Gondola gives thrill ride across Olympic valley

It feels like being on top of the world.

Dare to look through the glass bottom of this metal box and see

the spruce-covered valley fall away in a stomach-churning plunge.

The sun is blinding on white summits that stretch out in every

direction. Ears pop and the air is cold and thin.

This engineering marvel that connects the peaks of Whistler and

Blackcomb mountains breaks world records for height and free span

and has transformed the resort that is hosting the Olympic Alpine

events.

The 2.7 miles of cable that stretch across the valley look like

a tightrope walk built for giants. They carry 28 cabins, two with

glass bottoms, in an unforgettable ride that some liken more to an

amusement park attraction than a ski lift. Indeed, it is hard to

ride the gondola without feeling a jolt of adrenaline.

“Some people get freaked out … Some people get dizzy,” said

Peak 2 Peak attendant Ben Lazar, a 24-year-old from Australia.

“It’s so high up.”

The project was born in 1997 when two Whistler resort planners

visited Zermatt, Switzerland and marveled at the sight of a tram

carrying skiers up the Matterhorn.

They were struck by what seemed back then as a crazy idea: Build

a towering gondola that would allow visitors to ski both Whistler

and Blackcomb without having to schuss all the way down to the

bottom and take a complicated system of lifts to get to the other

side. A project of that scale had never been attempted before.

“It was like, yeah right,” Dave Brownlie, president and COO of

Whistler-Blackcomb, said of the initial local reaction to the idea.

“It was basically a dream.”

After years of feasibility studies and talks with investors to

raise much of the $52 million price tag for the gondola, the Peak 2

Peak was built over two summers in 2007 and 2008 by Austria’s

Dopplemayr Garaventa Group.

The result: a magical Alpine journey hovering 1,427 feet above

the valley floor and boasting 1.88 miles of free span between

ropeway towers, the longest such stretch in the world. Along with

three lower lifts, Peak 2 Peak is also part of the world’s longest

continuous lift system.

The project was not without challenges or critics.

Some hardcore skiers chafed at the idea of sharing

difficult-to-access peaks with tourists. Others wondered whether

the lift was worth the cost. While he declined to disclose figures,

Brownlie said Peak 2 Peak was making money for the resort.

Engineering hurdles including moving entire chairlifts to make

space for the gondola, carting away tons of snow by truck to make

way for construction, and pouring concrete for the massive

undertaking by helicopter.

A big challenge involved pulling the gondola’s five cables –

each weighing about 100 tons – down Blackcomb Mountain and then up

Whistler Mountain.

Staring out at the valley from the Blackcomb side of Peak 2

Peak, Brownlie said the gondola was designed to give skiers

something they always crave: freedom.

“It really revolutionized the winter in terms of giving people

more of what we’re best at, what we’re known for, and that’s the

high Alpine snow and the great terrain.”

Engineering experts say the gondola is impressive for its scale

and setting – but the technology is fairly straightforward.

“The scenery around there makes it pretty special,” said

Robert Sexsmith, professor emeritus of civil engineering at the

University of British Columbia. “But it’s not like the Seventh

Wonder of the World sort of thing, like a departure from known

technology.”

That doesn’t much bother skiers – who are simply swept away by

the amazing views.

“You’re so high up it’s like being in an airplane!” ski

instructor Tom Francis tells wide-eyed little girls in his class in

a gondola going back down to Whistler village.

“It’s like going up to heaven!” squeals one of the girls.