Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

The Blackcomb Gondola’s weekday closure is causing extra challenges for sit-skiers

Whistler Blackcomb says ramps and rollers are available for adaptive skiers, but Excalibur still isn't able to accommodate wheelchairs

Social media on Monday was full of skiers and snowboarders enraged over long lift lines, what many described as a lack of communication from the resort about the Blackcomb Gondola’s weekday closure, and, for those living closer to the Upper Village, the extra inconvenience of making their way to Skier’s Plaza or Base II. It all prompted an apology from Whistler Blackcomb.

But having only the Excalibur Gondola running for uploads Monday to Friday is presenting a particular challenge to guests hitting the slopes in a sit-ski, like Fraser Kennedy. The Excalibur Gondola, which offloads at the base of Excelerator Chair rather than a lodge, does not accommodate wheelchairs, according to Whistler Blackcomb.

Kennedy has been visiting Whistler from the U.K. to ski big lines on a near-annual basis for the last 15 years. Expecting the Blackcomb Gondola to be up and running until the end of the season, Kennedy and his friend of three decades, James Waggott,  planned this year’s trip for spring. The 10-person cabins mean Kennedy can comfortably upload in his wheelchair before transferring to his sit-ski at the Rendezvous Lodge, where he can easily access mountaintop restaurants, washrooms and keep his custom wheelchair tucked away close by, if he needs it. 

“Closing Blackcomb Gondola the day after Whistler [closed] takes ALL of this away,” Kennedy explained in a message. “I can’t access any facilities as I can’t get my wheelchair up the mountain. Instead of preparing on the hill, I now have to do it next to the gondola in front of hundreds of people and then haul my sit ski into the gondola with me in it.”

Kennedy said his skis were damaged by the gondola’s concrete and metal flooring, while he and Waggott had to take a risk by leaving his chair at the bottom of the hill. 

A spokesperson for Whistler Blackcomb confirmed Tuesday all three Excalibur stations would be equipped with ramps allowing sit-skiers to load and exit the gondola cabins using “Rupert Rollers."  The specially-designed devices enable sit-skiers to remain in their sit-ski when transitioning from their wheelchair or the snow, or onto the gondola. With Excalibur unable to fit wheelchairs, adaptive skiers will need to be positioned in their sit-skis on the Rupert Roller prior to entering the cabin.

Waggott said the Rupert Rollers and ramps weren’t offered to Kennedy Monday or Tuesday.

Ramps could help, noted Paralympic sit-skier and Squamish-resident Alex Cairns, but without them, a Rupert Roller “is still going to be met with a step up into the gondola, and anyone in their sit-ski on a roller then needs to be lifted into the gondola.” He claimed, in his experience, Whistler Blackcomb staff “don't get trained on sit-ski use beyond being told that we exist and sometimes you need to slow the lift, so there are huge disconnects.”

Whistler Mountain closed for the winter season on Sunday, April 16, in order to prepare for the Bike Park’s May 19 opening and summer sightseeing offerings. The resort’s shift to spring means only Blackcomb Mountain is open for skiing and snowboarding daily for the next month, with hours of operation shortened to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Usually, that means the Blackcomb Gondola would be running daily, but the lift is reportedly due for more substantial maintenance in its fifth year of operation that resort officials said must be completed in the spring. Whistler Blackcomb opted to close the lift on weekdays to carry out that preventative lift maintenance, as required by Technical Safety BC and the lift’s manufacturer. 

Waggott and Kennedy received a heads-up from friends at Whistler Adaptive a couple of days in advance of Blackcomb Gondola’s weekday closure, but said it wasn’t until they arrived at the base of Excalibur that they realized how major of a problem the lift posed, said Waggott. “Vail didn’t tell disabled passholders that they were going to cut-off the mountain from them,” he added.

Cairns, who said he “religiously” parks at the Cabin on Base II and skis downhill before loading the Blackcomb Gondola, echoed Kennedy and Waggott's frustrations.

Having to load Excalibur instead is “horrible,” said Cairns. “It's a full-on mission. And it always has been with disabled parking in Whistler. They haven't sorted out a number of disabled parking spots that actually work.”

Cairns said the disabled parking spot currently available near Excalibur’s Base II station is positioned in a way that restricts him to accessing the download side of the lift, meaning he needs to head down to the village before looping back uphill.

“It's not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things—we're very fortunate to be able to ski and live in the place we live, and I don't lose that perspective that I'm a very lucky person,” he said, “but when you're being paraded down the bottom of the gondola, as a disabled person who then has to go back up, it’s like … why the [extra] 10 minutes?” 

Waggott and Kennedy ended up calling off their last ski day on Thursday, April 20 before returning home to the U.K.

“Treating disabled people ‘equally without privilege' was a mantra of Whistler for so long,” Kennedy expressed. “There is no measure by which Vail can claim this with this decision. In effect, the entire mountain is off limits for wheelchair users unless you make huge compromises to your ski day, ask too much of friends and trash your equipment.”

Without the Blackcomb Gondola, the mountain, in Waggott’s view, “is just one that does not welcome disabled people.”

In a statement on Sunday, April 23, Whistler Blackcomb's senior manager of lift operations Mike St. Eve said the resort takes inclusivity and adaptive access seriously. While sit-skiers do have access to Blackcomb Mountain via Excalibur Gondola, St. Eve recognized its smaller cabins make uploading more challenging.

"We acknowledge this added challenge and are focused on ensuring easiest possible access via Rupert Rollers and support from our trained lift operations team. We also recommend that sit skiers park in the reserved spots in Lot 7 for easiest upload access at mid-station," his statement read. "We take the feedback from these guests’ recent experience seriously, and appreciate their honesty—it will be taken into consideration when we move into more limited operating footprints."

St. Eve apologized that this spring's experience wasn't what the sit-skiers were expecting. "Everyone who visits deserves to feel comfortable and welcome at our mountains," his statement continued. "We are proud of what we’ve done related to inclusion and improving adaptive access at our resort, and also know there is much work to be done. This work will continue to be a priority, as we’re always trying to improve, listening and learning along the way.” 

A spokesperson for the resort also highlighted Whistler Blackcomb's work with the Rick Hansen Foundation this year to complete an audit and Accessibility Certification, adding the resort is "proud to be the host mountain of the first-ever hybrid winter Invictus Games in 2025."

The statement added, "We are committed to inclusion and ensuring we remain a leader in adaptive accessibility."