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Trailblazer of early B.C. ski scene dies in sleep



As a ski racer and coach Peter Vajda was a trailblazer on the B.C. ski scene, changing the face of mountains like Grouse, Rossland, Silver Star and even Whistler.

Years later his roots are still firmly planted in this community and his passion for skiing lives on in his grandchildren, particularly Britt and Michael Janyk, members of the Canadian alpine ski team.

"The path they have chosen is just natural for this family," said Vajda’s daughter Andree Janyk, as she reminisced about her father’s colourful life.

Vajda’s pioneering spirit also transcended his professional career as one of the early inventors of particleboard during the 1950s and ’60s.

Peter Vajda died in his sleep on Aug. 10 at the Sidney Care Home on Vancouver Island. He was 90-years-old.

Vajda was born to an upper middle class family in Budapest, Hungary in 1913, the son of a bakery owner and the top female equestrian rider in the country.

After his early education in a Jesuit school, he pursued a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. It may have been at this time when he first fell in love with the mountains. He joined the university ski team and became a certified guide and instructor. Being certified was fairly unique in those days, said Andree Janyk.

In 1937 Vajda embarked on a tour across North America with the university ski team, when he was in his early 20s. There was something about Canada, particularly western Canada, that made him decide to stay.

Janyk said it was the skiing and the mountains that kept him here. And he never looked back.

"He loved Canada," she said.

"He took it upon himself to know this country.

"He came here to be a Canadian."

When he took a job teaching engineering at the University of British Columbia, he also took up a position as a coach with the UBC ski team.

"He believed in sport, that it was an important vehicle to test who you were," said Janyk.

"He was innovative, he cared, he was passionate about his sport, added a sense of humour to it that brought that commitment (from the athletes.)"

Years later when his coaching days were over, Janyk said he was still teaching his grandchildren, Britt and Michael, with words of advice.

He cautioned them that their career as ski racers would have its successes but they must always be gracious and humble along the way.

"He was very proud of them, mostly for what they’ve become as human beings and the way they behave as athletes," she said.

Vajda was involved in all aspects of the sport, from coaching to racing to even developing mountains.

In 1949, he designed and put together the first ski lift at Grouse Mountain. It was a double chairlift and it was built in part out of the logs that were felled on the mountain.

A few years later, Vajda was testing out his pioneering spirit here in Whistler. He could somehow see the potential of this place, said Janyk.

Vajda was a member of the original board of directors of the Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. in Whistler. Janyk can remember taking a trip to Switzerland with her father in the summer of 1964 to buy the first lifts for Whistler Mountain.

"I’ve always thought of him as a visionary," said Janyk.

As a small shareholder in the company Vajda began making his mark in the area, building five cabins in the Brandywine area. He also became involved in pursuing the dream of the 1968 Olympics in Whistler.

Whistler would not get the Olympics in 1968, nor in two more subsequent attempts. So on July 2 this year Janyk was excited to call her father with the news that Whistler would be hosting the 2010 Winter Games.

"He said, ‘Well that’s good. It’s about time,’" she recalled.

Just as he was finding successes in skiing, Vajda was also reaching milestones in his professional life.

As a partner with Columbia Engineering International Ltd. Vajda and a team of engineers discovered new ways to recycle wood waste, like sawdust, lumber and plywood trimmings from sawmills.

They used synthetic resins to make the waste into particleboard. This new product replaced plywood, a heavier and more expensive material, in furniture and cabinetry.

During the 1970s and ’80s he was involved in the development of waferboard and similar products, which used larger wood chips than in particleboard.

Peter Vajda leaves behind his wife Bettie, two sons and a daughter and seven grandchildren.