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Whistler Blackcomb's Golden Jubilee

50 years of good times and skiable lines



When dropping into Ruby Bowl, showboating first turns down Shale Slope or receiving cheers from spectators as you straightline the Jersey Cream lift line, it's easy to take the resort of Whistler Blackcomb (WB) for granted. After all, it's a big, successful, corporate company that thrives on the good times of visitors from all over the world. For the majority of the population that lives in the Whistler valley, the resort has simply existed from the first day they moved to town, the dual mountains of Blackcomb and Whistler barely fitting into their visual periphery from the village. But like every great enterprise, it all started with a pipe dream.

Hearing the tale of Whistler Mountain's humble beginnings, how four Vancouver businessmen led by the fiercely ambitious Franz Wilhelmsen aspired to build a resort in time to host the 1968 Winter Olympics, is one of Whistler's many rites of passage. While plenty of historical photos and written accounts can be found around Whistler Blackcomb's on-mountain lodges and in the valley at the Whistler Museum, for its 50th anniversary Whistler Blackcomb needed something special; something that would turn heads in the ski industry the world over and honour the legacy of the founding fathers, as well as crediting the colourful characters that helped shape Whistler into what it is today.

The result is a 32-minute documentary (directed by Switchback Entertainment) and a 116-page coffee table book (written and compiled by Pique contributor Leslie Anthony), both titled 50 Years of Going Beyond.

A half-century treasure trove of ski history could easily have created a miniseries of films and volumes of photos and written words. Inevitably, some key events and characters from the last five decades of Whistler Blackcomb just could not fit into the different narratives.

These are some of the stories left on the cutting room floor but forever part of the local lore.

Down a 50-year-old rabbit hole

Whistler is home to dozens of reputable film production companies, but when it came to handling such an important milestone in Whistler Blackcomb's history, the choice was an easy one: Switchback Entertainments, Mike Douglas has spent most of his life in Whistler as a ski bum, freeskiing athlete and, over the last 10 years, as a director and filmmaker for the company. Partnering with local creative agency Origin Design + Communications, Douglas began what would be a long and arduous creative process of trying to document half a century of eventful history, all with limited time and budget. It began with a meeting between Douglas, Origin's creative director Danielle Kristmanson and a few key staff from both companies.

"We asked the question of what comes to mind when you think of 'Whistler 50 years,'" says Douglas.

"What are the first things that pop into your mind? We built a light framework of iconic moments and characters that we felt were worth pursuing. It was really in January (2015) that I used all that bad weather to start digging into it."

It quickly became apparent that there was a seemingly endless well of content and characters that could help shape the film, so one of the first moves was to establish some criteria to sieve through the sea of ideas.

"When we first sat down we knew we would have lots of fodder, we'd have lots of legs and directions that it could go," says Kristmanson.

"We started talking about it early on, if we could gather historians to hit at least one story and key moment from each decade. But we didn't want it to be a locals-only story."

Even with that first condition, Douglas felt overwhelmed with the possibilities.

"It could have easily been 'Whistler 50 Years: The Miniseries,'" says Douglas.

"There are so many cool things that have happened here. One of the things that terrified me later in the process was that (WB) realized that 'Hey, we haven't even talked about the bike park or any of the summer stuff!' I know how big a story that is as well. But we had already shot the budget pretty quickly with the volume of stuff we had."

To narrow down the scope, both Douglas and Kristmanson agreed that they needed to focus on events that pushed the boundaries of skiing and snowboarding and helped put Whistler on the international map.

A quadruple disappointment

One of those events was the first ever quadruple backflip on skis, performed by Steve Corbett on the Camel Humps on Whistler Mountain in April, 1975. The footage found its way online around three years ago but was promptly taken down. Douglas saw it as a sort of centrepiece of athletic achievement during Whistler's 50 years, but the footage would not be destined for his film.

"I spent hours on the phone trying to get that footage just because I thought it was not only such a (bold) piece of WB history, but just ski history," Douglas says.

"(Corbett's) quad backflip was the first one ever done. He was 80 feet (24 metres) in the air flipping four times. There are so many kids (today) freaking out over skiers or snowboarders doing a quad cork or whatever, I'm like 'Been there, done that, it was done over 40 years ago, punk!' A little part of me wants to educate these kids that they're not the first group of badasses."

Despite Douglas' pleading, the owner of the footage insisted that he would make his own movie from it and did not want it screened as part of 50 Years of Going Beyond. Disappointed but not defeated, Douglas moved on with the project.

A Dual Mountain Standoff

A large part of the documentary was the ongoing battle between Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains in the early '80s. The relentless marketing and management efforts of Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe, who wasn't critical of snowboarding or afraid to shake up the status quo, gave Blackcomb the image of progression as opposed to Whistler Mountain's tradition. One event that many town veterans recall fondly is the Saudan Couloir Race, a timed, gated racecourse down one of the steepest ski runs in North America, it is now officially known on the trail map as the Couloir Extreme after extreme skier Sylvain Saudan complained about his name being used for the run. Without his permission, the Saudan Couloir Race became a flagship event for Blackcomb, a sort of antithesis of the traditional — but impressively long — Peak to Valley race on Whistler. The image of a fighter pilot's helmet and mask above a near-vertical couloir — complete with race gates — further added to the Saudan Couloir's legend and the iconic posters can still be found on the walls of the homes of long-time locals, as well as behind the counter at the Whistler Medical Clinic.

"It was going on right around the time that I moved to Whistler and I remember thinking it was so badass," says Douglas. "There was no one else doing that at the time and it was such a great symbol of what Blackcomb was at the time too."

During his on-screen interview for the WB movie, Devun Walsh, one of the most influential snowboarders from the Whistler area, spoke of staring up at Saudan Couloir Race posters on his bedroom wall in his youth, dreaming of skiing that run. Alas, Blackcomb's most iconic race had to be cut from the documentary for brevity.

"By the time I got to that point in the film around the late '80s and early '90s, I already had so much Blackcomb material and very little Whistler," says Douglas.

"As a Blackcomb guy, I was trying to be really self aware that this can't be 'all about Blackcomb, and Whistler sucked,' even if that was my attitude back then."

Honouring the builders

With a 32-minute film, only so much time could be dedicated to those who built Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains literally from the ground up.

One man who has lived in Whistler for the entire 50 years of WB's development is Cliff Jennings. Arriving in Whistler in October 1965, fresh out of engineering school, Jennings immediately went to work filling sandbags at the Creekside base — where foundations were being laid for the first gondola building — and was soon working on the construction crews for Whistler's first alpine ski lifts.

"There were construction crews hired and the engineers were doing the supervising," says Jennings.

"I worked with the engineers representing (Whistler Mountain). When I worked on the (original) Green Chair in the summer of 1968, I had to be a whistle blower, because I was going to be riding that lift later. The (concrete) at the top station was poured and you could put your fist right through the concrete, which is what the bull wheel rode on. So I went over to Franz (Wilhelmsen) and said just quietly 'you guys may want to check this out before you approve it.' They ended up having to break it apart and re-pour the concrete."

Even with more diligent construction standards, it would not be the last time Whistler Mountain had to deal with complications with its first lifts. Jennings recalls a windy day riding the Red Chair with one of the engineers, the same day as the Ministry of Transportation (MOT) inspector was due to arrive from Victoria.

"When we got to the top, I looked to the left and the whole (Green Chair) top station was gone, it had been blown away" recalls Jennings.

"If you can picture where the Emerald Express is now and the little terrain park that goes to the bottom, the pieces of that tower were strewn throughout that little valley."

As it happened, those high winds also prevented the inspector from even reaching Whistler as the ferries from Vancouver Island were shut down, giving the Whistler Mountain carpenters a chance to build a more robust top station that could withstand the elements.

One of the biggest challenges of building lifts during the first few years of operation was that there was no weather data available, making design a more trial-and-error affair.

"There was no permanent weather recording like they have now," says Jennings.

"The same thing happened one day to the top control shack for the upper T-Bars. The 95 mph (150km/h) wind took it and it just disappeared. In 1966 when we finally opened the upper T-Bar in February, we had to close it by the end of February because it was buried. The following year they had to raise all the towers and the base station.

"The learning curves were more to do with the kind of weather we have here. Nowadays, before an approval is given for a ski area, you have to have five, six, seven even more years of snow records. There was none of that done. There were records in the valley, but those were irrelevant to what was going on up top."

The '60s were not immune to bad snowfall years either. In 1969, a rainy season in the Pacific Northwest washed out most of the mountain, but snow still fell in the alpine. When reliable snow returned in mid-March, Whistler Mountain had the best skiing in the region right up until mid-May. Skiers in Vancouver and Seattle — whose local mountains had been stripped of snow from the rain events and had all but closed for the season — for the first time turned to Whistler for their snow fix.

"Just like last year, which was a bad year, Whistler Blackcomb did alright," says Jennings.

"Mostly due to the snowmaking they had, but they were better than everyone else as far as conditions were concerned."

Inevitable omissions

The editing process of 50 Years of Going Beyond became a near obsession of Douglas', who worked well beyond his budgeted time to make the documentary.

"I couldn't get it any shorter and as a member of the community, I didn't want to half-ass it," says Douglas. "I wanted people around here to be stoked on it."

From the first production meeting for the film, Douglas knew he would garner a few negative sentiments from the community. Characters such as mountain pioneer Seppo Makinen, village visionary Eldon Beck and even Crazy Canuck Dave Murray were all stories he wanted to include, but inevitably had to be left on the cutting room floor.

"It's impossible to tell Whistler's story in a watchable movie format and not leave people out that should have been there. I knew that from the first day," says Douglas

"Every minute you go longer, that's another minute of music, another minute of sound design, another minute of footage. In all honesty it was supposed to be much shorter, I just couldn't get it any shorter and feel good about it. It kind of became what it became. It was a really cool thing to work on and I feel honoured to have been chosen to tell the story."

The Story of The Photo

While 50 Years of Going Beyond was the flagship marketing product for the 2015/16 season, WB still needed a traditional advertising campaign for print media. The film would garner tens of thousands of views through social media and online sharing, but the message still needed to grace the pages of ski and mountain lifestyle magazines.

"As soon as we got the storyline developed, we realized we also needed an advertising campaign," says Kristmanson.

"Unless you're doing a simple film release poster, translating a documentary into an advertising campaign is tricky. That was a tough brainstorming session. We asked 'what are the messages we're trying to present out there?' It was that WB has been tied to the progression of skiing and snowboarding through some really key characters. How do we represent this? Then we asked, 'what if we could get all these people here on the same day and jam them into the gondola?' We got all excited about it, then thought it was never going to happen."

Such a bold photo shoot could mean WB would have to fly in certain people to Whistler from other parts of North America, adding to an already bursting budget. But the idea was just too good an opportunity to pass up. The result was a "Where's Waldo" of ski legends, a double page spread of three generations of athletes that have made an impact on the sport in Whistler. Organizing this many people to be in Whistler on the same day was an obvious logistical nightmare, but with the help of Douglas and WB's film & communications supervisor Chris McLeod, a date was set, phone calls were made and the invitees made their best efforts to attend. The turnout was larger than expected.

"The vibe in there was incredible, all these young guys with all the old legends," says Kristmanson, who stood behind photographer Blake Jorgensen when the photo was taken.

"They were waiting on Jim McConkey to show. We were getting radio updates that Jim was on the highway, Jim was in the village, Jim was on the gondola. Everyone was patiently waiting and the athletes were all getting autographs from each other. When Jim came off the gondola into the Peak 2 Peak building, the place just erupted. It was just the most amazing moment for everyone there." n

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