Horses & Helis: Chairlift-Building, Then and Now

by Jeff Slack, Whistler Museum.

Two things that should be plainly obvious to just about anyone who lives in the mountains or pays attention to ski-related social media: 1) Winter is coming, and 2) Whistler Blackcomb is gearing up for the upcoming season by building two new ski lifts. WB’s crack media team has been providing steady construction updates for all you armchair industrialists, giving some cool insights into how a chairlift gets built in 2013.

Needless to say, things were a little different when the first lifts were built on Whistler Mountain back in 1965. As an interesting compare/contrast exercise we recently digitized some old footage from our archives documenting the construction of the original Whistler Gondola and other related buildings and infrastructure. It is amazing to compare the two videos and see how much construction techniques have advanced in the intervening 48 years.

article continues below

For one, it is highly unlikely that horses were used in the construction of the new Crystal Ridge or Harmony-6 Express lifts. Not coincidentally, the tow-road that the horses are hauling supplies up is now the ski run better known as the Pony Trail.

Another observation: WorkSafe BC would NEVER let people climb up lift towers without proper rope-harness systems nowadays. Back then, things just ran looser.

One similarity between the two eras is the use of helicopters to haul loads of wet concrete up the mountain for lift-tower footings and other structures. Less obvious is just how innovative this was in 1965.

According to Glenn McPherson, then-CEO of Okanagan Helicopters, this was the first time on Earth that helicopters were used for ski-lift installation. It was during the construction of the high-voltage transmission line from Kitimat to Kemano in Northern BC a few years earlier that Okanagan gained the expertise and experience that convinced them that it could be done.

The lifts were sourced from the Swiss company Mueller, who sent a team of engineers across the Atlantic to oversee the installation. By all accounts Mueller was impeccably efficient and knowledgeable, but their engineers pretty much laughed at the silly Canadians when they discovered their plans to use helicopters. By the end, the Swiss engineers left with a newfound respect for North American know-how, and the company’s president, himself a commercial pilot, personally congratulated Okanagan’s pilots.

They deserved all the recognition they received. Back then helicopters didn’t have nearly the same lift capacity as today’s machines. The helicopters were so taxed by hovering with full concrete loads that when the trap door was opened and the wet concrete poured out, the helicopter shot upwards at the same rate!

So this winter when you’re bragging about your last run as you lap back up one of the new lifts, remember these videos. No matter how sick you think your line was, you have nothing on the crews who built the lifts that make it all happen.