When skiers and snowboarders step into a gondola to head up Whistler Mountain for some opening day turns later this month, they won't be uploading from the resort's Creekside base.
Whistler Blackcomb's Creekside Gondola and Big Red Express chairlift replacements will not be ready by the winter season kick-off on Nov. 24 due to unforeseen shipping delays, chief operating officer (COO) Geoff Buchheister confirmed this week.
Resort officials expect to see the upgraded Red Chair start spinning in early December, but say the timeline for the gondola's opening is slightly murkier.
"Big Red's further along," Buchheister told Pique, "and we still don't have all of the things that we need for the gondola."
Specifically, "the [gondola's] haul rope is on a boat, on its way, and that's been the status of it for two months," he added. "So the shipping and supply-chain issues, they're dictating the timeline at this point."
The good news? That critical piece of equipment cleared the final port and is officially on its way to Vancouver after reportedly leaving Stockton, Calif. on Wednesday. The haul rope for the Big Red Express, meanwhile, was installed within the last week and spliced Wednesday.
Buchheister shared the update with community stakeholders at a meeting on Friday morning, Nov. 4.
Asked when Whistler Blackcomb received word the lifts wouldn’t be ready for opening day, Buccheister said resort officials started "getting signals" from lift manufacturer Doppelmayr in early October suggesting the project would be delayed. Buccheister previously told Pique in an interview on Sept. 29 the lift upgrades were, at the time, on track to be completed by Nov. 24.
Asked whether the gondola would be ready to welcome guests by the busy holiday period, Buchheister said, "Certainly, that's the target that we are working towards."
It typically takes lift workers about "30-plus days of work" to finish construction and complete required safety checks after a gondola's haul rope is hung, the COO explained.
Whistler Blackcomb is looking to help speed that process up. In addition to enlisting their own staff to supplement the Doppelmayr team, Whistler Blackcomb is bringing in a handful of lift mechanics from fellow Vail Resorts-owned ski areas in Australia, who recently wrapped up their own winter season, to help expedite the project. More hands on deck means "instead of having work cascade, having it layer on top of each other so that we can be more efficient and quicker," explained Buchheister.
Whistler Blackcomb first announced plans to replace the previous six-seater Creekside Gondola with a new high-speed, 10-person gondola, and swap out the Big Red Express quad for a new high-speed, six-person chair in September 2021. Those lifts were ordered from Doppelmayr last November.
The CEO of Doppelmayr Canada issued a statement expressing his team's disappointment and apologizing to Whistler Blackcomb guests impacted by the lifts' delayed opening. “We experienced significant global supply chain and shipping challenges, and did not anticipate delays to this degree,“ said CEO Luc Guy.
"We understand the importance of these projects, and how this delay will impact uphill access and the overall guest experience out of Creekside. We are doing everything we can in partnership with the Whistler Blackcomb team to complete the gondola as safely and quickly as possible. We will move with urgency and align to all safety protocols once the haul rope arrives, and we are confident that the new Creekside Gondola will truly provide an improved experience for visitors to these beautiful mountains.”
For now, said Buchheister, "What we have to do is just stay in the moment and be as prepared as we can for what we can do today, and control the things that are in our control.
"Obviously we're at the mercy of the shipping world at some level, but I think we're prepared for everything else ... that rope will not be stationary for very long and it'll start going right onto the Creekside lift when it gets here."
Free shuttles, expedited lines and early openings intended to ease impact
As the season gets underway, Whistler Blackcomb is implementing a few strategies to keep operations—and guests—flowing prior to the Creekside lifts' opening.
That includes "a serious effort around free and frequent additional transit and bussing options" running between Creekside and Whistler Village from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, explained Buchheister. "We recognize that that's an inconvenience for guests," he added, so those arriving to the Whistler Village or Blackcomb bases via the Creekside Shuttle will be met with their own expedited lift line.
In addition, the resort will open 15 minutes earlier than usual (at 8:15 a.m., conditions permitting), until lift construction is completed.
"What we're doing is really focused on ... the guest experience for people that are lodging in Creekside; that park in Creekside; that live in Creekside," said Buchheister. "Luckily we got good at bussing a year ago as we worked our way through the transit strike. We have the buses that we'll put in play, and we're working with the Resort Municipality of Whistler and with other providers to make that bussing as positive an experience as we can."
Whistler Blackcomb is also working with B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to install electronic signs alongside Highway 99 to keep guests driving north informed about real-time parking availability in Base II and Whistler Village day lots.
Creekside's parking lot and businesses (including Dusty's and Can-Ski) will remain open from Nov. 24 onward, and Creekside-based ski school groups will also continue to meet at their usual location when ski school starts up on Dec. 10. Whistler Blackcomb plans to install a magic carpet area in Creekside for the youngest groups, while staff are currently working on a shuttling program to transport older ski schoolers to and from the village.
Depending on weather conditions, there's also "a real possibility" the Creekside ski-out could open to skiers and riders prior to the gondola's completion, Buccheister noted.
"We don't want to be here, but we are. And we have to be practical about that and think about, at the end of the day, how we can show up and support Creekside and get those folks over to the village as quickly as we can and as efficiently as we can," he said.
"We think that's going to help make up for the experience. It's not the same as riding the gondola, but we're doing everything we can given the the situation that we're in. And that allows us to let that Doppelmayr team focus on getting the lift up as soon as they possibly can, and then we'll be back in action."
Resort staff will also focus efforts on opening as much terrain as possible, as soon as possible on the Blackcomb side, said Buchheister.
"The whole team is focused on ensuring a great start to the season for our guests, and we're going to open on Nov. 24," he explained.
"We've got two gigantic mountains that as of [this week] are seeing cold weather and snow, which has been very positive in terms of thinking about what this opening footprint could look like. We recognize that we still have a ways to go and we're weather dependent in a lot of ways, but it's nice to see snow flying and a cold weather pattern behind it where we'll be able to make some snow and ensure a strong delivery for the beginning of the season."