The incoming Fitzsimmons Express chairlift upgrade is the most obvious investment in mountain operations for Whistler Blackcomb (WB) right now—not in the project scope or cost, but because it’s right there at the base of the mountain clear as day for everyone to see.
Work to replace the previous four-pack Fitzsimmons chair with a new eight-pack began in early 2023, after WB announced the plans back in September 2022 to upgrade the critical piece of mountain infrastructure.
Construction on the chairlift was still underway when opening day of the 2023-24 season rolled around on Nov. 23, but resort officials told Pique it is expected to be operational “in time for the holiday season,” meaning before Christmas.
Both the Fitzsimmons chair and the coming Jersey Cream chair (which will see work continue during the 2024 summer season) were sourced from WB’s sister resort, Park City Mountain in Utah. The parent company of both, Vail Resorts, reported in September 2022 that efforts to replace two chairlifts at Park City Mountain (Silverlode and Eagle) were foiled by a planning challenge, leaving it with two already-purchased chairlifts from Doppelmayr that, coincidentally, were found to be suitable for WB instead.
As a result, both chairlifts come with features already purchased by Vail Resorts, with WB choosing to retain the designs rather than incur further cost by changing them.
WB’s director of mountain operations, Adam Francis, discussed some of the particulars around the new features—such as the small, delta-shaped footrest installed on the safety bar, a feature usually disliked by snowboarders because of how cumbersome it can be to perch a snowboard on. It is the same design seen on the Emerald chair, which opened in 2018.
Francis said the feature came with the new chairlifts, and is a widely-accepted design.
“This style of triangular footrest provides additional safety to guests, as this style includes an accompanying vertical bar that is placed between the rider’s legs as it is lowered,” he said.
“Additional pull straps and spring-assisted safety bars assist guests with lowering and raising the bar easier. This increases the safety of all riders, especially smaller kids who are held more securely onto the chair seat. Also it clearly delineates where each guest is to sit and place their legs accordingly.”
Asked about rider feedback in making decisions on what features to install, Francis said WB officials “are committed to continually investing in the guest experience at the resort. We are always assessing guest experience feedback we receive, and do consider it when evaluating future capital investment opportunities.”
But in the case of the Fitz chair, the features were included in the original purchase, Francis said.
“This was the specification that was purchased by Park City, the original destination for the Fitzsimmons 8 and Jersey Cream 6 upgraded chairlifts. We chose to retain that feature,” he said.
A feature not retained was an automatically-closing safety bar, something Francis said is usually reserved for beginner-only areas, and is more common at European resorts.
The new Fitzsimmons features will see noticeable improvements in usability for the summer season, he added.
“We will see a marked upgrade for summer bike park use, the Fitzsimmons eight-seater will use the Doppelmayr Bike Clip, which will improve the method we use to perform bike carry on this lift. This new guest loading/unloading system allows for a significant increase in bike carry capacity, as each chair will carry both bikes and guests,” he said.
“Additionally, each carrier will perform a ‘stall’ at the top station that will pause each carrier momentarily to aid the bike unloading procedure without affecting other moving carriers. This will greatly improve the guest experience for users of this chair.”
While the Fitz chair is expected to be usable well before the end of the 2023-24 season, the Jersey Cream upgrade is ongoing—the resort was installing concrete bases for the chairlift towers through the summer of 2023.
“We worked very closely with a number of consultants with both Fitzsimmons and the Jersey Cream projects that recommended environmental best practices in regards to water course management, wildlife assessment and Indigenous cultural assessment as we went through tree removal and tower footing excavation activities,” Francis said. “We followed these recommendations very closely with all of our lift-construction activities.”
The Fitzsimmons that was removed in March ran at Whistler Blackcomb between 1999 and 2023, giving it a 24-year lifespan, while the Jersey Cream chairlift still in use this season was installed in 1989. Both of the replacement chairs are expected to serve the resort for 25 to 30 years.