SKIING WHISTLER, before Whistler

The community's love affair with the slopes came long before any chairlift

by JEFF SLACK

Skiing's future seems to be headed beyond the resort boundary, but the sport's roots are there as well. Originally, all skiers were backcountry skiers.

Our mountains were blessed with vast alpine bowls, naturally gladed old-growth forests and prodigious snowpacks long before Vancouver businessmen with Olympic dreams built a ski resort here. Here are a few of those passionate diehards who were skiing Whistler, before Whistler.

RAINBOW LODGE, the valley's first tourist attraction, opened in 1915 as a fishing retreat, but it did not take long for skiing to join the list of lodge activities. The Whistler Archives contain a faded, black-and-white photograph showing three women standing on a frozen lake, adorned in fashionable wool sweaters and attached to some improbably-tall wooden skis. Written on the back is the prescient caption: "First skiing guests at Rainbow, about 1916." Though it never drew the crowds that trout did, cross-country skiing around the valley remained a popular winter diversion at Rainbow.

WHILE WHISTLER MOUNTAIN began operations in January 1966, few realize that dreams of developing a ski resort here began decades earlier. It was to this end that George Bury and three others found themselves unloading their 70-pound backpacks and eight-foot long skis from a float plane on Cheakamus Lake in May 1939.

Their efforts were rewarded by 10 days of perfect spring conditions, during which they explored the vast rolling terrain around Black Tusk Meadows. The scouting mission was a success, but their resort plans were disrupted by the breakout of war that fall.

IT WAS EASTER 1933, but 19-year-old Pip Brock wasn't hunting for eggs. Brock, whose family owned a cabin on Alta Lake, climbed to the top of Whistler Mountain with skis purchased from Woodward's department store, and then completed the first descent of Whistler Mountain. Locals didn't believe the brash teenager's claim until Brock pointed out his tracks through a set of binoculars.

Brock's alpine ventures caught the attention of renowned Vancouver mountaineering couple Don and Phyllis Munday. Throughout the decade, Brock joined the pair on several major ski-mountaineering excursions — completing the first winter ascent of Wedge Mountain, our region's highest peak; tracing the first ski tracks on the Blackcomb backcountry's sprawling, north-facing glaciers; enduring a 14-day expedition to Mount Sir Richard deep in the heart of Garibaldi Park; and twice attempting, unsuccessfully, the first ascent of the Coast Mountains' highest summit, Mount Waddington.

AFTER THE WAR, skiing entered a boom period. Among the period's pioneers was the Tyrol Ski & Mountain Club, a Vancouver-based group of German- speaking immigrants formed in 1952 to pursue and promote their Alpine traditions in their new home. One winter day in 1960, founding Tyrolian Stefan Ples was skiing atop Whistler Mountain when a helicopter set down nearby. Ples approached the interlopers, inquiring: "What are you doing on my mountain?" — to which soon-to-be President of Whistler Mountain Franz Wilhelmsen replied: "I was going to ask you the same!"

Ples was subsequently hired and played an integral role in the resort's development. Despite receiving a lifetime's ski pass upon retirement in 1979, Ples preferred to reach the top the old-fashioned way, leaving the "yo-yo skiing" for the tourists. He made his last ski ascent of Whistler Mountain in 1985, weeks before passing away at the age of 72.

FORGET GONDOLAS — Whistler's first ski lift was actually a Ford V8-powered tow rope installed by Cypress Lodge proprietor Dick Fairhurst in 1960. What it lacked in vertical, it made up for with DIY-gusto.

NEWS OF THE IMPENDING ski resort promised to change our region's mountains forever. Wanting to experience this raw wilderness before the crowds, in the spring of 1964, a group from the University of British Columbia's Varsity Outdoor Club embarked upon a visionary ski traverse linking Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, which they dubbed the "Fitzsimmons Horseshoe Traverse."

Their nine-day route is better-known today as the Spearhead Traverse, and is frequently completed in a single day. A current proposal to build three new backcountry huts along the route promises to open a new chapter in Whistler's passionate pursuit of backcountry solitude.

Pip Brock was the first person to make a ski descent of Whistler Mountain, doing so in 1933 at the age of 19
Photo: Courtesy Whistler Museum & Archives,
www.whistlermuseum.org