MOUNTAIN LIFE - Coast Mountains | Fall Winter 2018

FALL/WINTER 2018 MLCM 33 words :: Allyn Pringle After 31 years of (mostly) faithful service, Blackcomb Mountain’s Wizard Express has cast its last spell—a new 10-person gondola is replacing the lift (along with the Solar Coaster chair) for the upcoming season. Since opening in 1987 the Wizard, known for its handy storm bubble coverings, hasn’t made many headlines, though it has inspired some spirited conversations about early morning lineup etiquette. FLASHBACK Despite its generally uneventful servitude, the Wizard represented many firsts for both Blackcomb and the Canadian ski industry. In 1986 Intrawest bought Aspen Ski Company’s 50 per cent stake in Blackcomb (as well as the real estate development opportunities that surrounded the mountain). Though Aspen had seemed reluctant to invest in the operations, within a year of the acquisition Intrawest/Blackcomb announced plans for a $25 million development project. The plans included a new base, an expanded and renamed Rendezvous restaurant, the Horstman Hut, snowmaking equipment and four new Doppelmayr lifts—one of which, a T-bar, would finally provide lift access to Horstman Glacier. The Whistler Question newspaper described the upgrade as “the largest ever undertaken in the ski resort business in North America,” and Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe told the Vancouver Sun that the move was, “like being out on the end of a tree limb and sawing it part way off… once you decide to go ahead, you can’t go back on something like this.” With the help of unusually good weather, construction on the lifts was completed on schedule in just five months. Wizard and Solar Coaster were the first Blackcomb lifts to be named (Blackcomb’s original lifts were simply numbered Chair 1-6). While resident Sue Boyd won the right to name the Solar Coaster in a competition, the origin of the Wizard’s name is less clear—though it fits with the ‘magical’ theme for the new facilities, including the now infamous Merlin’s Bar and Grill. Advertisements encouraged skiers (it would be another year before snowboarders were welcome on the mountain) to “Come under our spell” and be whisked away from the mountain experience they knew before. According to Arthur DeJong, current Mountain Planning and Environmental Resource Manager, the idea back then was that, “The Wizard can do anything and can send you anywhere with the beam of its wand.” Despite a cruising speed twice as fast as any other chair in the valley, the three new lifts slowed to a quarter speed at the top and bottom to allow for a gentle boarding and unloading experience—no chair rushing up to hit the backs of your knees. It truly felt like wizardry. A plastic cover provided shelter from the elements and a gave a distinct appearance reminiscent of science fiction or an amusement ride. With 27 towers and a vertical rise of 566 metres, a trip on theWizard lasted about seven minutes. It was also the first ‘bubble chair’ in Canada and only the second such lift installed by Doppelmayr (the first was in Vail, Colorado in 1985). Together, Wizard and Solar Coaster delivered skiers from Blackcomb’s base to the mountain-top Rendezvous restaurant in under 15 minutes. Previously, the same journey from Whistler Village had taken four lifts and over 40 minutes with no protection from the wet weather often found at the bottom. Eager riders lined up on the season’s opening day and the first Wizard passengers were Rick Balfour, Werner Defilla, Jane McPhail and Lorne Borgal, employees of Whistler Mountain who had bid for their position in a charity auction. Winter 1987/88 was the first season Blackcomb (often called ‘the dark side’ by old-time locals) surpassed Whistler Mountain, taking 54 per cent of the winter’s skiers (previously Whistler Mountain had claimed 60 per cent). So perhaps there was a little dark magic in play after all. THE WIZARD Requiem For A Ski Lift COURTESY OF WHISTLER MUSEUM & ARCHIVES