The week ending Dec. 19, 2008 was filled with ups and downs for Whistler - both physically and financially.
On Dec. 12, the world's media and politicians such as Kevin Falcon, B.C.'s Minister of Transportation and Honourable Gary Lunn, Minister of State for Sport were on hand for the opening of the long-awaited Peak 2 Peak (P2P) Gondola.
No expenses were spared. The gala event had Gondola Girls, live DJs, free cake, hot chocolate and base-jumping by freestyle skier, Shane McConkey. Judging by all the hoopla, it almost seemed like a test run for the 2010 Winter Olympics, now just 14 months away in February 2010.
The new $52 million gondola covers 4.4 kms in just 11 minutes and is being touted as one of Canada's newest tourism icons. Admittedly, the P2P is an impressive engineering feat and has already broken three world records.
Just four days later on Dec. 16, the unexpected happened. A tower on the Excalibur Gondola connecting skiers from the village to Blackomb snapped in half, sending two gondolas plummeting 10 metres to the ground. One cabin landed on a residential balcony, one on a bus shelter and another cabin dangled precariously over Fitzsimmons Creek.
Within minutes, video and photos of the tragedy had traveled around the world. Bad publicity for Whistler Blackcomb just days before the Christmas holidays.
When I first heard about the accident, I felt sick. I was hoping it wasn't one of the P2P cabins that had fallen more than 400 metres down the valley floor. Luckily no one was seriously injured in the accident, even though 53 people were stranded for hours in sub-Arctic temperatures. I hate to think how much worse it could have been.
Once again, the world's media descended upon the resort. This was press that Intrawest would rather have done without. Unfortunately, you can't get the good without the bad.
The B.C. Safety Authority later concluded that a large gondola tower at Blackcomb Mountain failed because of a rare phenomenon called "ice-jacking."
A report by Global BC later in the week found that, "Doppelmayr CTEC, the company that makes the towers, issued a warning on Dec. 31, 2006, alerting resorts to the possibility that towers could fail if water within the tubes freezes and recommending regular checks."
I was surprised to hear Whistler-Blackomb managers admit that they failed to make the proper safety inspections on the towers. This doesn't look good for the resort and pending Games,anyway you spin it.
It appears that gondolas aren't the only things going down judging by real estate prices in Whistler, a 20% decrease in visitors or Fortress' stock values.
Fortress Investments, the New York-based hedge fund firm that owns Intrawest, the parent company for Whistler Blackcomb was caught up in the U.S. economic collapse. This past October, Fortress struggled to come up with the $1.68 billion debt due for its purchase of Intrawest almost two years ago.
Its stock price closed at $1.19 last Friday, while its value peaked at $37/share in 2007.
Let's hope that better days are ahead for Whistler Blackcomb, and that this unusual arctic weather lightens up.
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