"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life... Don't let the noise of other people's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
- Steve Jobs
He's lived in this valley for almost half a century. Experienced countless adventures. Seen change on a grand scale. Truly, this man is one of our legitimate mountain elders. He helped launch the region's original heli-ski business, and in so doing became one of Whistler's first bona fide ski-guides. He was a founding member of the resort-community's famed search-and-rescue team, the Chamber of Commerce's first president and a 25-year RMOW employee. Oh, and by the way — he's also an outstanding photographer whose much-sought-after images showcase nearly 50 years of high-mountain exploring. Heck, he and wife Vivien even conceived the resort-municipality's first "official" child.
All of which poses quite a dilemma for me. Frankly, I'm stumped. How do I fit Cliff Jennings' multitudinous stories into my usual Alta States format? It's impossible. Consider: the last time he and I met we talked for nearly four hours. And yet, by the time we were done (where had the time gone?), we'd barely covered Cliff's take on Whistler in the 1960s. See what I'm up against?
It's impossible. Or maybe it just requires a different approach. Which, I guess, is where I'm going with this. Instead of trying to stuff all Cliff's Whistler tales into a one- or two- or even three-part story, I've decided to simply cover one decade at a time. That way, I figure, we'll all be able to enjoy his reminiscences without feeling rushed. As for the remaining years — no need to fret, we'll make sure to have him back for frequent guest appearances. Fair enough?
Cliff was born in Lachine, Quebec, in 1944. "My dad was already a keen skier," he recounts. "I got my start on the local golf course." He smiles. "Well, to be honest we skied some days, and on others we simply slid down the hill on ice blocks." He still remembers well his introduction to Mont Tremblant. "For some reason, I had klister wax on my bases that day so my skis didn't slide at all." He shrugs. Laughs. "Seems to me, I walked most of the way down the run..."
He was 12 when his father was transferred to Toronto. "The opportunities for skiing weren't great in Southern Ontario in the 1950's," he remembers. "But luckily I met a friend. And together we made major journeys to places like Blue Mountain and Georgian Peaks and Alpine... even Devil's Glen."
After high school graduation, he spent a year at the U of T engineering school under the ROTC program. Alas, his calculus was weak and he didn't qualify for a second year. He was offered a commission in the RCAF, but his older brother (who was already a pilot and had seen the recent cutbacks) persuaded him to reconsider.
But Ontario, he admits, wasn't doing it for him. "So instead, I decided to travel to Alberta to visit my brother at the base where he was stationed." That was all it took to change Cliff's life. He got himself a job in the oil patch 400 kilometres north of Edmonton — "I'd never experienced -60ºF before. It was so cold that it made a well-head shatter" — and lasted a season before moving onto bigger (and warmer) things.
"I went through all sorts of jobs," he admits. But it was the one he landed during the summer of '65 that really rocked his world. "I was hired as a guide on the Columbia Ice Fields," he starts. And then stops. "You know," he starts again, "I think that's when I first truly fell in love with the mountains..."
Meanwhile, though, he'd also enrolled at the University of Alberta. "It was in the fall of that same year," he says. "There I was, living in Edmonton, in a basement room with no windows." He sighs. "I had the blues bad. That's when I heard about a new ski hill opening up out west." It didn't take long for the 21-year-old to make up his mind. "Whistler? I knew next to nothing about the place. No matter. I just jumped into my bug and pointed her west."
Cliff reached the Lower Mainland in early November. "The only thing I knew for sure about this new ski area was that it was 'north of Vancouver.' But when I asked people about it, they'd turn vague. 'Just go up Highway 99 and follow the signs,' they'd say. So I headed for Squamish..."
Apparently there wasn't much signage. "After passing Squamish it got kind of confusing," he says. "And I ended up on this crazy road that just kept climbing steeper and steeper and steeper. 'This can't be right,' I thought." And it wasn't. Somehow he'd gotten on the track for remote Red Heather Lodge. "I figured it out eventually. But turning the bug around," he says, "that was no easy manoeuvre."
He finally found the right route. But even then, it was touch and go. "It wasn't much of a highway in those days — more just a patchwork of logging and hydro-line maintenance roads." He laughs. "Oh yeah, and you still had to drive over the Daisy Lake dam back then."
It was pissing down rain by the time he reached the construction site at what we now call Creekside (remember — this was in November of '65, barely three months before the new ski area was scheduled to open). "I saw the Garibaldi Lifts sign and a bunch of guys working," he remembers, "so I sauntered over and asked them if there was any work available in the area." Suddenly the project manager, Eric Lomas, showed up. "He looked at me — 'What do you want?' he asked. So I told him I was looking for a job." Lomas didn't even hesitate. "He just handed me a shovel," says Jennings. "And then he told me: 'We just finished pouring the foundations here. And all this rain is going to rip it right out again... so if you want a job, start shovelling.'"