With less than two months to go before ski and snowboard season begins, Whistler Blackcomb COO Geoff Buchheister has some good news for locals.
The Creekside Gondola and Red Chair replacement project is “on track” for opening day, he said. Helicopter pilots have been taking advantage of the unseasonably warm, dry, early fall weather to install towers for both lifts, Buchheister explained, and “once we get those in, the next phases are on track.”
In the meantime, Whistler Blackcomb staff are “working with the manufacturer to make sure that the remaining items show up on time,” he added. “There’s a stretch of work to finish out here, and we’re working very hard, but [opening day is] the goalpost that we’re aiming for.”
In September of last year, Whistler Blackcomb parent company Vail Resorts announced plans to replace the previous six-seater Creekside Gondola with a new high-speed, eight-person gondola, while simultaneously swapping out the Big Red Express quad for a new high-speed, six-person chair.
According to Whistler Blackcomb, once finished, the upgrades are expected to increase Creekside’s out-of-base capacity by 35 per cent and Big Red by 30 per cent—all in an effort to limit wait times and improve the overall guest experience.
Whistler Blackcomb announces upgrades to Jersey Cream, Fitzsimmons chairs
Before those new lifts get spinning, Whistler Blackcomb had another surprise announcement in store for guests: the resort announced last Wednesday, Sept. 28 that two more of its chairlifts, Whistler Mountain’s Fitzsimmons Express and Blackcomb’s Jersey Cream Express, are set to be replaced next year. The upgrades are subject to approval, the company cautioned, but are scheduled to be installed in summer 2023. When construction wraps up, that will amount to six new lifts in five years for Whistler Blackcomb since the Blackcomb Gondola and new Emerald Express opened in 2018.
According to Vail Resorts, the existing four-person Fitzsimmons chair located at the Whistler Village base will be replaced with an eight-person, high-speed chair, increasing uphill capacity by a whopping 73 per cent in winter. The upgrade will also be “a year-round investment,” said Buchheister, by majorly reducing lift-line waits and increasing capacity for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park.
Meanwhile, in the Jersey Cream zone, a new high-speed six-pack will replace the high-speed quad that is among the most popular lifts on Blackcomb Mountain. The move will increase uphill capacity by 29 per cent, also reducing lift-line wait times, and improving circulation, Buchheister noted.
“We’ve been investing in infrastructure on the mountain, and focused, as I like to call it, in a strategic way,” said Buchheister. That focus has been on “moving people out of the valley as efficiently and effectively as we can,” and improving circulation in the mid-mountain zone, he added.
“We’re in Whistler, and we have storm days,” he said. “We really want to tend to the circulation on days when not everything’s open, and then provide those points of transit and [make it easier to move] from one part of the mountain to the other on days when everything is open.
“We feel like that mid-mountain section is now quite tended to, and we can start thinking about the future after these improvements are in.”
The brand-new lifts were originally earmarked for Vail Resorts’ Park City property in Utah, but were stalled by permitting delays.
More specifically, the project was shot down in June after the Park City Planning Commission revoked a permit approval for the two lift upgrades, siding with a group of locals who opposed the project, as the Colorado Sun reported. The locals argued the project would increase capacity at the ski area without a more thorough plan for improved parking. In a tweet following the decision, Park City Mountain Resort said its lift plans had been “shockingly blocked,” adding, “chairlift tourism, or the idea that modernizing lifts will draw more crowds, does not exist.” Whistler’s Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners were consultants on the project and agreed improved chairlift capacity “does not directly cause an increase in business or demand,” as per the Sun.
“We’re excited about the opportunity that we have by having the right profile to put these lifts in, because … there are specifics to it,” said Buchheister. “But we’re excited about the opportunity to go after an eight-pack and a new six-pack, and know and feel confident that those will be additives to the experience.”
Plus, both Fitzsimmons and Jersey Cream were on Whistler Blackcomb’s list of lifts due for replacement in the “near future,” he added. “So the decision we had to make really was, ‘Are we ready to pull that forward?’ And you know, after contemplating it all, we realized that this was a true opportunity and we needed to take advantage of it.”
As Vail Resorts spokesperson Sara Roston clarified in a follow-up email: “Park City remains committed to pursuing permitting for upgrades, and when they resolve the permit with the city, they’ll move forward in the process to procure lifts and equipment needed for installation. In the meantime, the original lifts are being deployed to WB, which, as Geoff shared, we are excited about.”
Whistler Blackcomb’s new lift announcement came the same day Vail Resorts released an update on its 2022 fiscal year (FY), which ended July 31. The company listed its total net revenue as US$2.5 billion in 2022, representing a 32.3-per-cent (and $616 million) increase from the year prior, and its net income as $347.9 million for FY 2022, compared to $127.9 million the previous year. “The increase is primarily due to the greater impact of COVID-19 and related limitations and restrictions on results in the prior year,” the report explained.
It also said pass sales for the 2022-23 ski season through Sept. 23, 2022 were up by six per cent in units compared to the same period one year prior.
New Creekside terrain to minimize construction's impact on mountain bikers
Acknowledging the effects the Fitz construction in particular will have on bike park operations, Buchheister said Whistler Blackcomb is working on “a plan that has the least amount of impact on the bike park as possible,” and ensures the park “remains as close to fully open as we can get, with the exception of a few construction dates here and there that may impact certain trails—a lot like what happened this year with Creekside,” he explained.
Those effects will be minimized by focusing early construction on the Fitz Chair’s bottom terminal in April and May, opening about 15 kilometres of new trails—including a new jump line—in Creekside, serviced by the new gondola, and moving all sightseeing operations to the Blackcomb base so the Whistler Village Gondola can be “100-per-cent” focused on biking, said Buchheister.
“Biking is very important to us and we’re going to be very focused on delivering for our bike guests,” he said.
“We’re optimistic about the future. We know that there will always be challenges and unintended consequences, especially when you take these kind of ambitious projects, but we also know we’re a team that can deliver the experience around it, and we’re ready to adapt and overcome and we’re really stoked to do it.”
Not everyone, however, is as excited about the upgrades as the COO.
Whistler Blackcomb guest Ken Bell launched a Leadnow petition last week to “Protest Vail Resorts [sic] Decision to replace Whistler Blackcomb’s Fitzsimmons Chair with 8 person lift.”
As Bell posited in the campaign’s description, the “shortsighted” decision was made without user consultation. But the main problem, in Bell’s view, is that the Fitzsimmons Express deposits guests at the bottom of a four-person lift that is not being similarly upgraded. “Guess what the backlog is going to be like on the weekends, holidays and powder days at the Garbanzo chair?” Bell wrote.
The petition currently has 36 signatures.
Whistler Blackcomb will close for mountain biking and sightseeing this year on Monday, Oct. 10. The resort is scheduled to reopen for winter operations on Thursday, Nov. 24.