Nev Judd: Online and out there

Faster, higher, longer: Riding Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola

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The girls aren't too bothered about dangling by a steel thread 436m above Fitzsimmons Creek.

Confined within a steel and glass capsule, suspended by a galvanized thread 436 metres above Fitzsimmons Creek, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola is no place for acrophobics. Fortunately, a fear of heights tends not to afflict skiers and boarders, who’d otherwise be stuck on the bunny hills forever.

In fact, judging by the hum of conversation in the cabin, our cruising altitude of 2,000-plus metres above sea level appears to concern no one.

“I’m gonna have a burrito for lunch,” says the 20-something Aussie woman in front of me. “What’s in that then?” replies her male English friend.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres.

A man from Pemberton, sitting across from my wife, is showing off his $600 goggles, which came with prescription lenses and a de-misting fan. “You’ll never need to buy another pair,” he tells her. I do the math and realize his goggles cost more than my family of four’s second-hand skis, poles, board, boots and goggles combined.

The kids on board are discussing their best wipeouts of the morning. (Funny how parents never do that.)

The miracle of engineering that put us here is the last thing on anyone’s minds and most passengers do not immediately appreciate the view. That could be because the journey’s so smooth, it feels a bit like we’re floating.

It’s more mellow glide than thrill ride.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres. Three kilometres of that distance dangles between two of the towers, making this the world’s longest unsupported span for a lift of this kind. It’s also the highest.

“It’s iconic,” says former Intrawest vice-president, Hugh Smythe, who started as a ski patroller in Whistler back in 1966. “It truly differentiates Whistler as unique.”

Smythe was skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland, in February 1997. An idea took shape while looking down at the vast expanses between peaks as he flew above the resort in a helicopter.

“I said, ‘Gee, we could connect Whistler to Blackcomb,” recalls Smythe.

It has been 10,000 years since the Overlord glacier that once connected the two peaks retreated to leave Fitzsimmons Creek on the valley floor. It only took 11 years for Smythe’s idea to be realized and for the mountains to be connected again. (Albeit by a cable 2 cms in diameter.)

In 11 minutes, the Peak 2 Peak does what used to take skiers like me half a day to do.

When the $52-million Doppelmayr-type lift opened two years ago, I wasn’t initially thrilled.

I’d always been fond of clumsily working my way down Whiskey Jack and Olympic runs from Whistler’s Roundhouse to ride Excalibur and Excelerator up Blackcomb. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who longs for the days when keys, not swipe cards, opened hotel room doors, and when people raked leaves instead of blowing them, but really, must everything be sacrificed for the sake of time and convenience?

Then, on our first evening in Whistler earlier this month, I got talking to Stu from Utah in the hotel hot tub.

“I rode the Peak 2 Peak today,” he told me. “Whistler was socked in, but it was sunny on Blackcomb so we scooted over.”

Funny, I thought to myself. I’d never considered that.

Other unexpected benefits became obvious the next day when we finally boarded the Peak 2 Peak on Whistler.

Our modest party of 14, including six children, had spent much of the morning arranging meeting points by cell phone after becoming split up on runs or in lineups for chairlifts. After finally assembling at The Roundhouse Lodge, we moved next door to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

The lift’s 28 cabins each hold 28 people (24 seated and four standing). Two cabins are built with glass bottoms, reducing capacity. Fitting 14 people isn’t exactly a squeeze, and with a cabin departing every 49 seconds, lineups are minimal.

Each of the lift’s 28 cabins have room for 28 people to get cozy (24 seated and four standing).

The day we first boarded, it was Whistler village that was socked in, leaving us to glide across a valley floor coated in cotton candy-like mist. To the east soared the peaks and bowls of Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Below, the meandering black streak of Fitzsimmons Creek was just visible through the cloud.

And then skiers and boarders on Blackcomb’s upper runs came into view.

“Look at the ants, Dad, look at the ants,” said my daughter Emma, excitedly. Navigating black runs and occasionally dropping off into the trees, they might have been pine beetles on planks from where we watched.

Disembarking on Blackcomb, we paused to take group photos by the lift station before, inevitably, getting split up during the descent of Blackcomb.

The next day, I was back taking advantage of the fast track in the sky. The lower slopes were icy and fogged in. From mid-station up blue skies heralded an inversion that blessed both peaks with temperatures well above freezing.

But which peak to choose?

It only took 11 minutes to figure out.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm

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