Whistler Mountain opened its gates in the winter of 1965/66. This was a mere five years after a group of Vancouver businessmen – inspired by the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics – first dreamed of a ski hill in the area. These men were visionary and their dream went on to develop into one of the largest ski resorts in North America.
However, they were almost beaten to it by a group of skiers who were considering developing a resort in the Whistler area an incredible 21 years previously, and may well have done so, if it weren’t for the interruption of the Second World War.
In May of 1939, George Bury and three other skiers found themselves on what they, along with their floatplane pilot, believed was the shore of Alta Lake. Laden with eight-foot-long skis and 80 pound packs of gear, they began a ten-day exploratory trip of the area. In 2007 as Bury looked at maps while recounting his experience, he conceded that it was more likely the shores of Cheakamus Lake from which they began their journey.
His party included Austrian George Eisenschimel, who had escaped his home country just before Hitler annexed it, and went on to travel through Switzerland, to South America and on to British Columbia. It was Eisenschimel who had the idea of developing the area for skiing and took the step of contacting Bury, who at the time was well known as the Four-Way champion of Western Canada. This skiing discipline encompassed jumping, cross-country, slalom and downhill. In addition to Eisenschimel, Howard Hamil was a part of the trip. The name of the fourth party member is unfortunately lost in the sands of time.
The group was greeted by warm spring conditions, and spent their time hiking up, heating snow to produce drinking water, and then skiing down to search for another appealing ridge.
Ending their trip with a run down the face of the Barrier, they skied to the edge of the snowline and then hiked to the PGE railroad, where George stood in the middle of the tracks until he was able to flag down the next train and hitch a ride to Squamish.
Not long after, the idea of developing the area for skiing was sidetracked when Bury joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) at the beginning of the Second World War. After the war, Bury continued his career in radio and communications and never looked back. It would be another 21 years until eyes hungry for skiing were once again turned to this area. It is fascinating to think that Whistler’s history could have been very different…
Check out Whistler Museum’s collection online here.