I got a chance to check out the Sea to Sky Gondola during its first few months of operation last summer. It’s located along the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler. The system is just over 7,000 feet long and goes from a parking lot at sea level to a lodge 3,000 feet above. There are 20 CWA 8-passenger cabins that take riders to the top in 7.1 minutes. The summit lodge has expansive views of Howe Sound in addition to hiking trails and snow tubing in the winter. The project cost $22 million to build and is owned by a small group of private partners.
Doppelmayr began building the gondola in April 2013 and it passed its acceptance test in January 2014. The bottom drive terminal has a unique wooden structure over it instead of the normal Uni-G terminal. The lower section climbs an 800 foot cliff and none of the lift line is accessible by road. Many of the 14 towers were anchored directly to bedrock. Most trees under the line were left standing which would make for a challenging evacuation.
The gondola had a major accident on February 4th, 2014. At the time it was only open for construction workers and the media. The system stopped automatically around 8:30 am due to two rope position faults at tower 7. The only personnel on-site were two operators, the Mountain Manager and an employee from Doppelmayr. It took the Doppelmayr employee almost two hours to reach tower 7 on foot where he found a cabin on the ground.
An investigation by the BC Safety Authority found that at the time of the accident, the gondola had only operated 67 hours. 45 mph winds had blown the cabin into tower 7 and pried its closed grip from the haul rope. Anemometers at towers 4, 8 and 14 were working but automated wind warnings and alarms had been set not to go off until 99 m/s (221 mph.) The anemometer on tower 8 had been producing false readings so Doppelmayr directed the operators to set the wind warning and alarm to their maximum value until the problem could be fixed. Even so, the system was only running 2.5 m/s at the time of the accident so the wind warning would not have slowed the system further. The BC Safety Authority concluded the accident was due to operational error with inexperienced workers on a brand new machine. As a result of the accident, Doppelmayr added an anemometer to tower 7 as well as live video monitoring of the line.
The gondola opened to the public on May 16, 2014 and operates year-round. It’s definitely worth a stop on the way to Whistler. I opted to hike up which takes about three hours. Catching a ride down on the gondola costs only $5.