To answer the pressing question on the minds of skiers and snowboarders bound for Whistler Blackcomb (WB) this winter, the three new lifts being constructed at the resort are on track to be open for the traditional American Thanksgiving Opening Day in November.
“We’ll be working right up until the end,” said WB lift-maintenance manager Wayne Wiltse during a sneak peek last week of construction progress at the Blackcomb base and the new gondola mid-station. “We’ll probably be working through Opening Day, cleaning up things in the gondola barn, doing things that don’t affect operations.”
Senior manager of communications for WB and the Pacific Northwest Marc Riddell added that the construction is being ordered in such a way that if conditions allow for an early opening, the mountain will do its best to deliver.
“We never know what the weather is going to bring us. If we have the capacity to open early, then that’s something we’ll consider,” he said. “We’ll make every attempt to open when we can open.”
The three major components as part of the $66-million project set to open for this season are: the Catskinner chairlift upgrade, with increased capacity from three to four per chair; the Emerald Express chairlift upgrade increasing capacity from four to six; and the new 10-person gondola on Blackcomb Mountain. Wiltse estimated the gondola is 60-per-cent completed up top, 80-per-cent done at the bottom, while midstation is still in its “preliminary” stages.
Riddell noted that while some may be displeased at having to remove their skis to ride the new gondola, others on a drizzly, miserable day will appreciate getting to the top under cover. The new gondola’s midstation is a couple hundred metres downhill from the old midstation, Wiltse explained. “Just looking at the amount of space that we needed to allow people to get around the front side of the terminal, at the old Solar location where the two lifts were parallel with each other, it didn’t give us that length that we required,” he said. “You’ll see how long this lift is up here.” As well, there is a new approach to the gondola cut off of Grub Stake to allow beginner and intermediate skiers easier access. Wiltse said one challenge with construction was scheduling a helicopter to move materials to less-accessible parts of the mountain because most were being used to fight wildfires across the province. With cooler weather that issue has been resolved.
In the meantime, crews worked in those areas to finish pouring concrete and prepare for the arrival of items needed to complete the lines like power tubes and shivs (wheels).
The materials from the bygone lifts were split up, with chairs being auctioned off in support of the WB Foundation and spare parts like electric motors, diesel motors and gear boxes saved for use on similar lifts like 7th Heaven Express or Excelerator Chair. Other resorts including Sun Peaks were given a chance to peek through and leftover parts before they were taken for recycling by a metal salvage company in Vancouver.
Also at the resort, WB has announced that the Cloudraker Skybridge will be closed for the winter season. It’s a pivot from WB’s original plan to keep it open for the remainder of the season, but Riddell said the resort then decided to take a more cautious approach with uncertainty about how the suspension bridge would handle the winter and how often its surrounding areas would be off limits to skiers in order to keep snow levels safe.
“We decided that instead of figuring it out on the fly, it would be best to take the bridge apart and reassemble it for the summer season next year,” he said. “Our goal, primarily, is to get a sense of what this winter holds for it. We’ll make the decision next year as to whether it’s something we want to keep open all year round.”