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Whistler Blackcomb opens new Crystal Ridge Express

Eager riders brave -20C to ride new chair
Crystal clear It was cold but sunny as skiers and snowboarders took the newly opened Crystal Ridge Express chairlift. Photo by Vince Shuley

After busy summer of construction and moving over 40,000 cubic metres of earth, the Crystal Ridge Express opened at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7 to a cold crowd of enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders.

"This was a long time coming," said WB's mountain planning and environmental resource manager Arthur Dejong.

"We have a huge alpine zone on Blackcomb, half of our acreage is alpine. Which is great, except when we have storms and lots of people here, where do you go? That's when we have our greatest densities. I call this lift a 'gimme shelter from the storm' lift.

"It's high enough to stay in the good snow, but low enough to be topping out at treeline and (still be) sheltered from most of our alpine storms."

Eager skiers and snowboarders braved the cold to line up as early as 90 minutes before first loading commenced. A fanfare of music entertainment and caramel popsicles greeted the public as they lined up for their first ride on the Crystal Ridge Express.

The new chair can lift 880 more skiers and snowboarders every hour than the old fixed-grip chair, and with a more convenient location on the Blackcomb Glacier rescue road, the area will see significantly more skier traffic. While this will alleviate some lift-line congestion, it will be to the chagrin of some locals protective of powder stashes in the Crystal Zone.

But Whistler Blackcomb Operations manager Doug MacFarlane said this was a necessary compromise.

"Number one it's going to change it for safety reasons," said McFarlane.

"If you've ever skied the rescue road, with someone who wasn't a good skier or snowboarder, or with kids or families, it was scary. It was a fast, nerve-wracking trip. Now you don't have to do that, you can go up the lift and ski out a regular ski run like Trapline or Rock n Roll."

Advanced riders returning from areas like Spanky's Ladder and CBC trees will appreciate not having to return to the congested lift line at Excelerator. The ride up now also offers aesthetic views of Phalanx Mountain and the Poop Chutes area, previously unseen by any other lift on Blackcomb.

Whistler Councillor Jayson Faulkner applauded the improvement of existing terrain rather than investing towards boundary expansion.

"One of the things you need to do to get bang for your buck... to re-invest on top of your existing infrastructure, whether it's with snowmaking, where your food services are or upgrading existing lifts," said Faulkner.

"That's one of the challenges as you expand outwards, it gets really expensive to service it. I think for us it's a good thing to do if you look at the big picture of the impact. You're still adding more people, you're improving the experience but you're not expanding the foot print."

The Crystal Ridge Express was Blackcomb's first expansion to its lift system since the installation of the Excalibur Gondola and Excelerator Chair in 1994.

Jordan Sturdy, MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, has worked as a patroller on Blackcomb since that time and was happy to see Blackcomb receiving an expansion.

"I'm glad to see that the dark side is finally getting a little more of this investment," said Sturdy.

"This is a great mountain, a great place to work and a great place to ski."

It took nine months of construction, the installation of 20 towers, the stringing of 119 chairs, and building a new uploading terminal to get the lifts operational.

The Crystal Ridge Express was a part of an $18 million investment that has also seen the Harmony Express upgraded to a six-person chair. The new Harmony 6 Express will open this Saturday, Dec. 14.