Type of entity
Authorized form of name
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Dates of existence
7 Oct. 1918 - 30 Apr. 1998
Franz Wilhelmsen was born in Trondheim, Norway on 7 October 1918. Decades later he would achieve his place in Canadian ski history as founding father of Canada's largest and best known ski resort, Whistler Mountain in British Columbia.
Franz first set foot in Canada in 1940, shortly after the outbreak of WWII, when he found himself stationed in Toronto while on a training mission with the Royal Norwegian Air Force. It was here that he met and married Annette Seagram. Following the war, the couple returned to Norway for a year before they settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. Franz tried his hand at several pursuits, none of which challenged his talents, energy or enthusiasm.
In 1960, the VIII Olympic Winter Games were held in California's Squaw Valley. The Canadian representative on the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) suggested that is a suitable site could be found near Vancouver, the province would be in a position to host a future games. Wilhelmsen had finally found his challenge. A group of Vancouver businessmen led by Wilhelmsen formed the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA). Its objectives were to have Whistler Mountain, located in the northern end of Garibaldi park, serve as the site for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games and to promote development of that area of the park for both summer and winter use.
On 21 November 1960, several of the same businessmen incorporated Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. with Wilhelmsen elected to serve as its first president. Wilhelmsen would go on to hold this title for the following twenty years. Willy Schaefler, designer of Squaw Valley's Olympic runs and an authority on ski terrain development was hired to analyze Whistler's development potential. His feasibility report confirmed the expectations; Whistler's terrain was ideal for all levels of skiers. The potential viability of Whistler was further confirmed by the fact that skiing as a recreational activity was becoming increasingly important and that the Vancouver area's population was growing.
The study recommended that the mountain's north face be developed initially as the slope was more amenable to the installation of lifts. British Columbia's government rejected the location as the slopes on the north side had already been staked by mining claims. Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. was obliged to move its terrain development focus to the southwest, Creekside as it is known today.
Developing the mountain would prove to be a challenge. At that time there was no infrastructure: no roads, water system, or power. However, the government of British Columbia did commit itself to constructing a highway from Squamish to the area if the capital necessary for lifts and other infrastructure was raised.
After Garibaldi Lifts Ltd. managed to secure sufficient capital through public investment, the enormous task of construction began in May 1964. By the end of 1965, the original resort was ready. This included a four-passenger gondola, a double chairlift, two t-bar lifts, a base lodge, a mid-mountain lift station and a warming hut on the summit. Six runs were available. On 15 February 1966, Whistler Mountain was officially opened to the public. The Greater Vancouver Tourist Bureau declared Franz Wilhelmsen its "man of the year."
Franz's contribution was instrumental in both the founding and the successful survival of Whistler Mountain as it grew into one of the world's leading resorts. He remained president of Garibaldi Lifts until 1983. Franz was awarded the Queen's Medal in 1977, inducted into the British Columbia Sports Hall of Fame in 1988, and was a recipient of the prestigious W.A.C. Bennett Award given to those who have made a major contribution to sport in the province of British Columbia.