If you remember back to your graduation from the bunny hill tow rope to your first green run, you’ll also recall the scariest part was probably that first ride on a chairlift. There you are, hauled into the heavens on a piece of dental floss, your clenched butt swinging above the trees. It’s not natural. It’s all about trust.
Well that trust took a dive at Whistler Tuesday afternoon when a tower of the Excalibur gondola on Blackcomb Mountain snapped in two, like a Popsicle stick science project. By Wednesday morning, a preliminary investigation found something called ice-jacking was to blame for the tower failure. It seems water got between the two sections of the tower, freezing and expanding and causing the seam to rupture.
Some 15 of the 20 pods on the lift were stranded, and several plunged toward the ground, one landing on a house and another on a bus shelter. In all 53 people were trapped for as long as 3 1/2 hours, some dangling over Fitzsimmons Creek. See video of the rescue from Britain’s Sky News here. You can’t buy publicity like that. Remarkably there were no serious injuries, and none of the cars even left the cable. Aside from bruises, sprains, concussions and one broken finger, most of the trauma was psychological.
The far greater injury was to Whistler’s reputation. Not only is Whistler a key venue for Olympic events in 2010, but it just opened—to huge international attention—its mind-boggling Peak2Peak gondola, the world’s highest.
It has nothing to do with the failure Tuesday of Excalibur, but, still, it does shake one’s faith. Peak 2 Peak stretches more than four kilometres between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and is so high off the ground—415 metres— that you can parachute from it. If you’re nuts. One hopes that isn’t the preferred evacuation method if that ever breaks down.
As for the tower collapse on Excalibur, which was opened in 1994, headlines ranged from “Terror on the Mountain” on the front of today’s Province newspaper and a big spread inside , to “Whistler will have to convince the world its lifts are safe” from the London Times again. Considering the number of Brits who hit Whistler’s slopes (humm, I should rephrase that), that is very bad publicity indeed. Bad news travels fast, especially when it’s rolling downhill. So there are reports in Germany, in Spain and Mexico, and all over the U.S., to name but a few key markets.
By Wednesday morning folks were back on the slopes, enjoying some very fine conditions. It was noted, quite correctly, on talk radio in B.C. that it’s not usually the lifts that are going to kill you. The far greater risk to skiers comes from, well, skiing. Most lifts lifts are operating today. Excalibur gondola remains closed, of course, for repair and further inspection. Government officials, we’re assured, inspected and approved the lift for operation just months ago. Though why that is supposed to assure us, I’m not sure.