Whenever I spend a day at Blackcomb ski resort I am always amazed.
Amazed at the... 1 mile vertical drop, the seventeen lifts accessing over 3,400 acres of skiable terrain, the spectacular day lodges and restaurants on the mountain, and the beautiful 5 star resorts and ski-in ski-out condos at the base.
But what is even more amazing is that about twenty years ago, Blackcomb ski resort was almost bankrupt.
Come along with me, take a walk down memory lane, and see how this great ski resort transformed over the years into one of the world's greatest mountains.
The success that this mountain has experienced over the years can really be traced to one man.
Hugh R. Smythe.
Hugh started out as a ski patroller at Whistler Mountain in 1966, the first year that it was open for business. By 1975 he was running Fortress Mountain in Alberta, Canada, for Aspen Skiing Company.
Right around that time, the Government Of British Columbia started looking for someone to develop Blackcomb Mountain, located adjacent to the now successful Whistler Mountain, as a ski resort. Hugh saw the potential, and convinced Aspen Skiing Company to pursue the opportunity. In October 1978, they were awarded the development contract.
Blackcomb ski resort first opened for business on December 6, 1980. When it opened it had 5 chairs, servicing just over 4,000 feet of vertical. (4 triple chairs, named Cruiser, Stoker, Catskinner and Fitzsimmons and one double chair for beginners) And although those four triple chairs have long been replaced, their names live on as the names of ski runs on the mountain.
Callum holding a tray with the original
Blackcomb Mountain logo on it (1980-1985)
- Rendezvous Lodge, Blackcomb
Things weren't all rosy in the first few years of operation, and desperate measures were needed.
So what desperate measures were taken? Was it a new gondola? A fancy new resort hotel? No.
The unlikely savior of the mountain at the time was a little old used T-Bar.
In 1983, Smythe acquired a T-Bar from his old resort of Fortress Mountain, and under the cover of darkness, moved it up onto what is now known as the "7th Heaven" area on the south side of the mountain. This T-Bar (which was originally dubbed the "7th Heaven T-Bar" because it was the 7th lift installed at Blackcomb Ski Resort) served 3 purposes:
Aside: Up until the mid 1990's, the two mountains were owned by separate entities and competed with each other for skiers and snowboarders. It wasn't until 1996, when Intrawest, the owner of Blackcomb Mountain, merged with the Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation that the two mountains came under one ownership umbrella.
Do you remember those old Remington shaver commercials back in the eighties (or was that the seventies, OK I'm dating myself now). The owner of the company, Victor Kiam, comes on and says...
Now, if Joe Houssian had been doing a commercial back in the late 80's trying to entice people to come and ski Blackcomb, he may have borrowed Victor's famous line.
You see, Mr. Houssain was so impressed by Blackcomb that after a chance meeting with Hugh Smythe in 1984, he bought Blackcomb Ski Resort through his development company Intrawest in 1986.
(Actually, he bought a 50% interest for just under $4 million and secured an option to purchase the remainder within 5 years for another $6 million. All in all, about the price of a handful of the ski-in ski-out condos that sit beside the base of the mountain today.)
Looking back the deal looks like a "no-brainer". But at the time Blackcomb was on the verge of bankruptcy and many people thought Mr. Houssain was crazy.
"Crazy like a fox" as it turns out.
What Messrs. Smythe and Houssain saw was more than just a ski mountain. They saw a perfect fit for Intrawest and Blackcomb. An established real estate development company (Intrawest/Houssain) combined with an expert resort operator (Blackcomb/Smythe). The synergy proved to be revolutionary in the way Mountain Ski Resorts would operate in future.
Soon after its purchase, Intrawest embarked on a massive upgrade of the ski mountain facilities, pouring over $100 million into new lifts and an on mountain lodge called the Rendezvous. At the same time it began to sell off some of the acreage at the base of the ski mountain to developers. The mountain brought the people, who bought the real estate, who then skied the mountain. The synergy was a hit.
In 1996, with Whistler Mountain no longer able to compete with Intrawest and Blackcomb in terms of lift upgrades etc., Intrawest acquired Whistler Mountain Ski Corporation which owned Whistler Mountain at the time. Since then, Whistler Mountain Ski Resort and Blackcomb Mountain Ski Resort have simply been known as Whistler Blackcomb.
Since getting the nod for the 2010 Winter Olympics (along with Vancouver), Whistler has been preparing itself to host the world. And when the time comes, Blackcomb Ski Resort, the mountain one wanted twenty years ago, will be front and center.