Life at the Top
Working as Whistler’s alpine caretaker in the ’80s had nothing in common with “The Shining.” Janet Love Morrison dusted off her logbook to share fond memories of living at the top of the Red Chair.
The empty chair swings around the bullwheel, inertia rocking it back and forth before propelling it back down the mountain. It disappears quickly into the blinding January snowstorm.
I pick up the phone and 750 metres below a voice answers.
“Last chair arrived, number 62, we’re clear.” The last of the staff are down safely for the day.
I hit the red button, consciously timing it so that the lift will come to a stop without a chair resting on the bullwheel. As I step out of the shack, the lift grinds to a halt. It’s 5:30, pitch dark, and a gust of wind hammers me from behind. I zip up my coat a little higher, pull my tuque over my ears, step off the ramp and head for the Roundhouse and Pika’s restaurants a hundred metres or so away.
By day the restaurants are filled with noisy, hungry skiers; by night the buildings are big empty shells sitting on top of Whistler Mountain. I’m surprised to still see so many oversized ravens scavenging for leftover lunches among the ski racks. The pickings must be too good for them not to seek refuge in the trees. Skirting the feathered foragers, I walk around to the front doors of both restaurants and lock them up for the night, questioning the necessity.
If not for the sound of the wind, the alpine would be eerily quiet. Trekking back home to the Alpine Service Building, I glance over at the Red Chair and think of yesterday’s self-evacuation training. It was the oddest thing to push backwards out of the chair with my skis on and belay myself to the ground. The golden rule is never leave home without a charged radio and lift evacuation rope. Welcome to my life as an alpine caretaker.
Seventy-two hours later
Weather: slightly overcast, -14 C in the alpine, no precipitation. Last night the phone rang around seven o’clock: a 27-year-old male skier was reported missing and patrollers were on their way back up the mountain. His friends said he was last seen going into the Khyber Pass. Gordy was asked to go out on a night search with Patrol because the area was out-of-bounds and he knew the way. They were going to ski down from the peak through the trees to search for him in the dark. Just as one of the packer drivers was set to run the Peak Chair for the searchers, the call came in to stand down—“lost” skier was discovered in a bar. While relieved that the skier had been found, Gordy was choked that he missed out on his nightski off the peak. We’ve been living up here for a month. When I think back to when I skied here in the mid-’70s, I certainly never imagined I’d be living on top of the mountain one day.
Weather: snowing moderately, -5 C. Schoki (our cat) is sitting on the window frame taunting the avalanche dogs below. How she jumps from the windowsill and balances on the open window frame is beyond me. Someone on the Little Red Chair yells, “There’s a cat up here! I think we should tell someone there’s a cat up here!” Too funny. She’s the queen of the building. She’s only allowed outside our suite when everyone has gone home for the day. She’s been having an ongoing duel with a packrat recently. I have a suspicion she’ll win in the end. We had to take her to the vet yesterday. Gordy put a blanket in his backpack and she nestled in there as we skied to the valley. Partway down her little head peeked out of the backpack; it was quite a sight to see a cat peering out of a knapsack on Gondola Run.
Weather: snow flurries, -1 C. Only one more month of getting up every morning at 4:45 to read the thermometers. Although it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Thankfully the packer drivers on the graveyard shift generally remember to make a couple of passes out to the weather plot. Every day, I head there with my flashlight to read and reset the thermometers in the Stevenson screen, and measure and clean off the stormboard that measures new snow. Then it’s back inside to the weather room to read the wind speed and direction and call the readings in to the snow phone by 5:00 a.m. I haven’t dialed the wrong number and woken up anyone—yet.
Weather: partly cloudy, +8 C. What a summer it was! It’s magic living up here and watching the seasons change. The wildlife is entertaining. I love hearing the grouse at Tower Eight and the hoary marmots are so cute, but the martins living in the Roundhouse aren’t so cute. We’ve yet to see a wolverine, and the little pikas (rock rabbits) race here and there. It’s been a real treat to drive from the valley to the alpine on the service road. It’s so much easier to get groceries home. The mountain has let us use the Building Maintenance truck and the road is quite good. We’ve been transporting groceries on the lifts since we moved up here and so far we’ve yet to break even one egg!
I’ve been busy with my correspondence courses and next week I have to drive to Squamish to write an exam. Yesterday I took a first aid course with several other year-round staff members. It was great. I learned a lot and hope I never have to use it.
This is a dream job. I get paid for a 40-hour workweek, yet I really work for only about two hours a day. We get free rent and hydro, dual mountain ski passes (although we never go to Blackcomb since the competitor doesn’t exist in our Whistler staff minds!) and the best opportunities to ski fresh powder, or at the very least, perfect corduroy before the public. I’m looking forward to the season starting and skiing to the valley at first light. I’m so spoiled—I get top to bottom down Franz’s or Gondola runs. Whenever we move back to the valley, it’s going to be a chore to actually get in the truck and drive two km to the lift so we can stand in a lineup.
Weather: unlimited visibility, clear, cold and sunny, -10 C. It snowed a lot last night. What a season so far, with record skier numbers on both mountains. It’s been busy in our backyard. It was great fun having Mom and Dad visit. They’ve never been on a ski lift and they’re having so much fun up here. Mom was upset over how dry the turkey was. I blame all my culinary failures on the elevation, so I told her not to worry. The ski patrol was up early to do avalanche control today. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table when the bombs started to go off. His body started to shake. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Dad’s a WWII veteran with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. He was beyond startled, and there was nothing I could do for him. I just wanted the bombing to stop. I hope the patrol doesn’t have to set off any bombs tomorrow.
Full Moon, February 1988
Weather: clear, unlimited visibility, -12 C. I’m sitting here at the kitchen table waiting for a knock on the door. Last night we had a full moon, fondue party and broke a few rules. We had seven guests and after dinner we all ended up playing hockey on Laird’s skating rink. Laird initiated the idea and worked hard to get it built. Stuey was in goal and the rest of us took shots on him while Diane twirled around on figure skates. The stars and the moon were stunning. I need to learn more about the constellations; everything is so clear from up here.
After playing hockey for a while, we clicked into our skis and formed two teams: Team Good and Team Bad. We raced down Upper Whiskey Jack under the moonlight, while Stuey and Gordy took us back up by snowmobile to the top of the run and then we raced all over again. One snowmobile rolled, the flag broke off and the windscreen cracked, but we kept on skiing knowing full well that if the powers-that-be found out, we’d probably all be fired.
The finale was when we returned home and re-arranged Brian’s office. We switched everything; we moved his desk, the photos, drawers and desktop—everything!—to the opposite side. Everyone crashed around four o’clock. I just stayed up to do the weather readings. Our overflow of guests slept in the first aid room and we had to get them up and out before the patrol arrived. It’s now after ten o’clock. Ali’s been waiting here with me. Nothing has happened. Gordy just called from his shop on the ground floor; he told Jamie about the snowmobile. All Jamie said was, “Anyone hurt?” (Years later I asked Brian why he never said anything about his office. He could have raised quite a fuss. All he said was, “I kind of liked it the new way!”)
Weather: mostly clear, +9 C. We met Sidney Poitier tonight! He’s staring in a movie with Tom Berenger and Kirstie Alley. Gordy and I blasted up to the top of the T-Bars at the bottom of Little Whistler to watch them film. Mr. Poitier came over and chatted with us. He was so surprised to learn that someone lived up on the mountain. It was an absolute thrill to meet him. He asked an assistant to come over and take a photo of the three of us with a Polaroid camera and he gave us the picture. The director asked Gordy if it was possible to fill a thermos of hot water for Sidney’s sweat. While Gordy went back home, I chatted with Mr. Poitier. When Gordy returned, we watched them film a blizzard scene where Sidney’s character starts to dig a snow cave. Gordy helped out by passing someone on the set huge bags of mashed potato flakes that were dumped in front of a large fan to simulate driving snow!
Gordy has been helping build the new Whistler Express Gondola. It’s the first lift to be installed from the valley to the alpine. He’s working on the alpine terminal and really enjoys the short commute to work! It’s been quite a sight to see the Skycrane fly in the towers, and there’s been a lot of action in the alpine with all the construction.
Weather: overcast and raining, +12 C. We found out our job positions have been terminated because of the new lift. We have one more month. We both have mixed feelings. It would have been great to have one more winter up here, but at the same time it’s been an amazing job and I’m grateful for the time we did have. It’s the end of an era. We’ll be valley dwellers again soon.
The position of alpine caretaker first began in 1978 with the completion of the Alpine Service Building. The mid-station position remained for another winter. Laird Brown and Colleen Warner returned to the valley in May 1989, and Sandy and Molly Boyd remained as the valley caretakers until 1992. Gordy Harder moved to the B.C. Interior. Janet Love Morrison spent the following seven years living and working in Asia before returning to Canada in 2007 as an author, journalist and editor.
Tags: Peak Chair, Pika's, Red Chair, Roundhouse, Whistler