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First Person: Doug Forseth

Upping the ante

Whistler-Blackcomb focuses $15 million budget on the experience

Every fall Whistler-Blackcomb has something new to offer guests, a little extra incentive for people to make the trip to Whistler. These little additions have been informally described in terms of the "wow factor", and in recent years that includes the opening of Flute Bowl, the opening of Peak to Creek runs, the construction of a new night halfpipe at Base II, the addition of a new terrain park on Whistler Mountain, and a lot more snowmaking.

At the same time Whistler-Blackcomb is still reeling from perhaps the worst weather conditions in the history of the resort, with a record rainfall and unusually warm conditions all but wiping out a seven-week period from mid-January to early March.

Whistler-Blackcomb mobilized all of the resources at its disposal to keep the mountains up and running, offering unprecedented sales and discounts, retrofitting two snowcats to carry snow, and even hiring a helicopter to move loads of snow to where it was needed, one cargo net at a time. Where machinery was limited, mountain staff picked up shovels and did what they could to keep the main runs open and safe.

Pique sat down with Doug Forseth, the senior vice president of operations for Whistler-Blackcomb, to discuss weather, the lessons of 2004-05, marketing Whistler-Blackcomb, and the "wow" factor for this coming season.

Pique: When you were planning for this year, how big a factor was last season? What are the lessons from last year, and how are you applying them?

Doug Forseth: Certainly there were lessons from last year, and one of them is that we will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature. Often we can deal with the little things and be pretty effective, but when you’re hit with a situation like last year it can be pretty difficult. That was not an easy time for us, although I’m proud to say that we did everything that was physically possible to offer our guests the best experience we could.

Pique: Those are the kinds of things you can do again this year?

DF: We’re applying the lesson to better prepare for the eventuality of low snow, and early season no snow, that kind of situation.

We’ve put our emphasis on terrain, which is why we did a lot of summer grooming and that came in two forms. One is that the majority of the mountains have been given a haircut. You could play golf up there. The bushes and trees on the runs have been trimmed right back, so it won’t take too much snow to get going this year.

We’ve had a bit of snow up there, not too much (as of mid-October, ed.), but you could really see it on the runs because there weren’t as many things sticking out of it. (This will) help us get going quicker on more of the mountain.

Another part of the terrain changes is some of the physical things we’ve done, contouring and things like that we feel will really improve the ski and snowboard experience.

We’ve always done this, but I think people are really going to notice some changes this year.

Starting on Blackcomb, and the Blackcomb Glacier, when you leave you have to sidehill or cut through the boulder field. We’ve improved that route down and across the boulders to where the rescue road comes in, from the bottom there to as high as… where the Saffire Bowl comes in, which gives us a good 1,000 vertical feet.

Pique: Was that something you were always planning, or was it in response to last year’s conditions on the lower mountains and the fact that the glacier offered better snow?

DF: That was something we were planning to do anyway. The upper part (of the glacier) has always been a great skiing experience, but getting out is a challenge. Another improvement we’d like to see is to try and improve the rescue road out, make it wider… but that’s going to be difficult and expensive. We’re going to do it, but right now we’re not sure how.

The work to build a route out of the glacier cost about a quarter million dollars.

At the top of Jersey Cream, it’s always been very crowded, so what we’ve done is open that area up. Rather than have people jammed in that tight little area, there will be room to meet and pull off to the side, and it will create a better and safer experience for our guests.

On Easy Out, at the corner coming off Expressway… it was a bit of a sidehill, and we’ve leveled that out. That’s beginner terrain, so we made it easier for beginners to use that trail area.

This seems like an obvious thing, but in the Terrain Park we’ve actually built some of the features out of dirt and materials, so it will take less snow and effort to get that opened. We could have the park open on the first day if we have enough of a base to make it safe, but if not we’re hoping for a record opening.

Pique: Was that a Whistler-Blackcomb idea?

DF: It has been done before at other mountains, but it wasn’t in the budget for this year. There is value to doing this – do we want to pay the money to build these features out of snow, or spend the money on the capital cost of building permanent features out there, and maybe save money in the long run. It just made sense.

Another thing we’ve done is that on Mainline, the lower part above the parking lot, we’ve made things wider. It’s the most crowded location on either mountain, but we’ve opened it up so it’s huge and it will be easier to ski out from that location, which is a huge improvement.

Pique: There was room with the new tubing park?

DF: Lots of room. The tubing park will be ready to go this winter as soon as there is snow, and we do have snowmaking over there. (The run) will be about 1,000 feet long, with about 150 feet of vertical, and it will be open seven days a week until 8 p.m. at night, conditions permitting. We’re hoping to have it running for the middle of December at the latest.

We’ve also put a magic carpet on Yellow Brick Road, and gotten rid of the POMA lift. That’s a good place for lessons and beginners, and we wanted to see that area used better.

Pique: So that’s Blackcomb, are there similar changes for Whistler?

DF: Starting at the top, on Harmony Ridge down from Pika’s Traverse, the way down has been widened and leveled out in the places where we had a sidehill. That should be a much improved ski experience.

The area at the top of the Red and Franz’s Chair has also been enlarged, like we did with the Jersey Cream, so people will have more room to move around up there.

One major change is the Upper Whiskey Jack Road where you cut around under the Roundhouse. That leads to beginner areas, and it’s extremely crowded and narrow so we’ve tripled the size of that lane.

We used material that we cleared from the top of Red and Franz’s, and we also doubled the size of our reservoir from 10 million gallons to 20 million gallons and used the material from that.

Pique: Is it usual to go through so many big projects of this scale in a season, or is this a major initiative on your part?

DF: What we’ve done is redirected some capital dollars after last year and put them more into the terrain, like summer grooming, terrain improvements, snowmaking. We eliminated a lot of smaller projects that we didn’t feel were as important to our core product.

The next thing we did was to work with the Chipmunk Terrain Park on Whistler. This is very popular; it’s even busier than the park on Blackcomb just because it has more beginner and intermediate features.

In the past people would go down through the top of Ego Bowl to get there. What we’re doing now is at the top of Ego Bowl… we’re going to separate them. On the east side of the habitat line we’ve created a way into the park, an access through the trees that goes to Jolly Green Giant and into the terrain park.

We’ll put some more features in the top to attract people using the park to that line, and blocking off the other way into the park to separate the two types of riders.

So we’ve done basically three things – given the mountains a haircut, done some cosmetic work and added more snowmaking.

Pique: You said that you’ve doubled the reservoir on Whistler?

DF: Now we’ve got the capacity to make snow for far longer in cold situations… as long as it gets cold enough we can make twice as much snow.

Another big thing we’ve done is to put snowmaking on Ego Bowl and Upper Whiskey Jack… which opens up more beginner terrain in the alpine for poor snow conditions. We’ve done the same for a lot of upper runs, and all beginner runs.

On Blackcomb we’ve also added snowmaking to what we call 4 and 5 Road, which curves down by the Wizard-Solar connector. It’s good skiing and snowboarding, but between Honeycomb and the road we did not have any snowmaking. Last year it was a major challenge for us with the snow, so now we have snowmaking there.

We’ve also added more guns. At Creekside we’ve changed out our air-water guns down from Timing Flats, so it will be a little quieter in that neighbourhood. Then we can take the air-water guns further up the mountain, where it’s a little colder and they will work better anyway.

We’ve also upgraded some of our older guns with new technology, like radio frequency controls so we can turn them on and off without being there. It’s almost automated, but we’re not fully there yet, but we’ll be able to activate them a lot more quickly. Between our regular hours of operation and other work on the mountain, we don’t have a lot of snowmaking hours even in cold weather years, and to have to send someone out to physically turn the guns on takes a lot of time. This way we can maximize our valuable snowmaking time.

Pique: It seems like a lot of changes are being made with beginner skiers in mind.

DF: In a lot of ways. One thing we’re really focusing on this year is speed control, which is continually a challenge for us.

(With the) Slow Zones we’ve seen an improvement, but we still find in the areas where we’re not monitoring that people are skiing or snowboarding too fast or inappropriately for the conditions or number of people.

We’re going to expand our Speed Control programs uphill… and get Ski Patrol more involved.

Our message is that you have to monitor yourself. There are still lots of places where you can ski fast, where it’s appropriate to do so. Just because the posted speed limit is 90, if there are cars on the road, or if it’s rainy or slippery you have to go slower – it’s just common sense.

Before we’ve just given people warnings, but we’re stepping that up a bit. We will be looking at passes and entering infractions into the computer, and we see that people aren’t getting the message and are ignoring the warnings, we’ll have to take stronger measures.

Next week: The big picture.