Peak to Peak
It’s a beautiful, crisp winter’s morning at North America’s biggest ski resort. A blanket of fresh powder lures hotshot skiers and diehard boarders – but first, a decision and a dilemma: which peak? The resort town of Whistler, B.C., features two majestic mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb – separated by a deep and unforgiving valley and no way to get from peak to peak.
Peak to Peak brings to life the impossible dream that Whistler resort owners have been chasing for a decade – finding a way to tie their two mountains together. This original Canadian one-hour special captures the deadline-driven drama of engineering the world’s highest, longest and most technically-challenging ski lift ever built. How can a single lift safely span 4.4 kilometres across a notoriously windy valley? A project this ambitious doesn’t exist anywhere else – with no model or template, the Peak to Peak 3-S gondola is an entirely new design. Fighting against the elements, the team has only a few short months over two summers to complete this new feat of engineering. Reputations, millions of dollars, construction records and lives are on the line. Soon to be showcased on the world stage, will the gondola be ready on time and on budget?
It’s an incredibly tall order and the record-breaking scope and scale of this project required an unprecedented approach to every challenge. Winds across the valley can top 80kph, which would cause the gondolas – traditionally strung across a single ribbon of steel cable – to swing violently like a pendulum. But this is no ordinary lift system! Engineers from the Austrian ski lift maker Dopplemayr have been working on the problem for 10 years – and they’ve developed an innovative solution. The concept: if one cable isn’t strong enough, why not try three to share the load? One cable to carry the gondolas in a continuous loop, like traditional chairlifts; and a pair of cables to form a lower “track” that the cars would wheel across, like a railroad, to eliminate the swinging. Created in a Swiss factory and comprised of 216 individual steel wires woven together, the design calls for 26.5km of cable. The cable will be shipped to Canada on five giant spools, each weighing more than 90 tonnes (that’s heavier than the space shuttle!). Once suspended, it will bear a 30-tonne load, but must pass rigorous stress tests to carry weight 4.5 times that amount to pass safety inspections. The cable takes a year to make – and there’s no time to spare. But conquering the design is only the first hurdle…
Mud, mountainous terrain and ski trails not meant for huge trucks and massive loads are among the challenges the team must overcome, taxing an already tight budget and even tighter timeline. A concrete shortage threatens the progress of the foundations for the cable support towers; an existing chairlift must be rerouted; and the team must fight gravity and find a way to haul the cable spools 11km straight up the mountain.
It’s a herculean effort on top of the world. If they can pull it off, it will be the longest and highest cable span in the world. And for the Whistler resort owners, hotshot skiers and diehard boarders, gliding 140 stories above the valley floor for 11 minutes in the Peak to Peak 3-S gondola, just might be the sweetest ride of all.