Whistler Blackcomb's ongoing work to move the Harmony Express Chair to the Crystal Zone and replace the Harmony with a new six-seater is on time and on budget, with the company hitting the ground running about six weeks ago.
"The weather has really been a bonus to us this year," said Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler Blackcomb. "The first two weeks of May gave us really good weather, so we were able to really mobilize on the first phase... all of the earthworks around the Crystal base area, and removing the Harmony Express."
DeJong said most of the Harmony Express has already been taken apart and is already on Blackcomb Mountain waiting for the earthworks — and a new base area below Ridge Runner and Rock'n'Roll — to be completed. The new six-seat chair is also on the way, although he did not have an arrival date for the new chair.
"The earthworks are a big job because we have to re-contour a number of existing runs into a fairly large basin area, which will be the load area for the Crystal Ridge Express," said DeJong.
In January, Whistler Blackcomb announced an $18 million project, with the goal to complete the work by the end of the summer. Lift capacity in the Harmony zone will increase by roughly 50 per cent to 3,600 skiers per hour. The Crystal Ridge Express will have the same lift capacity as the Harmony Express, and will move 2,400 people per hour versus 1,520 people per hour for the Crystal Chair. As well, the Crystal Ridge Express will increase the vertical lift from 377 metres to 535 metres.
The installation of the lift towers and terminals is expected to start in late June.
DeJong said they are working to minimize the environmental impact of the lift project. For example, the mountains have retained all of the topsoil from the Crystal Ridge Express base area with the goal of re-establishing natural vegetation in the area by mid-summer. As well, the goal is to do a minimal amount of tree cutting in the area to retain its character.
"Installing the Symphony Express was the ultimate challenge in trying to integrate good ecological and recreational design, but what we're doing in the Crystal Zone is minimizing our footprint and impacts to the watershed," explained DeJong. "We've already focused on topsoil retention. Our standard is not to lose one shovel of topsoil in these sites so that once the re-countouring is done, and the sites are at the grades we require, the topsoil is there to get back a vigorous root mass as quickly as possible."
There are no new plans to cut runs through the area at this point, although some trees will be removed and pruned to open the area. The lift line was already cut years ago and has been a local secret for years. It will be widened and cleaned out for the installation of lifts. As well, the burn area that hugs Arthur's Choice and Outer Limits will be cleaned up to make that area more accessible.
"The Crystal Zone is already a nirvana for glade skiing and we want to stay focused on that and improve on it," said DeJong. "There will be more guests skiing in the Crystal Zone once the lift is in, particularly on stormy days. One of the greatest values of that lift is that when we're getting hit hard up high and have limited alpine terrain available... (This area is) in the sweet zone — low enough to avoid our hammering coastal storms, but high enough to be in the good quality snow zone."
In keeping with Whistler Blackcomb's goal to reduce its environmental footprint for operations to zero in terms of waste, energy use and emissions, the resort is also looking at the potential for small micro hydroelectric projects on mountain creeks in the Crystal Zone that are currently used for snowmaking, adding generators to the current intake system.
"Ultimately it might take two or three years, but in the Crystal Zone's footprint we're looking at renewable energy projects that could produce at least what the chair demands," said DeJong. "We're doing the planning and engineering for that in this summer."