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.