Together we stand

Could the timing be any worse?

Just four days after Whistler Blackcomb proudly unveiled the Peak 2 Peak gondola to the world — a $52 million investment that critics note does not open any new terrain, but which has won over most of the skeptics who have ridden it — the Excalibur disaster comes out of the blue. Under no apparent extraordinary stress, the fourth tower on the access lift broke cleanly in two. Mercifully, there were only minor injuries.

This comes, of course, in a season where projections of visitor numbers are being revised down every week, and where snow has stubbornly refused to fall.

Value and service, on top of abundant physical assets, were to have been Whistler’s response to these hard times. An accident like this and the instantaneous negative publicity it has generated was not.

Whistler Blackcomb senior managers, including President and COO Dave Brownlie, Doug Forseth and Hugh Smythe, stated last Friday that they weren’t nervous about opening a $52 million gondola in troubled times. This was Whistler, they said, bold, long-term thinking was a hallmark of the community. The Peak 2 Peak, which sets several records, opens up Blackcomb to summer visitors and may be a hedge against climate change and a receding snowline, was built in that tradition.

Although people in Whistler may have grown tired of the Peak 2 Peak hype, the opening garnered world-wide attention. The lift has impressed nearly everyone who has been on it, including those who at first didn’t “get it.”

Much of that effort was negated Tuesday when the Excalibur accident happened. For a variety of reasons, from the fact it is an easily visible access lift to cell phone technology and citizen journalism, the story escalated Tuesday afternoon and evening. Images and eye-witness accounts went around the world in a matter of hours. Impressions of Whistler and the resort’s reputation were, in many people’s minds, revised overnight. The U.K.’s Times Online headline Wednesday was: “Whistler will have to convince the world its lifts are safe.”

Few accounts of the Excalibur tower collapse were without some mention of the Dec. 23, 1995 Quicksilver tragedy. To see Doug Forseth trying to answer questions that had no answers on Tuesday brought back painful memories of the Quicksilver disaster. No one deserves to go through that again.

Fortunately, the injuries in the Excalibur accident were not nearly as serious as those in the Quicksilver case, where two people died and others were severely injured. But the Quicksilver could have set an example for what happens next. It took the coroner’s office months to determine that a complex series of failures, both human and mechanical, led to four chairs falling from the lift. The Quicksilver was closed for the remainder of the 1995-96 season while the accident was under investigation. It was replaced in the summer of 1996.

No one died in the Excalibur accident, so the coroner’s office won’t be involved. By Wednesday morning there was an explanation for the Excalibur tower collapse: ice jacking, water penetrating the seal between the upper and lower sections of the tower and expanding when frozen. The B.C. Safety Authority, Doppelmayr engineers and Whistler Blackcomb staff were examining all multi-section lift towers Tuesday night and Wednesday to check for water penetration. Preliminary reports were that no other towers were compromised.

Meanwhile, there won’t be any lift access to Blackcomb from the village. How long that situation lasts is unclear.

Whistler Blackcomb must deal with the immediate problem of the Excalibur but this is a disaster that the entire community shares. Whistler Blackcomb is the “big brother” in a one-industry town. Its parent companies face their own struggles in a bigger, more complex world. But the people of Whistler Blackcomb — Hugh Smythe, Dave Brownlie, Doug Forseth and many others — live and breathe the Whistler community.

We have had differences of opinion with Whistler Blackcomb on some issues over the years, but have never questioned the commitment of senior managers to the community. Now is the time for the community to stand with them.

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