Over the past few months, we’ve been sharing stories about Blackcomb Mountain and its early days of operations. Dec. 4 marked 40 years since Mayor Pat Carleton cut through the ribbon on Lift 2 using a chainsaw and officially opened Blackcomb Mountain to the skiing public.
This did not technically mark the beginning of organized skiing on Blackcomb Mountain. The day before, on Dec. 3, a limited opening had welcomed Whistler residents to test out Blackcomb’s operating systems. The previous winter, Blackcomb had offered snowcat tours for 12 skiers at a time, promising fresh powder and a hot lunch on the mountain. Dec. 4, however, was the culmination of a lot of hard work in a very short time.
In 1978, the Province of British Columbia put out a call for development proposals for Blackcomb under the direction of Al Raine, then a consultant for the British Columbia Ministry of Lands, Provincial Ski Area Coordination. Two companies expressed interest: one led by Paul Mathews, who later founded Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., and the other put forward by Hugh Smythe and Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd. (FMR). As Smythe recalls, it was on Oct. 12, 1978 that they were told they won the bid, only just over two years before opening day.
Smythe had previously worked for Whistler Mountain, first on the ski patrol and then as mountain manager. In 1974, he left Whistler to run Fortress Mountain in Alberta, which was owned by the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB) [today known as the Business Development Bank of Canada] after going into bankruptcy in 1971. When the FBDB asked Smythe to find a buyer for Fortress Mountain, Aspen Skiing Corporation was brought in and FMR was formed, jointly owned by the FBDB and Aspen Ski Co.
After the success of Star Wars in 1977, 20th Century Fox began diversifying under the direction of Dennis Stanfill and, in 1978, bought Aspen Ski Co. Before FMR could begin work, Smythe had to go to Hollywood to make the case for spending $11 million developing Blackcomb Mountain. According to him, his pitch was, “It doesn’t cost as much as a movie, so you guys should do it.” Luckily, they did.
Along with the many practicalities of starting a new venture, the winter of 1978-79 was spent exploring the mountain and designing trails. Smythe set up in a house at the end of Fitzsimmons Drive in White Gold and kept a fuel tank and a Tucker Sno-Cat in the front yard. The trails were cut in 1979 and the winter of 1979-80 introduced skiers to Blackcomb through their snowcat tours. The summer and fall of 1980 saw lifts installed on the mountains. In what appears to be an incredibly short time, Blackcomb Mountain was ready to open.
The original target date set in 1978 was Dec. 1, 1980. Blackcomb Mountain opened just three days late, a feat described by the management as “not bad.” Lift 1 from the (still under construction) Whistler Village was not yet open and capacity was limited to those who could find parking at the daylodge base (now known as Base II) or get dropped off with their equipment but, by all accounts, the first day of skiing was a success.
Happy 40th Blackcomb!