Pushing boundaries

JIM BARR, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

For years Whistler has held the title as North America's top snowbound destination and now it just got a whole lot better.

This month, the ribbon was cut on a project started back in mid-2005, the new 'Peak 2 Peak' Gondola, an unprecedented engineering feat bridging the gap between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

When you consider the construction behind it, it's a project of mammoth proportions.

Only four towers, two on the Blackcomb side and two on the Whistler side support the 28 cabins taking skiers and riders across from one point to the other; at over three kilometres long, it breaks the world record for the longest unsupported horizontal gondola system.

The experience is like nothing else. Your stomach drops as you make your way over the second tower, to be left with the huge distance in the middle - it's almost like being in a helicopter. In slow motion you hover over the tree tops with an eagle eye view, except this is minus the chopper blades leaving you with an adventure that is almost surreal, completely silent as you pass over Fitzsimmons Creek below.

Whistler Blackcomb celebrated its new $53 million system with a big opening day bash featuring entertainment, fireworks and many of the pioneers that helped set the stage for its success.

Over 150 journalists turned up from all over the globe to cover the launch and almost 11,000 people tuned into the live webcast, 500 of those Austrian employees of Doppelmayr, the lift system's manufacture.

And what is a party without a few base jumpers. Shane McConkey stepped the celebrations up a notch by spouting some Red Bull wings to become the first of a few to take flight from the roof of one of the gondolas.

His adrenalin-churning performance took him some 1,400 feet to the valley floor below safe and sound. To put that into perspective it's 20% higher than the observation deck of the CN Tower.

McConkey's an icon in the industry appearing on dozens of magazine covers and in many snow films as part of his adventure and pro skiing career.

I was lucky enough to bump into his dad, Jim, at the celebrations. He was in the gondola when Shane took the leap.

"I was a little nervous for him, but they are professions, Shane's made about 1000 base jumps."

It was 40 years ago that Jim McConkey first laid eyes on Whistler, "Long seasons, lots of snow, huge terrain and so close to a big city, I knew right away this place was going to be a winner."

McConkey was lured to Whistler to help set up the first ski rental and retail shop in the village, a presence that still lives on today with their McCoo's sports shops.

"The gondola is fantastic, it puts the resort into a whole new dimension. It's going to be interesting to see how skiers utilize it," said McConkey.

"Peak 2 Peak really gives you options, you don't have to stick with which ever mountain you started with," said former Crazy Canuck and ski legend Steve Podborski, who acted as master of ceremonies for the festivities. "This project is simply unique - two mile high mountains now joined at their mid-points."

One of the biggest things this development allows for is to explore both mountains with only an 11-minute transfer.

"If the snow is really good, my pick is to head up Spanky's Ladder and into Ruby's Bowl, but if it's a bit more skied out, I like to head into Lower Franz," said Podborski.

With Ruby's on Blackcomb and Franz on Whistler, now both options are that much closer.

This development is really going to come in handy in the early and late parts of the seasons, to keep you high and where the powder's at.

For all this shredding potential, you need to have a solid station with a hot tub and great place to rest up for another epic day in Whistler. A decision to stay at the Whistler Hilton is not going to steer you wrong.

The fact that most rooms are outfitted with kitchen units makes the re-fuelling simple and economical too.

Perfectly located at the base of both Whistler and Blackcomb, the Hilton is steps away from either gondola.

To bridge the gap on the information you'll need to make the visit to Whistler this season, head to www.whistlerblackcomb.com


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