As of this week there's just one month left until the official opening day for the 2013-2014 ski season, and Whistler Blackcomb's largest lift project since the Peak 2 Peak Gondola is still on track and on budget.
"The weather socked it to us at the end of September, we had more than 30 centimetres of snow to contend with, but the warm weather through October allowed us to accelerate the project and finish strong," said Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler Blackcomb.
The $18 million lift project has seen major pieces from the Harmony Express moved to Blackcomb Mountain to create a new high-speed, detachable lift called the Crystal Ridge Express that will increase the lift capacity by 950 skiers per hour over the previous three-seater, and increase the vertical for that zone by over 500 feet (160 metres).
The Harmony Express will itself be upgraded as the new Harmony 6 Express, with new tower heads and lift stations to accommodate six-seat chairs. That will increase the upload capacity by 1,200 skiers per hour.
DeJong is confident that both lifts will be operational and certified by opening day (Nov. 28) — although usually both chairs take a few weeks and a lot of snow to open to the public.
In the case of the Crystal Ridge Express, DeJong said the project is actually ahead of schedule: the towers and tower assemblies are in place, the haul rope has been spliced and fed onto the wheels, the electronic controls and wiring are complete and, as of Friday (Oct. 25) the first chairs were put into place.
"What we do is place several chairs and keep running loops to make sure the system, the drive and return stations, are properly aligned and working correctly," DeJong explained, adding that the provincially required load test has been scheduled for Nov. 4. The BC Safety Authority will need to inspect and certify the lift as well, something that should happen in the next few weeks.
The offloading ramp and surrounding area at the top of Crystal Ridge has also been improved and upgraded, and DeJong said the new entrances to Ridge Runner and Rock'n'Roll are hugely improved as well.
Additionally, the new snowmaking system installed for the Crystal Ridge zone is also being tested, and so far everything is in working order. "In a couple of weeks when the temperature goes down we fully expect to be making snow up there," said DeJong.
The Harmony 6 Express is a little behind the Crystal, but not by much considering a few of the challenges that have come up for the lift. For example, during the summer they discovered that the area they had designated to build a barn to store the chairs was occupied by a basin of deep clay rather than rock. As a result they had to dry and pack the clay before they could build the foundation over it, but luckily the weather cooperated.
There was also a bit of a setback recently when it was discovered that the Skycrane helicopter they hired to lift the wider tower heads into place couldn't handle the full assembly. As a result every tower head had to be disassembled on the ground, with the sheaves that hold the wheels taken off the central frames.
DeJong said crews worked straight through the weekend to get that done, and in the end were able to use a smaller helicopter to move the pieces.
Now that's complete, DeJong said the next step is to pull the heavy haul rope into place, something that will happen this week. He expects official load testing to be completed in mid November.
That's more or less on schedule, said DeJong, although they would always prefer more breathing room.
"There's no such thing as completely smooth sailing with a project as big as this, but if you look back over the last six or seven months since the work got underway it's actually been really good, and we will finish on schedule. It's been a fun experience as well, and a lot of great people have put in a lot of amazing work to make this happen," he said.
DeJong also gives credit to Poma and Doppelmayr for working together on the project. Both Crystal and Harmony lift systems mix infrastructure and equipment made by both companies.
"Working with the two main global lift installers simultaneously has been interesting — it would be like putting Boeing and Airbus in the same hangar to build a plane," he said. "I thought the dynamics would be more interesting, but really it's been nothing but teamwork."