WHISTLER BC, December 17, 2008, 6:30pm PST - Whistler Blackcomb, the BC Safety Authority and Doppelmayr senior directors are working around the clock to move forward on the investigation into Tuesday’s tower collapse on the Excalibur Gondola, and to restore public confidence in one of the world’s most sophisticated resort lift systems.
The cause of the tower failure was confirmed by early Wednesday morning, and was due to an extremely unusual situation called “ice-jacking.” The structure of the tower is such that two parts are spliced together. Water had seeped into the lower section of the tower and turned to ice with the recent extreme cold temperatures. While extremely cold temperatures are not uncommon at a ski resort, the water had accumulated to a point whereby the pressure from the ice created a rupture that separated the two sections of the tower. The force of the ice expansion and the subsequent rupture has been estimated at 800 tonnes of pressure.
According to Doppelmayr and the BC Safety Authority, there is only one other known incident involving lift tower structural failure and ice-jacking. This incident took place at a USA ski resort in 2006.
“The towers are not normally designed to allow for any water penetration and so this failure is a very unusual situation,” says Warren Sparks, senior vice president of Doppelmayr Canada. “Our attention now has shifted to understanding how this water penetration has happened and we have independent structural engineers reviewing the tower from Vancouver-based CWMM Consulting Engineers Ltd. The evidence found so far indicates a sudden rupture rather than a fatigue failure over an extended period.”
Following yesterday’s emergency evacuation of the Excalibur Gondola, Whistler Blackcomb lift maintenance crews worked late into the night to perform checks on similar towers across both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains to ensure there are no other similar cases. At this point in time, the towers on eight lifts have been inspected and have been cleared of issue. The lifts that have been inspected and cleared include the Emerald Express, Big Red Express and Franz’s Chair on Whistler Mountain, and Wizard Express, Solar Coaster, Excelerator and Jersey Cream Express on Blackcomb. The Whistler Village Gondola, Creekside Gondola and Catskinner Chairs have entirely different tower structures and therefore have not been included in the inspection.
Prior to opening any inspected lifts today, Whistler Blackcomb performed a second review with the BC Safety Authority, the province’s independent authority on ski lifts. “There is no justification at this time that other installations operating at Whistler Blackcomb have been affected by a similar failure,” said Greg Paddon, safety manager from the BC Safety Authority. “The BC Safety Authority does not anticipate rescinding operating permits on any lifts currently operating at Whistler Blackcomb other than the upper and lower Excalibur Gondola.” Inspections on the Excalibur Gondola will continue Thursday.
Meanwhile, Whistler Blackcomb has been following up with the 53 guests who were evacuated from the Excalibur Gondola yesterday afternoon. Counseling services have been made available to guests, and reports from most of those injured appear to be limited to bruising and stiffness today. Ongoing correspondence will continue over the next few days to ensure that everyone is well cared for.
“This has been a very difficult 24 hour period for Whistler Blackcomb and the days to come will no doubt continue to be challenging as we work through the issue,” says Doug Forseth, Whistler Blackcomb’s senior vice president of operations. “But at the end of the day, regardless of our challenges ahead, we are so thankful that the injuries sustained were not more serious and that the lift evacuation went as smoothly as it did. Again, we want to recognize the fantastic efforts of our community first responders – the Whistler Fire Department, RCMP, BC Ambulance Services and Whistler Emergency Services, in conjunction with our Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol. The seamless integration of these groups to evacuate the guests as quickly and safely as possible was the shining light in this situation.”
Two situations of property damage as a result of the gondola cabins falling are also being addressed. A municipal bus shelter was slightly damaged, as was a wood frame chimney on a nearby condominium. In both cases Whistler Blackcomb is working to assist with repairs and expenses.
Information about the Excalibur Gondola incident will continue to be available for guests and media from the homepage at http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com. The web site also includes further information about Whistler Blackcomb’s operating plan, open lifts, snow conditions and open terrain.