By Clare Ogilvie and Andrew Mitchell
Whistler Blackcomb went from the highest high with the launch of the Peak 2 Peak gondola on Dec. 12 to the lowest of the lows when Tower 4 on the Excalibur Gondola sheared off on Dec. 16, injuring 12 and trapping 53 riders for up to three and a half hours.
An investigation is underway by Whistler-Blackcomb and the B.C. Safety Authority, but it is now believed that water seeped into the tower and froze in the extremely cold temperatures. The expanding ice caused the top of the tower to sheer off at the flanges that connect the upper and lower parts of the tower, which were bolted and welded together.
The process is known as “ice-jacking” and is similar to what occurs when pipes freeze or lake ice shears due to expanding forces. There has only been one other case of ice-jacking on a ski lift, after a tower burst at Silver Mountain in Idaho in 2006. That incident happened at night and nobody was injured.
Whistler Blackcomb is not sure how water got into the tower, as it was supposed to be sealed. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the lower tower was partially filled with concrete to provide more dampening, which allowed the water to creep up to the connection point.
The incident happened at roughly 2:25 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon as many skiers and boarders were downloading the mountain. Cabins dropped up to 10 metres, one coming to rest over Fitzsimmons Creek. Another cabin dropped onto a bus shelter, shattering the windows and damaging the roof.
Two cabins further up the line hit the ground in a parking area, which is where most of the injuries were believed to have taken place. A house was also damaged by the cable, which swept a chimney off the roof.
Graeme Bell believes he is just lucky to walk away after the gondola he was travelling in plunged to the ground.
“I was downloading on Excalibur Gondola at the end of the day and I just heard a big metal bending noise and all of a sudden our cabin was plummeting to the ground,” he said outside the Whistler Health Care Centre where he had been treated for his injuries.
“Our cabin bounced off the ground, our window popped out upon impact, the bench collapsed, my finger got broken and my head was banged.
“It was bouncing up and down for a couple of seconds and then it came to a stop, and we jumped out the window that had popped out as we were only about three feet off the ground at that point.