With construction officially underway on Whistler Blackcomb’s Fitzsimmons Express replacement, the resort will be one lift short heading into what’s expected to be another busy summer season.
The resort announced plans last September to replace the existing four-seater with a high-speed, eight-person chairlift that will significantly boost uphill capacity from Skier’s Plaza. Tuesday, March 28, was the lift’s last day of operations before crews got to work removing carriers on Wednesday. The new lift is expected to be up and running in time for next winter.
Guests clocking some late-season spring laps on Whistler have likely noticed the construction’s impacts already: the Lower Olympic ski-out was closed periodically over the last week to accommodate construction, while guests riding down Blackcomb to Whistler Village found themselves popping out at the bus loop on Blackcomb Way rather than the main plaza.
But Fitz, installed in 2000, typically sees more traffic in the warmer months than it does from skiers and snowboarders. The chairlift has long been the primary workhorse for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, carrying riders and their wheels from Whistler Village to the base of the Garbanzo chair near mid-station. The Fitzsimmons Zone trail network is home to some of the resort’s most iconic and popular lines, from beginners’ routes like EZ Does It to advanced trails like A-Line and Crabapple Hits.
So, what will the resort’s summer season look like without a Fitzsimmons Express lift? Pique caught up with Whistler Blackcomb’s vice-president of mountain operations, Doug MacFarlane, to find out.
How will Fitz construction impact the bike park?
The project means Whistler Blackcomb will have to redirect the habitual flows of traffic around both mountains in a way that might not always be the most convenient, but the idea is short-term pain for long-term gain.
“I just ask for a little grace from our bike park fans,” MacFarlane said. “It will have an impact, not being able to ride Fitz, so we’ve had to do a few things to offset that.”
The Whistler Village Gondola will become the main point of access to the bike park from Skier’s Plaza, with guests required to bring their bikes into the cabin with them. The resort will also encourage riders to consider starting and ending their days in Creekside, where the brand-new 10-person gondola will be exclusively reserved for the bike park.
Whistler Blackcomb’s team took last year’s Creekside Gondola replacement as an opportunity to invest heavily in the Creek Zone trail system “in preparation for this summer’s impacts,” said MacFarlane.
“We got a lot of feedback over the last few years on what those trails were and what we wanted to have, so we had that perspective and went in and made the changes there,” he explained. “Hopefully people find that refreshing.”
The approximately 20 kilometres of new routes come following five recently built Creekside trails that opened for business in summer 2018, which included three berm-filled intermediate flow trails; an intermediate tech trail, and a hand-built single-track trail for advanced riders. Whistler Blackcomb officials are hoping those Creekside trails can accommodate more volume during intermittent Fitz Zone trail closures that will inevitably be put into effect during some phases of construction, whether that’s for logging work to accommodate a wider lift path or flying in concrete or towers.
“We’ll try to give as much notice as we can,” said MacFarlane, “and we’ve already got processes designed and built into our systems to do that every day.”
MacFarlane encouraged guests to keep an eye on the resort’s website, its blog and its social media channels, particularly its @wbmtnops Twitter account, for up-to-date information about terrain closures.
What does this mean for sightseeing?
Whistler Mountain’s snow walls, hiking trails, suspension bridge and viewing platform on Whistler’s peak will once again be available for guests exploring the resort on foot in 2023.
The sightseeing arm of Whistler Blackcomb’s summer operations, “is such an important piece of business for us,” said MacFarlane. “And we love it.”
The only difference this year? Guests, for the most part, won’t be uploading the Whistler Village Gondola to get there.
Instead, sightseers will be directed to upload Blackcomb Gondola from the Upper Village, in an effort to reserve the bulk of the Village Gondola’s capacity for mountain bikers. From Blackcomb, sightseers can ride the Peak 2 Peak Gondola to the Whistler side to access those offerings. From there, they’ll be welcome to download via the Whistler Village Gondola.
MacFarlane appealed to the community for help getting that message out to friends, family or clients heading to the resort in the coming months. “Anybody visiting this summer, please remind them to go to Blackcomb Gondola, so they’re not trying to go to the village and then getting asked to move across,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of effort to communicate where people need to be, and which way is the best flow. This is going to be a bit tricky, with this lift, because it’s so ingrained in our operation.”
Where’s the equipment for the new lift?
The new Fitzsimmons Express lift was originally built and designed for Utah’s Park City, another Vail Resorts property, until that project was held up by permitting delays. The lift fit the profile for Whistler’s Fitzsimmons Zone, but still required some re-engineering and re-manufacturing over the winter prior to installation, said MacFarlane. It’s currently being stored in Utah, but will be loaded onto delivery trucks headed for Whistler this month.
The existing Fitz chair, however, isn’t headed for the landfill: its rope is being spooled up and shipped to Breckenridge, Colo., while its grips are heading uphill to Whistler's Peak Chair. The carriers will be sold off as part of a fundraiser for the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation. “Nothing is going to go to waste, everything will get recycled or utilized,” said MacFarlane.
Whistler Blackcomb also spent considerable time and energy working with Doppelmayr to make sure the incoming Fitzsimmons chairlift was compatible with the lift manufacturer’s new bike carrier system—one element the Whistler Blackcomb team is particularly excited about bringing to the resort, said MacFarlane.
The bike trays on the previous Fitz lift weren’t designed to accommodate the bigger downhill and enduro bikes frequently ridden in the park today, MacFarlane explained. “It was a lot of labour and a lot of effort by our lift operators, who had to manually get [the bikes on and] make sure they were loaded correctly,” he said.
The new system allows the lift to stall, making it easier for guests to rack their own bikes to the chair in front of them. “It locks on your front tire, and then you get on the chair behind you, and the difference is every single chair is carrying bikes,” said MacFaralane. “So, you get on the chair, and then there’s somebody loading bikes behind you on the back of the chair you’re on.”
The new system is expected to be both safer and more efficient, he said.
“If you ride the bike park, if you’ve seen those lineups, you know what it’s like standing there on a hot, 30-degree day with all that gear on, so this is a huge win for that. That clientele is going to love this lift once it’s done. And we get to ride that next summer.”
In the meantime, loading three or four bikes into a gondola cabin like bikers will need to do this summer “is not an easy process” either, MacFarlane acknowledged. “It will take some effort from all of us to do it. The long-term gain is we get this new lift on the back end of this, so hopefully it’s worth it. And my bet is it’ll be worth it.”
What happens when Cranworx rolls around?
Crankworx is “why we started the project in March,” MacFarlane stated.
The Fitz chair carries riders directly over the Boneyard, the slopestyle course for the crown-jewel Red Bull Joyride that caps off the festival each summer and attracts upwards of 35,000 spectators to Skier’s Plaza.
With that in mind, Whistler Blackcomb roped in Paddy Kaye, owner of Joyride Bike Parks and the long-time Joyride course designer, for input—and some manual labour.
“He’s actually doing a number of the towers for us,” MacFarlane said. “He’s digging the holes, he knows where the towers are going, he’s got his work around so he can build this course. We brought him in because we knew we’re right in his playground, basically, in his sandbox.”
The goal, according to MacFarlane, is to have the lift's bottom terminal completed by Canada Day, in order for Crankworx to go ahead as usual from July 21 to 30. “We’re trying not to impact that event and pretend we’re not doing some major lift installation right in the middle of it,” he said.
And in the event the bottom terminal isn’t completed by the time Crankworx crowds roll into town? “We’re just going to walk away, we’re just going to leave the project at that location, let Crankworx happen, and we’re going to go work at the top terminal.”
No one wants a construction zone in Skier’s Plaza all summer long, MacFarlane acknowledged.
“We’re hoping to get the heavy work done this spring and get out of there, and then it’s lighter work: it’s wiring the lift, it’s pulling the rope. It’s not big, heavy work. It’s pickup trucks driving in and out, finishing the lift. That’s been a big driving factor in this project, and it added a lot of pressure to everybody to start this now,” he noted.
What about Jersey Cream?
The resort initially planned to upgrade Blackcomb’s four-seater Jersey Cream in 2023 as well, but confirmed earlier this month that construction on a new high-speed six-pack would be delayed by one year.
“Unfortunately, our lift manufacturing and install partner, Doppelmayr, has informed us they cannot complete both Fitz and Jersey Cream Express this summer due to their labour and resource constraints,” the company explained in a March 9 social media post.
The lift was also intended for Park City, originally. The existing chair will spin as usual during the 2023-24 winter season, but Whistler Blackcomb will spend several weeks this summer carrying out prep work—moving electricity and water services, drainage and building tower foundations, for example—“so next summer’s job is easier,” said MacFarlane.
Beginning with the Blackcomb Gondola and new Emerald Express that were installed in 2018, Whistler Blackcomb will have installed six brand-new lifts in six years by the time Jersey Cream is complete in 2024, representing more than 17 per cent of the resort’s 35 total gondolas, chairlifts and surface lifts. (That’s not even counting Catskinner, which was replaced in 2018 with the four-seater chair that previously operated in the Emerald zone.)
MacFarlane underscored his and his team’s gratitude to Whistler Blackcomb staff for their hard work, and to the community for their patience and understanding amid the string of upgrades.
When it comes to the Fitzsimmons replacement, “It’s really a tight timeline–I think the community has got to understand that a little bit more with [the Creekside lift upgrades], and, really, every day counts,” said Macfarlane. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”