'In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration.'
- Legendary Mountain Photographer Ansel Adams
Now, where were we before my narrative was so rudely interrupted by illness? Oh yeah, Whistler elder Cliff Jennings and his reminiscences about the community's early years...
Part of the fun of writing this column are the small discoveries made along the way. The details, if you will, that add so much more to our understanding of Whistler culture. For example, I had no idea of the breadth and quality of Jennings' photographic odyssey. I was only interested in his words at first — and he was kind enough to indulge me with as many tales as I could jot down. But then he revealed his trove of images to me — a rich visual journey through five decades of Coast Mountain life — and well, I admit it... I was immediately smitten.
Sure. I'm a romantic. Whatever. Whistler's early years, to me, are far more interesting and textured than the monolithic, dollar-chewing, tourist-munching monster it's become. Indeed, it only takes a few of Cliff's older pictures to remind me just how beautiful and wild this place once was. And just how innocent Whistlerites were in those days.
Travel back in time with me for a moment. See those stretchpant-and-sweater wearing kids hitting the big cornice jump? Floating over their 210cm nose-pickers like skinny-legged storks? Catch their smiles. Their energy. And then later — when they're all lounging together at timberline — look at the fun they're having with their impromptu picnic in the snow. This, they seem to be saying, is what mountain culture is all about. And this, I want to yell out, is what modern Whistler should be focused on too!
Ah, but I digress. Back to Cliff and his photography. "I got my first 'good' camera in the spring of 1967," recounts Jennings. "I was working on a promotional movie for Whistler Mountain at the time. The director of the film was Montana resident Jim Rice. And he'd recruited a bunch of us — various instructors, Dag Abye, John Nairn and me — as ski talent." He stops. Shrugs. "It was just a short promo, you know. But it was a lot of fun to do... I think it still exists, too."
Somehow the American director found out about Jenning's burgeoning interest in photography. "Jim was upgrading his own gear," explains Cliff. "And he offered me his old Pentax." Another pause. I can almost see him travel back in time to that early film set. "That was a real breakthrough for me," he adds. "For this was a good 35-millimetre camera with a wide range of lenses. I could shoot a whole lot of new stuff now." He smiles. "No more excuses..."
The timing of his new acquisition couldn't have been better. For that summer, the 24 year old was recruited for one of the boldest Coast Mountain adventures of that era.
"Yeah," he says, "we were hired as mules to support a surveying crew looking into the possibility of building a natural gas pipeline from Williams Lake to Powell River." Come again? I mean, that route would traverse some of the nastiest terrain on the planet. "Exactly. That's why they needed us. You see, they'd done the first part of the survey across the Chilcotin Plateau on horseback. And it had worked out pretty well for them. But when they reached the mountains, they hit serious bush and the horses became a liability."
Enter Jennings and buddies Hugh Smythe, John Nairn and Gary Davies. "We were the support crew to the coast," explains Cliff. Does that mean what I think it means? "Yep. We carried the gear. The surveyor — our nominal boss — was a guy called Mau... a compact prospector type." He smiles. "And one tough mountain man."