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The house that UBC built

One of Whistler's original club cabins was a race against time



Whistler's early years as a ski resort were a fascinating time with a future that was by no means assured.

Even 50 short years ago the town of Whistler - officially Alta Lake at the time -was little more than an outpost in the Coast Mountains, a summer fishing retreat that was also put to heavy use by logging and mining industries. Given all the challenges the early residents faced, it's nothing short of amazing that this place exists at all. To get from there to here it was literally one leap of faith after another, but luckily Whistler - always renowned for its reliable snow - is all about soft landings.

The first to jump off the Whistler cliff were a group of four Vancouver businessmen, witnesses of the 1960 Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley. If it could be done there, they argued, then we could do it here. And so in 1962 a group called the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) formed with the goal of turning Whistler into a host for the 1968 Winter Games. They also formed a group called Garibaldi Lifts Limited to develop and operate the ski area, with Franz Wilhelmsen at the helm. Under his direction the construction of a resort would go on now matter what happened with the Olympic bid.

In order to make the ski area a success independent of the bid, however, they needed people. And rather than trust skiers to eventually find their own way up to Whistler they decided to go for the hardcore market right from the start - ski and outdoor clubs in Vancouver, as well as various corporate teams and clubs that dotted the landscape.

This is the story of one of those groups: students from the University of British Columbia who were members of the Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC). This group was among the first to break ground in Whistler, racing the clock to establish a warm, dry foothold in the area before the snow fell in the fall of 1965 - the first year of operations for Whistler Mountain. They succeeded, aided by literally thousands of hours of volunteer work and a leap of faith by the club's tight-fisted treasurers.

That building, now called the UBC Whistler Lodge, turns 45 this year - one of only a handful of buildings to remain occupied from that era. It is still used by UBC students, passing from the VOC to the Alma Mater Society two decades ago, as well as budget-minded travelers.

When Whistler finally hosted the Olympic Games, in February 2010, there was a lot of interest in renting the space. But the Alma Mater Society passed, preferring to keep the building open to students during the Games, many of whom helped out teal-jacketed volunteers.