50 Years of Innovation
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.”
JIM McCONKEY (CENTER) WITH ISOBEL AND DON MACLAURIN
PEAK 2 PEAK OPENING DAY
LOCAL SKIER BRITT JANYK IN THE OLYMPIC WOMEN’S DOWNHILL