50 Years of In­no­va­tion

Whistler Traveller Magazine - - TRAVELLER I CONTENT - STORY BY DAVID BURKE

Since 1966, Whistler has been a place where thrill-seek­ers and ski-in­dus­try pi­o­neers pushed bound­aries. Just ask “Di­a­mond” Jim McCon­key, a man once de­scribed as “the best all-round skier in the world.” McCon­key, an On­tario na­tive who honed his con­sid­er­able skills as an ex­treme skier through­out North America in the post-World War II era, was op­er­at­ing a ski school and ski shop on Todd Moun­tain (now Sun Peaks) in 1968 when he was ap­proached to op­er­ate the ski school, rental shop and he­li­copter ski­ing op­er­a­tions on up­start Whistler Moun­tain.

By most cur­rent mea­sures, the meld­ing of heli-ski and on-piste ski op­er­a­tions might seem an un­likely brew. But even though it had opened just two years ear­lier, Whistler was al­ready on McCon­key’s radar screen as a pos­si­ble place to ply his trade. McCon­key, who had been ski­ing and film­ing ev­ery spring with Jo­hann Wolf­gang “Hans” Gmoser since the lat­ter in­tro­duced heli-ski­ing to the B.C. In­te­rior in the late 1950s, jumped at the chance when John Pitts of Okana­gan He­li­copters and the Garibaldi Lift Co.’s Franz Wil­helm­sen first pro­posed us­ing heli-ski­ing to pro­mote Whistler as a ski des­ti­na­tion.

“Pitts came to me and won­dered if I’d be in­ter­ested in do­ing the he­li­copter thing,” says McCon­key.

“I thought it would be a good pro­mo­tion for Whistler, af­ter Gmoser had started the he­liski­ing.” The heli-ski op­er­a­tion ran in tan­dem with Whistler Moun­tain for a few years in the 1970s.

“Franz said he didn’t want the heli com­pet­ing with the ski hill, so [there would] be peo­ple who’d bought ski tick­ets, and I would take them out and drop them on Tremor, Trory [glaciers, in the Spear­head Range] and even onto Black­comb,” McCon­key says. “We took them all over the place.”

“I’d come out of my shop and say, ‘any­body in­ter­ested in he­li­copter ski­ing?’ So we’d meet them in the alpine and we’d go heli-ski­ing. Then the Ja­panese started com­ing over in droves. So the heli-ski­ing ad­ver­tised Whistler in­ter­na­tion­ally.” In the years that fol­lowed, Whistler’s boundary-push­ing ethos ex­tended into the realm of ski-area op­er­a­tions.

When Whistler Moun­tain opened in 1966, ski pa­trol ex­perts be­gan us­ing a de­vice called the “Avalauncher,” a pneu­matic base­ball pitch­ing ma­chine that had first been con­verted for use as an avalanche con­trol de­vice in Utah and Colorado in the 1950s. Then, as now, there was pres­sure on a pow­der day to get ski ter­rain open on-time for ski­ing. Avalanche con­trol peo­ple needed a way to bring down dan­ger­ous snow de­posits in ar­eas above the slopes, where there was no lift ac­cess.

“We got one of these [Avalauncher] and started shoot­ing Camp­bell’s Soup tins for prac­tice,” says Hugh Smythe, who first came to Whistler as a ski pa­troller in 1966 and as­cended through the ranks to be­come the moun­tain’s safety su­per­vi­sor.

The Avalauncher, though, had its lim­i­ta­tions. The charges launched from the de­vice were set off by a mag­netic de­vice on im­pact, but didn’t have the det­o­na­tion ve­loc­ity to bring down some large snow de­posits. Also, hik­ing through deep snow to a point where pa­trollers could launch their charges was both time con­sum­ing and dan­ger­ous.

“There were places where we thought we might be able to use a he­li­copter to get at the snow,” Smythe says.

There were haz­ards, though, in­volved in the process of launch­ing bun­dles of dy­na­mite from the seat of a he­li­copter. It had never been done be­fore, and WorkSafe B.C. wanted a full set of safety pro­to­cols — how the ex­plo­sives would be han­dled, who was al­lowed to han­dle and de­ploy the charges, etc. — be­fore giv­ing its ap­proval.

“You’re fly­ing around with charges in­side a he­li­copter and you can smell the cordite from the fuse — sit­ting in the back seat with a lit fuse. You’ve got winds and tur­bu­lence and all sorts of things go­ing on,” Smythe says. “What we were us­ing orig­i­nally were sticks of dy­na­mite, and you use elec­tri­cian’s tape to hold them to­gether. What we got even­tu­ally was CIL, the sup­plier in those days, to make a shaped charge that had a higher det­o­na­tion ve­loc­ity. It had a re­ally fast det­o­na­tion, a larger cracked ex­plo­sion, which would give us bet­ter re­sults.” These days, ev­ery­one who de­ploys the charges has to have a blast­ing ticket. The avalanche con­trol pro­to­cols de­vel­oped in Whistler are used for heli-bomb­ing across Western Canada.

Whistler has also served as an on-slopes test­ing ground for in­no­va­tion in the design of skis and snow­boards. In the early 1990s, on-piste ter­rain parks were al­most the exclusive do­main of snow­board­ers — much to the cha­grin of long­time freeski­ing devo­tees such as Mike Dou­glas and Steve Fer­ring.

“At that time snow­board­ing was on the rise,” says Dou­glas, 43, who is of­ten called the “God­fa­ther of freeski­ing” and a char­ter mem­ber of a group of skiers dubbed The New Cana­dian Air Force. “There was a lot of en­ergy in snow­board­ing, and it kind of felt like ski­ing was go­ing to die. A group of friends and I loved the en­ergy that was in snow­board­ing but we also loved ski­ing, and we started go­ing to the snow­board parks [now re­ferred to by the more neu­tral term “ter­rain parks”] on our skis.” Fer­ring, then coach of the Ja­panese Moguls Team, told Dou­glas that “‘the ski mar­ket in Ja­pan is hun­gry for some­thing new,’ and I said, ‘My bud­dies and I are do­ing some pretty cool stuff,’ and we both said it would be in­ter­est­ing to design a new ski.”

Later that sea­son the idea of putting tips at both ends of a ski came along, al­low­ing the ath­lete to land an aerial trick while ski­ing ei­ther for­ward or back­ward, and be­came known as the Sa­lomon Teneighty, the “1080” rep­re­sent­ing three rev­o­lu­tions in the air. Dou­glas, whose late pal Shane McCon­key ( Jim’s son) turned what had pre­vi­ously been con­sid­ered a wa­ter­ski into the re­verse-side­cut ski, now widely favoured by pow­der hounds, is proud to have helped rev­o­lu­tion­ize freeski­ing.

Smythe, who played a key role in the re­sort’s suc­cess in a num­ber of ar­eas (from hav­ing led the group that se­cured the rights to de­velop Black­comb in 1978 to con­vinc­ing In­trawest to buy Black­comb in 1986 to the open­ing of the 7th Heaven T-bar to the launch of the Peak 2 Peak Gon­dola) said he had al­ways been in­spired by those who sought to push bound­aries.

“I’ve had lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties to think out­side the box, and I tried to in­still that in those I worked with,” says Smythe, who of­fi­cially re­tired from Whistler Black­comb in 2009. “‘How do we ac­com­plish this and im­prove it? How do we make it bet­ter?’ My bosses also en­cour­aged me to in­no­vate and think out­side the box.”

Smythe and Jim McCon­key were among those in­ter­viewed for 50 Years of Go­ing Be­yond: The Movie, a 33-minute film writ­ten, pro­duced and di­rected by Dou­glas, pro­duced by Switch­back En­ter­tain­ment, to mark the 50th an­niver­sary of ski­ing in Whistler. Dou­glas re­lates he did his best to con­vey that there were bumps along the way. Those in­cluded the re­ces­sion that threat­ened the re­sort’s fu­ture in the early 1980s and the in­ter­nal strug­gle within Whistler Black­comb to get the Peak 2 Peak Gon­dola project off the draw­ing board and then com­pleted at the height of the 2008 eco­nomic down­turn.

“We re­ally ride the roller coaster that has been Whistler for the last 50 years and as you know, it hasn’t al­ways been a smooth ride,” Dou­glas says. “In mak­ing the film, I’ve tried to paint a true pic­ture of this town’s his­tory.” Warts and all, he says, “I think there’s no­body who will deny that Whistler has evolved and risen to the top through all the chal­lenges.”









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