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View from the top – and how Whistler got there

Mike Douglas seen here at Whistler. A group of skiers led by Mr. Douglas in the late 1990s pushed what was possible on skis but were hindered by antiquated equipment. They then convinced Salomon to make a new kind of ski.

Mike Douglas seen here at Whistler. A group of skiers led by Douglas in the late 1990s pushed what was possible on skis but were hindered by antiquated equipment. They then convinced Salomon to make a new kind of ski.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Fifty years ago, Whistler opened for business and began its transformation into a top skiing destination. Generations of skiers and snowboarders have pushed the boundaries on its mountains – carving careers and sparking innovations in the sport. But, as David Ebner reports, the resort is in the middle of its latest test: climate change.

It’s 8 a.m. on a Friday, and the Wizard chairlift is not yet open. But some 20 centimetres of fresh snow have fallen overnight, and 100-plus eager people are already in line at the base of Blackcomb mountain – all of the skiers wearing twin-tipped skis, where both the front and back tips curl upwards.

The skis were invented at Whistler Blackcomb in the late 1990s, by a group led by Mike Douglas, JF Cusson and the late JP Auclair. Skiing had lost its edge, and twin-tip skis revolutionized the sport. Later in the morning, higher up the mountain, Douglas rides a chairlift and points over to the old halfpipe where he and his friends imagined skiing’s future: emulating snowboarders, pulling off new tricks, taking off and landing backwards – the genius of the new twin-tips. At the time, there was a sign at the top of the pipe that read: “Snowboarders only.”

“Skiers weren’t supposed to be in there,” says Douglas, 46, a pro skier and ski filmmaker. “I never really felt like an inventor. A lot of people said, ‘Why didn’t you patent it? You’d be rich.’ I didn’t really care about being rich. The goal wasn’t to make money. The goal was to make skiing cool again.”

From its beginning a half-century ago – Whistler opened on Jan. 15, 1966 – this has been a place of innovation. The size of the mountains and the volume of snow that steadily falls drew the best skiers – and eventually snowboarders – and became essential to the development of both sports. Some of the earliest helicopter skiing and avalanche safety began at Whistler, just 120 kilometres north of Vancouver. And as the business grew – Blackcomb and Whistler Village opened in 1980 – the region’s role in winter sports began to surge, as did its fame.

The sprawling backcountry is a favoured setting for movies and magazines, and Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier, in summers, serves as an incubator of Olympic medalists. Whistler’s village and slopes proved a spectacular setting for the 2010 Olympics.

Whistler is facing the same ongoing scourge of ski areas worldwide: climate change. But the resort remains on a short list of global go-to spots, alongside Hokkaido, the north island of Japan, and the best of the European Alps, says Pat Bridges, creative director at Snowboarder magazine.

“It ranks right around there, at No. 1,” says Scott Gaffney, director at American ski filmmaker Matchstick Productions. Gaffney first came to film Douglas and friends in the late 1990s. Their work “did a lot for Whistler, in terms of blowing it up as an epicentre,” he says. “Everyone knew of the terrain. They really created this core of ‘things are changing in the sport – and this is where it’s changing.’”

‘Adrenalin junkies’

The Whistler valley had for centuries been a primary route for First Nations to traverse the dense Coast Mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean from the British Columbia interior.

In 1914, the railway came through, to connect the mining and timber resources of the interior with the port at Squamish, 60 kilometres south of Whistler. The same year, a fishing lodge was opened on Alta Lake in the Whistler area. For all its proximity to Vancouver, Whistler was isolated: Until the late 1950s, there was no road at all from Vancouver to Squamish. The journey was made by ship.

The Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960 inspired a group of Vancouver businessmen, led by Franz Wilhelmsen, to search for similar potential in the Coast Mountains. They found it at Whistler. The Olympic dream was quixotic, given how raw and remote Whistler was, but six years later, after struggling to raise financing, Whistler Mountain opened. There was a four-person gondola, one chairlift, two T-bars and six runs.

Whistler was a quick hit. The business made money the first winter and long lines became the norm. Big names in skiing soon arrived. Jim McConkey, a pioneering skier in movies, renowned for his powder skiing, came in 1968 to open the ski school and rental shop. He was host to many adventurers, including then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

“He wasn’t a real fast skier,” McConkey says, “but you could take him just about anywhere.”

Toni Sailer, the Austrian legend who won all three skiing gold medals at the 1956 Olympics, opened up a summer ski camp on the glacier atop Whistler. Among Sailer’s staff was Nancy Greene, the Canadian who dominated women’s skiing in the late 1960s. Her husband Al Raine was later central in the creation of Whistler Village.

“When I first came here,” Sailer said in 1981, “there were bears walking around on the road. There was only a gravel road.”

Once Blackcomb and the new village opened in 1980, the modern resort – and global winter sports hub – began to take shape.

A parade of snowboard pros, early icons such as Craig Kelly and Terje Haakonsen, came in the summers for the halfpipes and jumps on Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier. Around the same time, the influential ski filmmaker Greg Stump brought the likes of mohawked Glen Plake to film a movie. They hadn’t seen anything like it outside the biggest mountains in the Alps in Chamonix, France.

“The thing that blew me away was it was North America and it was big, it was huge,” Stump says.

Marie-France Roy, a top snowboarder, has turned the Whistler backcountry in to a setting for daring film and photo shoots.

Marie-France Roy, a top snowboarder, has turned to Whistler’s backcountry as a setting for daring film and photo shoots.

BRYN HUGHES PHOTO

For Marie-France Roy, Whistler was a beacon. She had grown up in a small town in the Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City and had snowboarded at Le Massif since she was 11. When she was 18, she and her boyfriend drove across Canada to Whistler for a summer. “We were so broke,” Roy says. “We were living in my car.”

She worked as a housekeeper that summer and only snowboarded once – but she resolved to return. After college, in the mid 2000s, she moved for good. Today, at 31, she has recently been named women’s rider of the year by two top snowboard magazines.

Roy is among an influx of pros who have made Whistler home and turned the “Whistler backcountry” into a two-word staple of magazine covers and photos, and ski and snowboard films – the surrounding backcountry is full of prized locations, often accessed by snowmobile.

It was here pros pushed the boundaries of their sports. On Roy’s second trip into the backcountry, there was a harrowing moment when she and her guide, on a snowmobile together, blasted up a slope in bad visibility to reach a shooting location. They were bucked off. The snowmobile tumbled backward and the guide leaped to stop its fall, preventing it from tumbling off a cliff below. They got back on and kept going.

“We’re all adrenalin junkies,” Roy says.

This is the milieu in which Kye Petersen grew up – the training ground that propelled him into the top ranks of skiing.

Kye is the son of Trevor Petersen, who, along with his ski mountaineer partner Eric Pehota, made his name in the 1980s and 1990s on the most extreme lines around Whistler and beyond. Trevor died in an avalanche in Chamonix in 1996, when Kye was six.

Several years later, after twin-tip skis emerged, Kye dedicated himself to the sport. The timing was ideal. On Blackcomb, Kye tagged along with older skiers such as Mark Abma, a pro, and a group called 604 Jib Culture, in the jump park.

Beyond the boundaries, he followed the path of his father. At 12, on his first day with backcountry gear, he skied a line his father and Pehota pioneered in the 1980s, D.O.A. It stands for Down Over and Around – the directions to access the line outside the boundary from the Blackcomb lifts. “Dead on Arrival” seems equally apt for the couloir, a steep ribbon of snow walled in by rock; at the top, it’s barely wider than a ski’s length. D.O.A. is a rite of passage for the best at Whistler – and helped school young Kye.

Now 26, Petersen is a veteran of ski films, including starring in the work of innovative local company Sherpas Cinema. Outside Magazine has called Petersen “perhaps the best skier of his generation.”

“It sparked it all for me,” says Petersen of Whistler. He likens the region for skiing to the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, the celebrated surfing destination. “There’s so many lines off all these mountains that are only a quick hike off the lifts,” he says. “Having all that, it’s such a playground that it got me going.”

A snowboarder rides the Wizard Express chairlift down Blackcomb Mountain as snow from a snowgun hangs in the air in Whistler, B.C.

A snowboarder rides the Wizard Express chairlift down Blackcomb Mountain as snow from a snowgun hangs in the air in Whistler, B.C.

DARRYL DYCK/For The Globe and Mail

A challenging half-century

The Horstman Glacier is melting.

Near the top of Blackcomb, at about 2,250 metres above sea level, the 7,000-year-old glacier has lost half its volume in the past century. The pace has accelerated in the past 15 years. It forces changes: One T-bar has been moved 60 metres to the right of its previous location because of the receding glacier. The final pitch of the other T-bar started to become unduly steep. Snowmaking equipment has been installed to mitigate the changes and protect the melting ice.

“We were definitely in trouble last summer,” John Smart says. “It’s changed substantially. The melt is pretty bad. We’re one of the few trying to save a glacier.”

Smart is a former Olympics mogul skier for Canada who started the annual Momentum summer ski camps in 1992, following Ken Achenbach’s Camp of Champions for snowboarders that started in 1988.

Smart’s idea was to employ his teammates, Canada’s best moguls skiers, as teachers. The tradition continued through the years. The likes of the late halfpipe skier Sarah Burke, winner of four gold medals at X Games, and two-time Olympic gold medal moguls skier Alex Bilodeau, attended Momentum camps as teenagers – and later, as successful pros, returned to coach.

Bilodeau was among the winners of gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, alongside two other former Momentum campers, Canadian Dara Howell in women’s ski slopestyle and American Joss Christensen in men’s ski slopestyle. Snowboarder Mark McMorris, who won slopestyle bronze, was among the athletes who trained at Camp of Champions and made the podium at the 2014 Games.

The fate of the Horstman is the latest in a series of trials that go back to the beginning.

In the mid-1960s, the founders were about a third short of the $800,000 they needed to open for business. An investment at the last moment from Montreal’s Power Corp. filled the gap. When Blackcomb and the village opened in 1980, the expansion ran head-long into a recession and double-digit interest rates.

The run towards the 2010 Olympics was hit by another economic shock, the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Joe Houssian, the Vancouver entrepreneur who turned Whistler Blackcomb into a formidable business, sold it in 2006 to a New York hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. The deal was heavily financed by debt, and the financial crisis battered the investment.

Fortress fought lenders who had threatened to auction off Whistler Blackcomb during the 2010 Olympics. The Games were a success, but Fortress thereafter lost control of the resort and it was established as its own entity.

The company has fared well since. Its stock has nearly doubled. The business is focused on the winter but has been bolstered by year-round operations. The number of skier visits has slid in recent years, but other visitors – summer sightseers, hikers and downhill mountain bikers – have increased. In 2014-15, only three-quarters of the total were skiers and snowboarders.

Mountain bike at the Top of the World The Globe’s David Ebner tries out a Whistler trail that pushes the boundaries of downhill mountain biking.

Climate change is the current challenge – the future of the glacier, and skiing, is in jeopardy.

Whistler Blackcomb has undertaken remediation efforts. One is a renewable energy project on Fitzsimmons Creek, between the two mountains, opened in partnership with several companies in 2010. It can produce the same amount of electricity used by the resort in a year.

In the company’s 2015 annual information form, a regulatory document that includes an assessment of business risks, Whistler Blackcomb flagged the spectre of climate change, but the long-term picture is unclear.

“The company is unable to quantify” the potential financial impact, the filing said – but it noted it could be significant.

Hugh Smythe has seen Whistler through its half-century history. When it opened, he was an 18-year-old volunteer ski patroller, driving up on weekends from Vancouver. The place was rudimentary and rugged. He slept in the cafeteria. He was hired the next winter.

Later, as an executive, Smythe helped start Blackcomb and then was president of the combined resort, as it became a global destination.

Even as winters remain the heart of Whistler, they have become more difficult. Not much snow fell last winter. This season has been better, with six metres of snow falling so far, but it’s still a bit below average compared with the past decade.

Summer has been an essential addition, Smythe says, and again sets Whistler apart.

“There’s been ups and downs of the economy through all the years, but it’s definitely the busiest mountain resort community on a year-round basis,” he says. “There’s nobody else that comes close.”

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