Retired Whistler Village gondolas find new life around town and beyond 

From playhouses to outhouses the 'people carriers' get new lease on life

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVID BUZZARD/WWW.MEDIA-CENTRE.CA - Fabulous Fondula Friends gather to enjoy a fondula dinner in a re-purposed village gondola at Alpine Cafe.
  • Photo BY David Buzzard/
  • Fabulous Fondula Friends gather to enjoy a fondula dinner in a re-purposed village gondola at Alpine Cafe.

Nine-year-old Beau Hathaway knows more about Whistler Blackcomb's gondolas than any other kid.

He knows, for example, which gondola has the Kokanee decal plastered around it; he knows how many towers there are between the base and the peak; he knows exactly which gondolas he's been in and which family members were in there with him. He loves nothing more than to stand at the base and watch the gondolas spin around on their revolving journey up and down the mountain.

So, when Whistler Blackcomb (WB) announced a $6 million project, putting in new village gondolas on Whistler Mountain and selling off the old gondola cabins this fall, Beau's mom Jo Sears knew she had to get one.

And not just any one. Number 52 to be exact.

"It's like his world is complete," said Sears of Beau's new hangout in their Alpine Meadows backyard.

Number 52 has a special decal that has Blackcomb Mountain on it too (truth be told, Blackcomb is Beau's favourite).

It now has another special number on it too — 001 SOLD. It was the first one in the old fleet to go to a new home, one of 142 gondolas that were sold (another seven were donated and Whistler Blackcomb kept a handful). They've gone around the world — Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, the United States and at more than 544 kilograms each that's no mean feat.

But a lot of them are close by, nestled at homes and businesses around Whistler.

After 25 years at work on the mountain, the gondolas are living out their golden years with new purpose, a new story to tell, each with their own little sub-plot about their new owners and why they wanted a little piece of Whistler history.

Take Beau.

He's been part of the Whistler Adaptive Ski Program (WASP) at Whistler Blackcomb for the past five years. WASP is a non-profit society that provides year-round programs for people of all ages with disabilities.

"He basically decides every day which runs he wants to go on based on which lifts and gondolas he wants to take," said Sears, who speaks highly of the program that has given Beau freedom on the mountain, freedom to be just like his younger sister, Lila, who goes to ski school, too.

At the end of each day, Beau stands at the bottom of the gondolas.

"There's this tiny little space by the doors and we call it 'Beau's Office' and he stands and watches the gondolas come down," said Sears.

Making his gondola even more complete was a webcam for Christmas this year. It's set up so that he can keep his eye on his own Whistler gondola from his home in Vancouver.

"Now he wants to know when they're changing the Blackcomb ones!" laughed Sears.

The Fondue-la

They had hoped to buy five initially. It just seemed like such a great idea — a gondola for fondue dinner, a fondula.

On second thought, five gondolas was perhaps a bit too ambitious. And so, the owners of Alpine Café settled on one (#71). And it just seems to fit perfectly in the corner of their outdoor patio.

Their gondola has been hardwired with electricity — heat and lights. It has a table bolted into the floor and comfier seats (comfier than the original perch!) and it's cosy, parked on the side of the patio with windows all around.

In terms of sharing an intimate fondue dinner, it doesn't get much more perfect than that.

But it's more than that.

Alpine Café co-owner Kevin Wood said there are so many places in town that have lost sense of Whistler spirit — that pioneering, unique, playful spirit.

"We like to think we're still carrying that flag," said Wood.

To book a fondula dinner call Alpine Café at 604-905-4663.

An outhouse

The funny thing about the old Whistler gondolas is that no one really liked riding them in the first place, said WB electrician Stu Snowball.

"They were uncomfortable, you were crammed in there," he said. "They were a first-generation cabin that came out — no one ever really enjoyed going in the them. You couldn't really sit down, you were half standing. They were meant for 10 people — 10 people was crazy."

And yet, once off they line, they've been snapped up like hotcakes. There are no more left for sale.

Snowball got his, though.

It's not at its final resting place just yet. In the spring he has plans to move it to his cabin at Lake Sheridan in the Cariboo.

There, it will become his... outhouse.

"I've got my position all picked out there. It's on the high part and it's got a beautiful view of the lake, so the doors are going to open up and I'm going to look out on the lake," he said.

Snowball has been an electrician at Whistler Blackcomb for 27 years. He plans to bring old skis and other memorabilia to go around the gondola — homage to the industry he's work in as an electrician for almost three decades.

He may add curtains. He may not.

"I'm not overly worried — my neighbours are a ways away."

Snowball got the Kokanee cabin — he wanted the decals.

"I find it interesting... people want specific cabin numbers," he said with a cheeky laugh, alluding to the various memories people may have created in select cabins over the years.

Travis's tree fort

Two gondolas (#101 and #141) will rise back up off the ground again. This time, however, they'll have a permanent place suspended in the trees.

The gondolas will sit diagonally across from each other in a backyard in Emerald Estates, a zipline strung between them spanning about 15 metres, able to shuttle kids from one tree fort to the other.

A gondola tree fort is perhaps the only kind of tree fort that could belong in the backyard of the iconic "Mushroom House" with its organic design.

It's almost impossible to make that house even more unique. But the Williams' have found a way.

They bought the house in 2007 from its designer and creator.

"Anything we do to the house is out of respect and to continue the legacy of it," said Kathleen Williams. "We just want to add to the uniqueness."

The house was in fact the reason why they moved to Whistler from Ottawa.

Their son Travis was born here.

"He's looking forward to being able to hang out," said Williams of the gondolas.

Travis's tree fort will be built in the spring.

A gazebo and a playhouse

Stephen Milstein's gondola is sitting under a tree in his backyard in Alpine.

He's close to Meadow Park and the area can be "very mosquito-ey."

"We're going to put a screen in the front," said the longtime local, adding that sitting in the gondola conjures memories and thoughts of all those times heading up the mountains — good, happy, fun memories.

"We're using it as a gazebo."

Milstein said his 27-year-old son was particularly impressed with the purchase. Growing up in Whistler, the younger Milstein had a friend that had an old gondola.

Now, he has his own, said his dad.

So does three-year-old Kiran Hempel.

His grandfather Ueli Kaltbrunner bought a gondola (#149) to convert into a playhouse for his grandson.

"I've always been dreaming to have one of those," said Kaltbrunner, who has been a volunteer with mountain safety for eight years.

Tucked on the edge of the trees, to the side of his house, Kaltbrunner has made a roof of wooden shingles on top and a platform below. A rudimentary pulley system is in place to open the door. Small bright blue kids chairs hints at the adventures to come.

Kaltbrunner has deep connections to Whistler, building his Alpine house here in 1987, retiring here from the city in 1996.

"It was the best move I ever made," he said.

And that perhaps offers a little insight into why he wanted an old gondola in his yard.

The marketing gimmick

If you didn't know where Whistler RV Park and Campground was, you do now — just turn left at the gondola (#153) on the highway when driving north.

The 104-acre site with 102 serviced RV sites, and 44 seasonal tent sites, is located southwest of town.

The place-marker on the highway is just one of four campground gondolas. Another sits at the sign entrance further down the road and two more are in the park.

Parks supervisor Sheldon Steckman said they might turn one of those into a little fort for kids to play and sleep in.

"People are always taking a picture in them," he said. "It just brightens up the area."

Send us your pictures and the story of your Whistler Mountain gondola — we'd love to track them all.



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