Fifty years ago, when Franz Wilhelmsen climbed up Franz’s run to reach the summit of Whistler Mountain, there was an outlandish claim that it would someday host the Winter Olympics.
Even though the founding father of the well established North American resort won’t be around to see his dream become reality, he’ll be looking down with a big grin.
Ski Rebel Magazine brings you back to one of the last interviews that the Norwegian born immigrant gave.
It was April 1997, five years after a near fatal fall on Blackcomb Mountain that Wilhelmsen agreed to go back up the mountain to share his story of passion and determination, with a young writer preparing to move from the resort.
We were at the top of the mountain when the larger than life figure turned to ask ‘‘why would you ever want to leave God’s country? Look at this place.’‘
We couldn’t see a thing from the top of Whistler Mountain. But it didn’t matter, because when the clouds cleared and the sun poked its way through to reveal Whistler’s majestic beauty, Wilhelmsen grinned and said ‘‘You’ll come back, I can see it in your eyes’‘.
The Norwegian business man immigrated to Canada in 1941 and made his way to Vancouver to develop Fisherman’s Cove. The storied visionary brought up some experts from the International Ski Federation (FIS) in 1960 to search for a suitable area to host the winter Olympics. The idea was to host the 1968 Winter Games in British Columbia.
After running reconnaissance by helicopter and then by foot they spotted a mountain 110 kilometres north of Vancouver without utilities or roads. After rounding up the funds from eight investors to complete a site survey they determined London Mountain (eventually renamed for its whistling marmots) had the best potential for an Olympic venue anywhere up the British Columbia coast.
2,300 shares were sold at $500 a piece to fund a gondola, lifts and a small cabin for skiers. Today, that money would barely buy a grooming machine with attachments.
The Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC) quickly galvanized vancouverites when it opened in February 1966. It wasn’t uncommon to see lift lines of a couple of hours to get up the mountain.
What made Whistler the go-to location? At the start, it was for the rugged fishing retreats and wilderness; however with time the skiing and its abundance of snow and world-class terrain has put it on the same level as the bigger known resorts of Vail, Zermatt, Val d’Isère, and other ski mammoths in the Alps.
Getting the necessary approvals to build the mountain proved to be of exceptional challenge. ‘‘When I look back at the struggles we had leading up to the permission (to build), now it’s funny. We kept on fighting a political debate and this whole thing came before elections.
Today, you’d never be able to get the authorizations, you’d have 2,000 people against the mountain development,’’ Wilhelmsen said.
During our meeting, Wilhelmsen recounted that the mountain was a huge catalyst for the province’s tourism industry and revenue generator.
There is no private company that can claim the spin-offs that the Garibaldi Lift Co. and Whistler can. Look at the additional revenue the provincial government took in from gasoline tax, the jobs, the food trucks and supplies – it’s endless,’’
In fact, Whistler was just a small town that evolved step by step into a big global ski city with the locals and their love of the mountains at the epicentre. While it experienced ownership woes in the past, Whistlerites are once again watching on the sidelines as current resort owner Intrawest sorts out its finance ledger to see how this next page in their story will turn out in just a few days.
Glowering and charming, seductive, aggravating, urbanized, savage, Whistler is a complex place blended with rich history and personality that is bigger than life. The sum of experiences that vacationers go through if just a few days, are only a fraction of the entire experience.
Today luxury residences and condos sprawl the resort and the list of celebrities that have come through reads like an endless walk of fame, but one can also find squatters living in shacks concealed in the bush.
Whistler in 2010 may not be an easy place to define, but it has come of age. And at its core remains one constant: the sinewy, snow-blessed coastal mountains where Olympic visionaries first staked their dreams three times in the past before finally being able to claim success.
Although Wilhelmsen passed away in 1998 from cancer, his titanic accomplishments and the vision he inspired of Whistler, we can only look up to him and say ‘‘job well done”.
As for the writer, Whilhelmsen was right he made it back plenty of times since leaving.
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