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Setting new sights at Whistler Blackcomb

Suspension bridge and bike park expansion signal commitment to Renaissance upgrade plans
In suspense WB's new suspension bridge will stretch more than 130 metres from the Peak Chair to the West Ridge Viewpoint. It will span part of Whistler Bowl. PHOTO submitted

After a record-breaking winter season, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is setting its sights on a lofty new project set to change the way people see Whistler — a new "signature suspension bridge" built at the top of Whistler Mountain.

The suspension bridge heralds the company's commitment to the sweeping Renaissance project — a planned $345 million investment including a water park, a boutique hotel and much more — and while portions of this project are still dependent on additional approvals, some on-mountain investments now have the green light.

"It's going to be a really cool project," said Rob McSkimming, WB's vice president of business development, of the suspension bridge.

WB is also moving ahead this summer with the first stage in its plans to almost double the size of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park — adding in 14 kilometres in Creekside this year with more trails on the books.

Both projects are part of a $23 million investment on the mountains in 2017 "for maintenance and discretionary projects."

The suspension bridge will span from the top of the Peak Chair (just behind the patrol shack), across Whistler Bowl and end at a rock outcrop known as the West Ridge.

There will be a cantilevered viewpoint from there, looking north/northwest over Whistler Bowl. The viewpoint will then connect into the high-alpine hiking network.

The bridge will be more than 130 metres long; by comparison, the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge at the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish is approximately 100 metres long.

It's not clear how far off the ground it will be, but WB suspects this elevation at the top of Whistler Mountain could be higher than any other suspension bridge in North America — the peak of Whistler Mountain is at 2,182 metres (7,160 feet).

"It's a pretty good size," said McSkimming. "You're suspended pretty high up in the air there."

Bike Park Expansion

As work gets underway at the peak, bike park crews will be setting their sights on Creeskside for a massive expansion this year, with the 14 km of singletrack planned across five new trails.

The sheer scope of the project means WB is calling on two well-known and trusted trail building companies to help — Gravity Logic and Joyride Bike Parks.

"We wanted to bring in the resources of some of the people in the valley other than our team, which I think is a good thing," said McSkimming. "And we're just really interested in making sure we've got a good variety of flavours."

Joyride's Paddy Kaye has walked the line his company will be working on — a blue flow with a narrow footprint.

"It's a classic Whistler forest — second growth — with a bunch of little bluffs and neat little features already that we'll be able to use in the trail," he said.

"Not one person or company can build all the trails that this community needs so when you get some good, experienced crews together, it's amazing what you can create."

Dave Kelly, of Gravity Logic, described the trails they're working on as nothing like the iconic A-Line and Dirt Merchant, which he had a hand in building back in the day. Rather, they're more like singletrack with bermed corners and great flow.

"Think more like Ninja Cougar only a little steeper and more technical," he said.

It's taken the past 20 years to build roughly 80 km of trail in the bike park. With this summer's work, the park will grow substantially in just one year. And that's sending a big message to the biking community — WB is committed to growth and keeping its eye on staying at the top.

Kelly added: "A lot of people in the last few months have asked me my opinion on if I thought Vail Resorts would be as committed to the Bike Park as WB previously was and I think this answers that loud and clear.

"From a business perspective this expansion is a great thing. Bike parks and ski areas all around North America (and further) take their cues and follow WB's lead and I think this sends the message that the industry is strong and growing steadily. If you are operating a ski resort and you want to generate four-season revenue and/or weatherproof your existing summer operations, WB has proven that bike parks are a great way to accomplish those goals."

Investment plans — Future and Present

The Renaissance project was announced to great fanfare a little over a year ago. Billed as WB's long-term strategic plan, Renaissance was a $345 million investment over three phases for on-mountain and base infrastructure "for both new and enhanced four-season revenue-producing customer experiences."

Five months after that announcement, Vail Resorts bought WB in a billion-dollar deal.

In February, Vail Resorts announced that WB has renewed its long-awaited Master Development Agreements with the province and First Nations, the first and arguably the most critical step for the Renaissance plans.

In Vail Resort's Second Quarter report, it outlined its plans for WB in 2017 and beyond, starting with this summer's projects.

"These investments are the first capital projects associated with the Renaissance plan following the renewal of the Master Development Agreements," stated the report. "The company anticipates that additional spending related to the Renaissance plan will commence in calendar year 2018 and additional details will be provided as the timing of the projects is refined."

Meanwhile this summer, WB will complete the Blackcomb Ascent Trails with the addition of Heart Burn, which links to the two previously completed trails. Hikers will be able to go up the mountain from the valley to the Rendezvous Lodge for a total of 5.2 km and 1,200 metres (3,937 ft.) in elevation gain.

On Whistler Mountain, the new Roundhouse Lodge Terrace and Viewing Deck will open to allow 555 new seats to the lodge.

The long awaited countdown to the first chair of the 2017 season will come to an end tomorrow, May 19, when the Whistler Mountain Bike Park officially opens.

The Fitzsimmons Express will spin from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 19 until June 9, with extended play until 8 p.m. on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays. Dependent on weather conditions the Creek Zone and the Garbanzo Zone are slated to open on June 17.

"Thanks to the extremely hard work of our trail crew, conditions are lining up to be great for opening day," said Brian Finestone, bike park manager at Whistler Blackcomb. "We expect to have 90 per cent of the Fitz zone open for riders starting Friday including A Line, B Line, Crank It Up, Ninja Cougar, Karate Monkey, Smoke & Mirrors, Afternoon Delight and many more."