After over four years of rumour and speculation, Whistler-Blackcomb at last announced specific plans to further develop the Flute basin/Piccolo/Burnt Stew area of Whistler Mountain.
Starting this spring, and finishing before the start of the 2006-07 season, Whistler-Blackcomb will build a high-speed quad chairlift from the bottom of Flute Basin, below the current cat track to Harmony Chair, to the top of Piccolo Peak.
According to Whistler-Blackcomb senior vice president Doug Forseth, who presented the plans at a Friday, March 31 press conference, the lift project met several important criteria set by the company’s 2014 planning documents – it increases access to high alpine terrain, it offers a mix of beginner and intermediate terrain, and it’s in an area that typically gets enough snow to open early and stay open through to the end of the season. A recent test in Flute Basin found snow depth to be well over five metres, while in some areas the snow depth is over nine metres.
The area is also thought to be underutilized, while areas directly accessed by the Harmony Chair can be extremely busy.
"(Flute Basin) is in-bounds, but it’s not accessible because of the difficulty getting in and getting out," said Forseth.
"It’s like when we opened Harmony Bowls, Symphony Bowls and Burnt Stew… the Harmony area has been a success for 12 years, and on many days it’s an area that’s oversubscribed because of the lack of terrain and other lifts in the area."
The Piccolo Express is a massive undertaking, costing an estimated $9 million of the $22 million set aside this year by Whistler-Blackcomb for on-mountain improvements. The lift itself will be over 2,100 metres long, similar to the length of the Garbanzo Chair, and the base area is only slightly higher in elevation than the base of Harmony.
The lift’s relative position in the terrain means that no hiking is required out of Flute Bowl, although skiers and borders will still have to hike up Flute Peak to access runs off that peak and into the Oboe drainage.
In addition, the area below Burnt Stew Trail will also be open to skiers and borders, including the area below the cat track off of Robertson’s Trees at the end of the Harmony Ridge.
Some runs will be cut in the area to collect traffic but the emphasis for the lower part of the bowl is on gladed skiing. There will be a "minimal" amount of thinning up top, according to Forseth, and slightly more work near the bottom.
That fits in with Whistler-Blackcomb’s environmental goals, said Forseth, adding that most of the logging and tower installation will be done by helicopter and snowcats while there is snow on the ground, to minimize the disturbance to the landscape and reduce the need for service roads. A biologist has also been hired to oversee the construction.