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Work to begin on WB mountain upgrades next month

Spring skiing on Blackcomb will be impacted

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Last week, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) invited the public to learn more about its historic $66-million investment in lifts.

With work set to begin at the end of April, the resort's leadership team held an open house at the Fairmont on Thursday, March 15, meeting with around 120 people who voiced both excitement and apprehension about plans, which will see a high-speed gondola replace Blackcomb's Wizard and Solar Coaster chairs and upgrades to two others.

In a brief speech, Pete Sonntag, WB's chief operating officer, said the new lifts would enhance the on-mountain experience for guests and locals alike.

The crown jewel of the project is a new 10-person gondola that will shuttle people from the Upper Village to the Rendezvous Lodge and will be the second-fastest lift on the mountain. "Remember, this is a 4,000 an hour capacity lift. So we're going to eat up the line out of the base very quickly in the morning," said Sonntag.

The gondola—which has yet to be named—will replace Blackcomb's beloved Solar Coaster chair.

The loss of Solar is considered the most contentious element of WB's plan, with some at the open house saying they don't want to take their skis off to pack into a gondola.

"Solar for me is my soul mate," said Jane Morris, who's been in Whistler for over 30 years. "I really think it's too bad that it's not going to be there, because it means you'll have to line up and get your skies off.

"And the one thing about Blackcomb that's been like this forever is that you could get on one lift, and if it's busy, you can get to another lift—there was always an alternative. I'm not sure if it's going to be like that anymore." 

Following his speech, Sonntag said loosing Solar was difficult—but necessary.

"One of our primary objectives was to figure out how to leave that chair. We've been through countless different alignments with the gondola, and potentially (even) relocating Solar—you name it," he said.

Removing Solar came at the strong recommendation of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd, a Whistler-based, industry-leading resort planning company, said Sonntag.

"With (Ecosign's) advice and our analysis of the possibility, we decided to go ahead and do this," he said.

As part of the investment, Whistler Mountain's Emerald Chair—long considered the workhorse of the mountain—will be replaced by a new six-person chair capable of carrying up 3,600 people per hour. The Emerald will be used to replace Blackcomb's Catskinner chair, the base of which will be located slightly below its current place, underneath the Magic Castle Area.

Both new lifts will serve novice riders—a clientele WB is hoping to better serve.

While planning is well underway, the on-mountain work will start April 23, with workers clearing the roads up to Rendezvous Lodge.

Sonntag is confident all the work can be completed this year, "But only if we act with expediency."

In order to facilitate the work, spring skiing on Blackcomb will be impacted. Skiers will upload and download using the Excalibur Gondola, and the Wizard and Solar zones of the mountains will be roped off. The terrain park will be moved to the Jersey Cream zone

"We'll be downloading right away on Excalibur—which will be a change for everybody," said Doug MacFarlane, WB's director of mountain operations. "We're trying to keep it as normal as possible with the construction," he said.

The Adventure Zone and the Farmers' Market will continue all summer, though both will be slightly relocated along the Upper Village stroll.

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