Jim McConkey was the ski school star of early Whistler Mountain. With a magnetic personality and his shock of white hair — “Diamond Jim” is a Whistler legend.
McConkey had already had a long and distinguished career in the ski business when, in 1968, Franz Wilhelmsen sent Hugh Smythe and Jack Bright to ask him to be Whistler’s new Ski Director.
McConkey had always had an interest in Whistler Mountain and had heard good reports through the ski industry grapevine. The expanding Vancouver population, the long ski season and new road access all pointed towards success.
In the spring of 1968 he took a chance, moved to Whistler, and invested all his money in building a ski shop there. The new building was 20 feet by 50 feet, with two floors — rentals downstairs with a little office, and retail upstairs and the office for the ski school.
In an interview the Museum conducted with McConkey in 2010 he recalled:
“In those days we used to have snow early. If we didn’t have snow by Nov. 11, we were kind of worried. The first year I had invested all my money in the ski shop and set it all up, Christmas came, and it was freezing cold, and there was a guy who was in charge of the hydro thing. He was a wonderful guy, but I don’t know if he got drunk or whatever it was, but the hydro was run by a couple railway cars down in Mons … and it went out. There was no power to run anything. And the lifts of course were shut down. No gondola, no nothing. That was at Christmas time, my first winter, after I had gambled everything, and everybody left. People were getting on the trains going, ‘for the love of God, get me on that train!’ They were going and the place became deserted and the floors at Cheakamus Lodge had ice about six inches thick on them and it was closed for six weeks. No business in ski school, but people came up and we survived, and we had unbelievable skiing.”
Although that first year was a bit hair-raising, McConkey’s decision to come to Whistler turned out to be a good one. New technology in skiing equipment meant more people were taking up skiing, and consequently there was a great market for instructing. Jim managed the ski school until 1980 and the rental and retail operations until 1985.
Whistler Mountain honoured Jim by naming a run after him (McConkey’s) on Dec. 15, 1994 — the same day that the Harmony Express chairlift was opened. This was clearly not enough for some, as there is also an unofficial McConkey’s on Whistler Mountain — a large unpatrolled area near the Peak to Creek.
A true fun-lover with an infectious joy for mountain life — McConkey’s catchphrase “Every day’s a bonus” is one we can all learn from.
Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.