb.

"I knew their grandparents," he said. "It's pretty cool."