The Peak 2 Peak Gondola project, connecting the alpine areas of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, is on schedule to open in December, and on budget for $53 million, according to project manager Barb Houghton at a media tour last week.
To date, all four track cables that the gondola cars will run along have been installed — each one measuring 4.4 km in length and weighing just under 90 tonnes. Expert crews from Switzerland have also started to pull the haul rope into place, which measures just over nine kilometers and also weighs in the neighbourhood of 90 tonnes. That work, including splicing more than 40 metres of cable, is expected to conclude sometime in September.
Both gondola stations are also nearing completion on Whistler and Blackcomb, at 12,000 square feet and 14,000 square feet respectively. During the tour, crews were putting the finishing touches on both the drive mechanism and the track that the detachable gondolas will follow through the gondola building — everything built to within a five millimetre tolerance. Once that work is complete, the next step will be to install windows around the building and make the gondola stations presentable to the public.
It hasn’t been an easy project, says Houghton. Not only is it the first gondola project of its size and scope in the world — it’s even being featured in a documentary by the Discovery channel — the weather hasn’t co-operated.
“We had so much snow this past winter, and so much rain last summer,” she said. “That’s a problem when you’re trying to bring up 500 to 600 loads of concrete, about 40 loads of steel, and that’s not including the cables, the electrical equipment, and all the other materials we use. We were digging furiously to get the roads open early in the season, and I think we had maybe two days in June when it didn’t snow some more.
“We’ve come a long way to get to where we are, in only two years, so it’s been amazing to watch it come together.”
Another development is the completion of the 28 gondola cabins by CWA in Switzerland. Those cabins are being shipped across the Atlantic to Quebec City, and will be trucked to Whistler to ensure they can be carried to the alpine before the snow falls.
“Fall starts on Aug. 31 up here,” said Houghton.
As well, Whistler-Blackcomb confirmed that a safety system to warn aircraft of the cables and towers is in place — one of only two Obstacle Collision and Avoidance Systems in operation in all of Canada. According to construction manager Rick Temple the system will include three radars, a light system for warning aircraft and a broadcasting system that advises pilots of the gondola cable.
“It’s a state of the art aircraft system that was developed by Norwegian Air Force pilots who fly in the mountains over there,” he said. “Usually you’d see those big orange balls hanging from cables, but they’re almost useless to pilots unless they’re on the horizon.”
When an aircraft is detected in the area, the system will broadcast a warning on all channels that there are wires in the area. If the aircraft gets closer, lights on the towers will start to flash.
According to Temple there are a lot of benefits to the system. The main one is safety, with both voice and visual warnings for pilots and a sophisticated radar system that can detect low-flying aircraft. Another benefit is aesthetic.
“I think people in Whistler will appreciate that we don’t have lights flashing all day and all night on the mountains, and that the lights only turn on when an aircraft gets close,” said Temple.
Overall, Temple says it’s been a privilege to work on the Peak 2 Peak project.
“It’s been a super exciting project for me,” he said. “I worked more than 20 years ago on the first type of this gondola at Grouse Mountain, which is a similar project with a 50 millimetre tow rope, but this is far bigger than anything I’ve had the privilege of working on.”
While the first cables at Grouse were pulled up by hand, the Peak 2 Peak required the creation of 36 mini towers, 18 on each side of the valley, to support the array of cables during construction. The cables were pulled up in succession, with a nylon rope pulling an 8 mm cable, the 8 mm cable pulling a thicker 13 mm cable, and so on, until the main cables could be pulled into place.
Whistler-Blackcomb is still seeking a corporate sponsor for the gondola to help defray the costs. There will also be a surcharge for passholders and day skiers to use the gondola, which connects the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler with the Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb.
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