When Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, it had four triple lifts and one two-person chair that carried eager skiers up to the top of today’s Catskinner lift. In 1982, the Jersey Cream Chair expanded the lift-accessed terrain available on Blackcomb, but the mountain still needed something more to compete with Whistler Mountain. They found it with the 7th Heaven T-Bar.
Avalanche forecaster Peter Xhignesse came into the office of Hugh Smythe in the spring of 1985 and told him he wanted to show Smythe some skiing on the south side of Blackcomb. According to Smythe, he hadn’t done much hiking or skiing in the area and thought that it was unlikely there would be much promise in the south facing area known to be windy with lots of rocks. After being shown the area by Xhignesse, however, he was convinced that the area had potential.
At the time, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises was owned by the Aspen Skiing Company and the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB), who also co-owned Fortress Mountain Resort in Alberta. Smythe knew that there was a relatively new T-bar on Fortress that wasn’t being run due to the drop in business after Nakiska Ski Area opened. Over the space of two days and a night, the T-bar on Fortress was quietly taken down and transported across the provincial border. With the T-bar in the Blackcomb parking loot, Smythe approached Aspen and the FBDB about funding its installation. Though at first they refused, pointing out that they were trying to sell Blackcomb, Smythe convinced them that he could fund the lift by selling incremental season passes.
On August 18, 1985, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises officially announced the start of construction on their new “High Alpine T-Bar,” which would provide access to the area identified by Xhignesse, with a catered luncheon, heli-skiing, and a rendition of the 1983 Parachute Club song “Rise Up” encouraging skiers to “Rise up, rise up to the Mile High Mountain.” The addition of the T-bar promised to expand Blackcomb’s skiable terrain from 420 acres to 1,160 acres with 22 new runs and increased its vertical reach to 5,280 feet (1,609 m) or one mile (according to Smythe, there may have been a “little bit of license” taken on that number), the highest in North America.
Despite the summer start, wet and cold weather in October and November delayed the completion of the lift. In mid-October, with about half of the towers installed, Operations Manager Rich Morten reported that they needed only two and half days of clear weather in order to pour the rest of the footings and erect the towers. By the beginning of November, they were still waiting for a break in the weather to allow helicopters to complete the work.
The High Alpine T-Bar was finally completed in mid-November but it would be another month before it opened to the public. Because of the rougher terrain (described as “boulders the size of cars and buses” by Blackcomb’s Dennis Hansen), more snow was needed before the new runs would be ready for skiing. Once the T-bar did open, however, it gathered rave reviews.
The new terrain was described by Trail Manager Garry Davies as “fabulous” and according to Nancy Greene, “The enormous variety of slopes and spectacular views are really unequalled in North America.” Even the competition were impressed, with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain claiming that the opening of the T-bar opened up the “big alpine world” and put an end to Blackcomb’s uniformly designed character. The T-bar was the first destination of sixteen year old Mike Douglas on his very first ski trip to Whistler, who described arriving at the top of the lift as being “dropped off at the edge of the world” and the trip down as “the coolest adventure ever.” For Smythe, the T-bar was a turning point for Blackcomb and he credits it with both inspiring Whistler’s Peak Chair the next year and with attracting Intrawest to purchase Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises.
Though it was a huge development for Blackcomb Mountain, the T-bar didn’t remain in place for very long. In 1987, the T-bar was replaced by the four-person 7th Heaven Express, with continues to transport skiers and snowboarders to the windy and rocky terrain pointed out by Peter Xhignesse.
We all remember when Whistler Blackcomb announced that they would exchange the 25 year old Village gondolas with new and bigger ones in the fall of 2014. The old cabins found new owners all over the world. But do you know the history of all the lifts at Whistler Blackcomb? Slide on and take a gondola ride through the ages.
The first lifts were built on the south side of Whistler Mountain (what is now known as Creekside). By fall 1965, several lifts were installed, including a four person gondola, a double chair lift, and two T-bars.
With the opening of Blackcomb in 1980, a long-lasting rivalry started between both independently owned mountains. This led to a race to build lifts with the motto “higher, faster, and safer” in mind.
Whistler was large, highly departmentalized, more Canadian and European as well as more traditional. New to the business of skiing, the Vancouver based Hastings West Group took over Garibaldi Lifts Limited. In contrast, Blackcomb was young, tight, US-dominated and half controlled by the Aspen Corporation, whom were already experienced in the ski business. Blackcomb ski runs were designed to follow the fall line whereas Whistlers runs were designed more so to side-run the mountain.
In the following years, a marketing battle between both mountains was up and running. When Blackcomb installed its alpine 7th Heaven T-Bar in 1985 it became North Americas only “Mile High Mountain”. The new area opened up, including four powder bowls, wide open glacier skiing, and it also provided visitors with a vertical mile (1,609 meters’/5,280 feet) of skiing. A year later, Whistler Mountain responded with a high alpine triple Chair lift called Peak Chair, opening Whistler’s highest peak (1,530 meters’ (5,020 feet). The new alpine area provided experts with some of the most challenging runs in the world. In 1996, Whistler became the only resort in history to be simultaneously named No. 1 by Snow Country, SKI and Skiing magazines. However, even more exciting was the news announced March 1997 when Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain merged to form one big mountain company, which is today well known as Whistler-Blackcomb all over the world.
With the Peak2Peak opening in 2008, Whistler-Blackcomb finally broke two world records and is recognized in the Guinness World Record Book 2015 as the highest cable car above ground (436 meters above the valley floor) and the longest unsupported span between two cable car towers (3.024 kilometers). For skiers and boarders it is now easier to access the high alpine terrain on both mountains. But even for sightseers it is redefining the mountain experience in winter and summer by very impressive views and an incredible experience.
Those 50 years of lift history show: Competition drives innovation; but when two former rivals team up, they can move mountains and bring great peaks closer together.
Explore Whistler’s lift history on the map.
Map locations 1, 2 & 3: It all started in Creekside
4, 5 & 6: The ancestors of the Emerald Chair
7 & 8: History of Franz’s Chair
9: The Whistler Village Gondola and its early sisters
10 & 11: Developing the Olympic Chair
12: Reaching out to Whistler Peak
13, 14, 15 & 16: First chairlifts on Blackcomb
17: History of Jersey Cream
18: Up to 7th Heaven
19: History of the Magic Chair
20: Opening the Harmony Bowl
21: Preparing the way to the Glacier
Installation of Peak2Peak, Symphony, Fitzsimmons & Garbanzo
Many thanks go to Rod Nadeau and Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd. who helped gather information about Whistler’s lift history.