New gondola at Whistler-Blackcomb takes ski lifts to new heights
The new Peak 2 Peak gondola at Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia opens Dec. 12.
Special to The Seattle Times
If you go
Whistler-Blackcomb's official opening is planned for Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27. The Peak 2 Peak gondola begins operation Dec. 12.
Rides on the Peak 2 Peak gondola will be included in Whistler-Blackcomb's single-day EDGE Card for lift access. With it, Washington residents pay $64 (Canadian) for an adult's daily lift pass if purchased online by Friday, Nov. 21, or $76 thereafter (with reduced prices for children, youth and seniors). Single-day tickets otherwise are $80-$89 depending on time of season. For information, go to www.whistlerblackcomb.com, and under "Tickets and Passes," click on "EDGE Cards."
To get to Whistler-Blackcomb, head north on Interstate 5 to the U.S.-Canada border crossing. Once in Canada, head north on Highway 15 for about 15 miles to Highway 1. Go west on Highway 1 through the Vancouver metropolitan area. At Horseshoe Bay, the road becomes Highway 99, the Sea to Sky Highway. Follow for 65 miles to Whistler.
Note: Because of highway improvements in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics, expect delays. For the latest updates, see www.whistlerblackcomb.com and under "Getting There," click on "Road Report."
www.whistlerblackcomb.com or 866-218-9690
Snow Sports 2008
WHISTLER, B.C. — Into the misting clouds below us, the cables disappear the way a fishing line, just cast, sinks below the surface of a pond. Unlike the fishing line, however, these cables re-emerge from the clouds and rise high to a couple of giant "Star Wars"-looking steel towers that you half expect to see moving herky-jerky style down the forested hillside across the valley.
The valley is the nearly 3-mile-wide Fitzsimmons Creek Valley that separates Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. And the cables — some 17 miles worth, hung Christmas-light-like with 28 red sky cabins — is the lifeline for the ski area's brand-spanking-new Peak 2 Peak Gondola.
It's not a ski lift, so much as a ski lateral — able to transport skiers, boarders and sightseers back and forth from high on Whistler to high on Blackcomb without first having to drop down to village level. It opens to the public Dec. 12.
Tracing the cables' path through the clouds and sky with my eyes, I imagine the experience will be like crossing the valley in a hot-air balloon. Albeit one enjoying a tailwind. Peak 2 Peak makes the 2.73-mile crossing — a crossing longer than 2 ½ Tacoma Narrows Bridges — in 11 minutes, at a speed of about 15 mph.
Spanning the mountaintops
"There're 8,000 acres up here, and people can get overwhelmed trying to decide where they should ski," Rick Temple tells me. Temple is construction manager for the $53 million Peak 2 Peak project. "This will allow people to see more of both mountains instead of being stuck all day on just one of them."
Whistler regulars see early- (and late-) season advantages offered by Peak 2 Peak. Says Seattle's Trent Mitchell, 33, an avid snowboarder who makes regular pilgrimages northward, "It will help the most on days where the snow level is high and you can only ride the top half of each mountain. It's always taken forever to go down to the base of one mountain and then back up to where the snow is on the other one. This will be awesome on days when the snow level is above 4,000 feet!"
Or, let's say you're schussing on more east-facing Whistler but, because of afternoon shadows, conditions are icing up. Meanwhile, on more west-facing and thus afternoon-sun-enjoying Blackcomb, conditions are softer and still primo. With the addition of the Peak 2 Peak, one can theoretically hop on a sky cabin next to Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge and about 15 minutes later be sliding in the afternoon rays down Blackcomb's Bark Sandwich or Springboard or Wishbone or any other of its dozens of downhill runs. (I say theoretically because, especially early on, I can't imagine that there won't be lines to try out Peak 2 Peak. Though, who knows — the gondola is able to transport 2,050 people per hour each way.) Previously, going from one mountain to the other would take 45 minutes to an hour or more depending on lines.
Withstanding the winds
When I visited on a late-October morning about seven weeks before its opening date, Peak 2 Peak workers were undergoing emergency-evacuation training. Because it's not a conventional lift and at points is some 1,400 feet above the valley floor (that's more than a quarter-mile!), occupants can't just be lowered to the ground as is normal in a chairlift emergency. Rather, a special evacuation carrier would be deployed to slide the gondolas back up the cable to the towers, similar to the way one slides clothes on a hanger across a hanger bar.
"Believe me, we don't anticipate ever having to evacuate, but you certainly have to be trained up on it," Temple said while giving me a tour of Peak 2 Peak's Whistler terminal. "We practiced the same kinds of evacuations at Grouse and have never had to use them."
Temple, who's 64 now, started his career in the lift industry in the 1960s as a teen helping build the Skyride gondola on North Vancouver's Grouse Mountain.
To get to the terminal, located at an elevation of roughly 6,000 feet, Temple drove us up winding dirt roads that in a month or so would likely be buried under multiple feet of snow. Once at the terminal, some 4,000 feet above the village at the base of Whistler-Blackcomb, the wind was whipping, and the blowing misty fog made my teeth chatter. Temple showed me how the gondola's miles and miles of cables are supported by just four towers — two each near the Whistler terminal and two near Blackcomb's. The middle 1.9 miles of the 2.7-mile span are unsupported. It's the longest unsupported span of any gondola in the world. Might winds blasting through the Fitzsimmons Valley add an element of, uh, excitement, as it were, to a Peak 2 Peak crossing?
Temple assured me that likely won't happen.
"The wind is more severe at the terminals on the shoulders of the mountains," he said. "Midspan, the winds are relatively calm."
Peak 2 Peak is built to withstand 60 mph winds (actually, 100 kilometers per hour), but will be shut down if winds hit 50 mph (80 kph). Records from last ski season indicate that on the gustiest days in the valley, the wind hit only 35 mph (60 kph).
Looking through the floor
Of the 28 sky cabins that the cables will carry — each cabin capable of carrying 28 passengers — two have glass-bottom floors to further enhance one's experience. (Or scare the heck out of you; one of the two.) The cabins are spaced out about 1,000 feet apart along the cables.
While there is just a handful of mountain-spanning gondolas in the world (as opposed to mountain-climbing ones), Peak 2 Peak is the only one in North America. The gondola will be open year-round for sightseers and hikers during the summer and fall as well as during the 2010 Olympics, when Whistler-Blackcomb hosts the downhill skiing events. (Though it won't serve any particular viewing advantage during the Olympics.)
After overseeing Peak 2 Peak construction, the bulk of which took place each of the past two years from April through November, Temple, who's spent the last two decades as Whistler's director of maintenance, will call it a career sometime in '09.
"It's the perfect time — I started with Grouse and I'll cap off my career with Peak 2 Peak," he says. "And I don't think I'll be able to top this one."
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to NWWeekend. Contact him: email@example.com.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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