Coming to Whistler: gondola on an epic scale
An immense "engineering feat" will join the twin peaks at the resort, which hopes the 11-minute ride will draw more visitors.
Seattle Times travel staff
Northwest travel guides
Not content with simply hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, the Whistler ski resort in British Columbia will begin construction next month on a record-breaking lift.
Dubbed the "Peak to Peak Gondola," the lift will take skiers and summer sightseers on a high-elevation aerial ride between the resort's adjacent Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. "There's no lift of this size and type in North America, really the world," said David Brownlie, chief operating officer of Intrawest Mountain Resorts, which runs Whistler-Blackcomb, in an interview Thursday. "It's an engineering feat."
The $45 million gondola — the most expensive ski lift in North America — will be built over the next two summer seasons and open in December 2008. Its 28 "sky cabins" will each carry 28 people on the mountain-linking ride — up to 4,000 people an hour through the air at the resort about 80 miles north of Vancouver, B.C.
To grasp the new gondola's size, envision one of the world's most iconic spans, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
The Golden Gate spans about 1.2 miles; the gondola will be a total of 2.7 miles long, with just four towers holding up its cables. The bridge is about 220 feet above the water; the Whistler gondola will travel as much as 1,361 feet above the ground.
The gondola's most striking feature will be its 1.8-mile-long unsupported span where it swoops high across the narrow, rugged Fitzsimmons Valley on cables suspended between a tower on the edge of each mountain.
What Intrawest calls the world's longest free span of its kind could be a breathtaking ride, especially if skiers or sightseers end up in one of the two cabins that will have glass-bottomed floors, giving an unobstructed view of Fitzsimmons Creek tumbling through the valley more than 1,300 feet below and of the jagged peaks and glaciers.
For skiers and snowboarders, the new gondola will let them move quickly between the upper-level runs of Whistler and Blackcomb; they'll no longer need to ski to the bottom of one mountain and take a series of lifts up the other to get to high-alpine runs. For summer visitors, it will mean a scenic ride and quick access to hiking on both mountains.
The gondola will travel between Whistler's Roundhouse Lodge and Blackcomb's Rendezvous Lodge, both skier hubs at about 6,000-feet elevation that already are served by many lifts.
While not truly at the peaks of the mountains, the lodges give fast access to the highest lifts. It will take 11 minutes to get between the two mountains on the gondola, with a cabin departing every 49 seconds.
There has been some criticism by Whistler politicians and environmentalists, both of tax breaks given to Intrawest for construction of the gondola and of its intrusion on wilderness views up the undeveloped Fitzsimmons Valley from Whistler village. Brownlie said the gondola will be about 2 ½ miles up the valley from the village.
The gondola will be built by Doppelmayr, an Austrian-based company that builds ski lifts. A similar mountain-to-mountain gondola opened a few years ago at the Kitzbuhel ski resort in Austria. While not quite as giant as Whistler's, Intrawest officials say it's helped boost skier visits there. They hope their gondola will do the same for Whistler-Blackcomb.
The resort suffered a drop in U.S. visitors — a major portion of its market — after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some poor snow years and the continued decline of the U.S. dollar that makes trips to Canada more expensive.
Whatever the gondola's impact on skier and sightseer numbers, it may have one other long-term effect. With global warming threatening ski resorts — and Whistler already prone to soggy snow on its lower-elevation runs — the new lift will join the highest and best-snow parts of the mountains.
Kristin Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2271