An article in the Question concerning this season’s low snow conditions (“Weather forecast holding,” Dec. 31) states that “2004-05 was the worst season in probably 30 years.”
While this is likely true, the worst season since Whistler Mountain began ski operations was undoubtedly 1976-77. Many of us who were here then are comparing this season’s low snow amounts to that season as the weather patterns have been quite similar, although no two winters are ever the same.
November 1976 was dry with a cold north wind blowing in late November and into December. There was some snow in the alpine but not enough to ski to the bottom of the old Green Chair — unlike this season, when Whistler Blackcomb has done extensive snowmaking and created some pretty good skiing, there was no snowmaking capability in 1976.
From the time that Whistler Mountain opened for skiing in 1966 through the 1975-76 season, there had always been plenty of snow, and there had been extraordinary snowfall amounts in the 1966-67, 1968-69, 1971-72, and 1973-74 seasons, with 1973-74 still being the record year (perhaps because Whistler Blackcomb has no records for the 1971-72 season). Most of us living here then thought that the big snow years would never end and so snowmaking was never considered.
This was despite stories from Dick Fairhurst, who had moved to the area (then called Alta Lake) in 1944. He claimed that there had been a couple of no-snow winters in the ‘50s and that he had built the foundation for Cypress Lodge, which later became the youth hostel and is now the Point, during a snowless February. So 1976-77 came as a severe shock to the rest of us.
In mid-December 1976, the ski patrol, lift maintenance guys and operations managers decided to try and at least allow some skiing on the Green Chair runs. Lift operations managed to borrow a snow gun from Grouse Mountain and transport it to the bottom of the Green Chair. The ski patrol created a small reservoir in a creek near the bottom of the Green that could impound enough water to permit the snowmaking for two hours each day. With this limited capability, the packer drivers were able to make a narrow ribbon of snow allowing skiers to get to the base of the Green Chair.
Whistler Mountain was then able to open for the Christmas holidays and the skiers came. They could ski on the Green Chair and in the T-bar bowl, but had to download on the Red Chair and the gondola. After the holidays, however, there was a warm rain that wiped out the snow on the lower slopes of the Green and Whistler was forced to close for three weeks in January.
During the closure period, the weather was mostly clear with a strong temperature inversion. The alpine was above freezing while the valley was well below freezing. This meant that the local lakes were frozen, allowing a perpetual hockey game on Alta Lake. While most of the staff on Whistler Mountain had been laid off, a few of us were kept employed so the ski area would at least have some core staff at such time as the mountain was able to re-open. Those of us still employed referred to it as Garibaldi Lifts welfare. The Lift Company opened a soup kitchen so that its laid-off employees wouldn’t starve.
After running out of useful things to do, Jamie Tattersfield, the head packer driver, and I built a rather crude iceboat in the maintenance shop. We put it on Alta Lake in front of Tokum Corners and spread the word that anyone could use it as long as they brought it back. In the meantime, someone discovered that Cheakamus Lake was frozen and clear of snow, so many locals hiked in with their skates on the snowless trail. It was an amazing experience to be able to skate the entire length of Cheakamus Lake. There were a couple of pressure ridges that you had to jump over, and the ice was incredibly noisy, constantly pinging and boinging and echoing in the narrow valley.
A small amount of snow came in late January, allowing the mountain to re-open on a limited basis. More snow came later in February and then the real snow finally came in March. Of course, given the shallow snowpack and early cold temperatures, there was a thick layer of well-developed basal facets that helped produce some stupendous avalanches later in March. The same problem is likely to occur later in this season when we finally get some decent snowfalls.
President, Whistler Museum and Archives Society