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Two weeks into the season, here's how Whistler Blackcomb's new lifts are looking

The new Big Red Express chairlift could open within the next week
Whistler Blackcomb has expanded its terrain offering since opening for the 2022/23 winter season on Nov. 24.

Whistler Blackcomb's 2022-23 winter season hasn't started the way resort officials hoped it would, but it seems not even a pair of delayed lift projects can dampen the December stoke. 

Last time Pique checked in with Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer (COO) Geoff Buchheister ahead of opening day on Nov. 24, the resort was planning to implement a slate of temporary measures to keep guests flowing ahead of the opening of the new Big Red Express (targeted for sometime in early December) and Creekside Gondola (TBD, but ideally before the busy holiday period), including free shuttles lapping Highway 99 between Creekside and Whistler Village and expedited lift access for shuttle riders.

With two weeks of winter operations now under Whistler Blackcomb's belt, how are those temporary measures working out?

The COO appeared in front of Whistler's mayor and council during a Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 9 to provide the elected officials with an update on the resort's winter operations.  

"To open these mountains and for it to feel like wintertime is always a great feeling, and it's nice to get our town back into into action after that short period where things tend to slow down," Buchheister told councillors. 

As for the vibe among Whistler Blackcomb staff as they embark on what's expected to be a busy winter, there's "just a lot of optimism in the face of what have been some of our more significant challenges lately," he added. 

When will Whistler Blackcomb's new Creekside lifts open to the public?

The most major of those challenges has undoubtedly been the overdue lift replacements for the Big Red Express chairlift and Creekside Gondola. Without a functioning base south of the village, the Blackcomb, Excalibur and Whistler Village gondolas have been the only avenues available to skiers and snowboarders heading uphill this season. 

The good news? Since the last remaining piece of equipment arrived for the new, 10-seat Creekside Gondola last month, "We now have everything that we believe needed to run these lifts," Buchheister said. 

The resort now has high-voltage power running to both lifts and is in "the final phases" of installing the new six-person Red Chair. Load testing for the chairlift is scheduled to begin on Monday, Dec. 12, "with the hope of being open prior to [the following] weekend," the COO explained. From there, workers will carry out the final commissioning and load testing on Creekside Gondola, in the hope of opening that lift in time for the Christmas holiday.

"Obviously this last phase is one that [comes with] no guarantees, but we are coming down to the final pieces of this project and it feels really good to see cabins rolling around the line on the Creekside, which are now all 100 per cent on the lift as of [Dec. 5]," said Buchheister.

How is Whistler's new shuttle working out? 

The contingency plan Whistler Blackcomb's team created for Creekside guests in response to those lift delays is "one of the things maybe I'm most proud of," Buchheister told Whistler's elected officials Tuesday. 

The COO said he was happy to report "great feedback" on the shuttle service that has been operating between Creekside and Whistler Village daily since Nov. 24. 

"We've had days of over 1,200 riders on shuttles, going back-and-forth to Creekside," he explained. Meanwhile, "the lift-line priority has been working out phenomenally well," Buchheister added. "I think that's been a huge hit for the folks that are riding the shuttle."

The resort is also offering a 50-per-cent-off food deal at Dusty's for guests looking to après after hopping off the shuttle. "It's been a nice addition for us in terms of just kind of keeping Creekside vibrant while the lift is still kind of in its final phases," said Buchheister. 

How much terrain is currently open at Whistler Blackcomb?

The resort has significantly expanded its terrain offerings since opening two weeks ago, thanks in part to a couple of sneaky powder days and the approximately 40 centimetres of new snow that fell within a 48-hour period this week.

After opening Blackcomb's Crystal Chair and Whistler's Harmony Express the previous weekend, 87 of the resort's 271 runs were open for business as of Friday afternoon, Dec. 9, tallying up to about 2,100 acres (850 hectares) of open terrain. More is anticipated to open over the weekend, according to Whistler Blackcomb's social channels. 

Which Whistler Blackcomb lifts are being replaced in 2023?

Even though the new Creekside lifts haven't officially started spinning, Whistler Blackcomb's sights are already set on another pair of lift upgrades scheduled to take place next summer. 

The resort announced in September plans to replace Whistler Mountain's four-person Fitzsimmons Express lift with an eight-person, high-speed chair, and swap out Blackcomb's Jersey Cream for a high-speed six-pack. The brand-new lifts were originally earmarked for Vail Resorts’ Park City property in Utah, but were stalled by permitting delays.

Currently, Whistler Blackcomb is "in the final phases of approval on both" lifts, said Buchheister. The resort has already secured approval from the province and the Lil'wat Nation, while Squamish Nation is carrying out an environmental analysis before "we finalize, and hopefully get their approval on moving forward on those chairs," the COO explained. "So that's exciting."

Even better news? "Those lifts are ...  for the most part already in North America," said Buchheister during Tuesday's meeting. 

"So I hope to not be looking at a GPS tracker for a shipper on a daily basis as we go into next summer and through into the fall," he added, referring back to the major shipping delays that saw the new Creekside Gondola's haul rope stuck on a freighter for months. "But we also recognize it's an ambitious project and one that will require us to continue to operate our bike park around, specifically, the Fitzsimmons installation," he explained, "but we've got a great team and a great plan and I feel positive and optimistic about how the summer will go next year."

Whistler Blackcomb also plans to add almost 20 kilometres of new trails to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's Creekside Zone next summer, which, in conjunction with the increased uphill capacity provided by the new Creekside Gondola, will ideally mitigate construction disruptions during the summer season. When construction wraps up on Jersey Cream and Fitzsimmons, that will amount to six new lifts in five years for Whistler Blackcomb since the Blackcomb Gondola and new Emerald Express opened in 2018.

How is the ski resort's staffing level this winter? 

According to Buchheister, staffing at the resort is "in a very different place than we've been over the last couple years."

The COO said he's "excited to see a lot of fresh, energetic people in town," adding that "it feels like night and day compared to what we've been through and certainly gives you a window into what we're able to deliver when we have a more full staff." 

All signals suggest that cohort of new staff will be put through the paces this winter. Buchheister said the outlook is strong heading into the holidays, adding that "Pacing, according to Tourism Whistler, is ticking up every week and filling in. We're starting to see what looks like, with our first full season after a couple of down years due to COVID, I think, one that will likely rival 2019 in terms of what we're seeing on the books and the early indicators.

"I'm super optimistic about the border being open, the welcoming of our international guests again, and and really focused on retaining a lot of the regional and local visitation that we that we saw during the COVID years," he added. "Hopefully we created some lifelong skiers and people that will be passionate to come back to Whistler Blackcomb year after year."