Spilling the Gears [PIQUE] | Computing And Information Technology | Science

60 Feature


in g ill Sp he s


— The Whistler Gondola Inside and Out. A look under
the hood of the Wh istler Gondola afte r more than 56,000 hours of ope ration. Story and Photos by tobias c. van Veen
In which our intrepid reporter tells all, going behind-the-scenes of the Whistler Gondola to explore its innards, revealing what is to come for the workhorse, and what tales have been spun both inside and out, from its lift lines to its challenges.

t’s mid-afternoon, and I’m rolling in to Olympic Station on the Whistler Gondola. A dreary sky looms above, rain spattering the cabin’s well worn, wrap-around windows. As the temperatures drop to a hint below zero at the Olympic Station’s 1,000 metres, the rain turns to slushy snow. It’s another late March winter storm, and I’m here to meet Wayne Wiltse, Lift Maintenance Manager — though I tend to think of him as the chief engineer of this hulking, mechanical beast of a peoplemover, occasionally throwing his arms up in the air and shouting “I just canna make it go any faster, Cap’n!” Stepping out beyond the cabin’s creaking doors, I do what I’ve never done in my 24 years of riding the gondie — I open the door of the sacred computer


room and poke my head in. Flashing lights fl icker across the glass-doored computer cabinet. An alarm sounds. The phone rings, and a blue-jacketed liftie looks up. An inquiry or two to the disheveled Ozzie team reveals that nobody knows who Wayne is. After assuring one and all of my Press status, I am led to a staff room tucked in behind the pop machines — yet another secret space I had no idea existed — and wait. Wearing a black jacket of my own, everyone eating lunch assumes I am an off-duty engineer until I pull out the Nikon DSLR camera and strap on the flash. “Hey mate,” drawls the liftie across the table from me. “You work here right?” “Not quite,” I say. “But I’m in the right place, here on a mission.” He nods. “I could tell,” he says. “You’ve got the racoon eyes.” I look at the liftie’s tag; he’s from a place called Walla Walla. “You can’t be no tourist,” he continues, gesturing at my goggle tan. Indeed.

Flashing the Control Room
Within a few minutes, Wayne walks in, a bearded, bear-like man who is everything you imagine an engineer to be — kind of big, rough and tumble, fast on dispensing as much wit as knowledge. He’s covered in as much oil as clothing. I like him upon first glance; I can tell he’s going to show me the goods. With the brisk attitude of a man with things to do, places to be, Wayne suggests we start in the computer control room that looks out onto the incoming cabins. As we swing open the door, I immediately pose the question. “Can I take pictures with the flash?” I say. This is apparently a serious matter, ever since I’ve been a grommer hauling little skinny skis, I’ve

always wondered what would happen if I popped a flash in the computer room. Would the system go into shutdown, acidic smoke drifting from the ancient circuit boards? “Sure!” says Wayne, “of course!” “But what about the sign?” I ask, gesturing to the etched letters displayed prominently on the glass door. NO CAMERA FLASHES, it reads.

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“Oh,” chuckles Wayne, who then proceeds to explain to me that back in 1988, when the gondola was constructed by POMA America, the engineer had to burn an EEPROM memory board with ultraviolet light (EEPROM, by the way, stands for Electrically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory, an ancient technique for memory storage used back in the 1980s, when cell phones were hauled around in briefcases and skis were as thin as your wrist). Apparently his interdiction against camera flashes during the construction phase became enshrined in lore, and now remains etched into history. So yah — here’s another whopper to go along with “Where do they keep the moguls during the summer?”: Why can’t you take pictures of the Gondie computers with a flash? THEY WILL EXPLODE. Lucky for those of us who ride the

line day-in and day-out, everything in the computer control room has since been changed; the safety control system was upgraded in 1998. That said, many of the flashing controls still look like they were designed for a cameo in a Bond film — starring Sean Connery. We turn to the long, desktop control system that faces the incoming cars. Big blue, red, and green buttons that look like they belong on the set of the original Star Trek series are labelled with big and serious capital letters. A few dashboard mounted computer screens show wind and temperature readings. Smaller screens with green printout letters blink information with old-school severity. TRANSFER ANNUNCIATOR

says one. SEC 2 ANNUNCIATOR, says another. Apparently this is a computer that annunciates. “This computer screen is annunciation. It tells you what is going on,” says Wayne. “Synchronization is good. Master control from this station is on. If there’s a problem with one of these gates, the computer will annunciate the problem on this screen.” Fascinating. I raise a Spock-brow. We go over the panels. Different screens give wind speed at towers 13 and 20 (sorry, no tower 27 readings; check your speed at lift-off). I gesture at the
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1. Wayne Wiltse, at command central. 2. The promised land (for engineers). 3. Fingering the Transfer Annunciator.

cabin number for lost gloves, for chances are they won’t really know where the cabin is anyway. If you’ve ever glanced up at the gears and cogs of Olympic Station, you’ll notice that the gondola is not one but two. Up among the iron girders is a clinking chain that pulls the cabins from the lower to the upper line, transferring passengers methodically from one bullwheel to the next. With the gondola fully operational, running from the village to the Roundhouse, Olympic Station’s computer room is master control. Wayne gestures at the two drive panels that control the speed of the lines. I’m tempted to crank them up, but resist the urge; the bottom line is already running at the maximum speed of 5.5 metres per second, which is achievable only when the wind is below 39 km/h. I am curious as to the beast’s hypothetical limit, but figure now is not the time to begin touching things, because hey, Wayne is leading me outside, past the DO NOT WALK BETWEEN CABINS sign, to the ladder. For the first time in my life, I walk between the cabins. The ladder that leads up — above the cogs and gears to the gang planks and fast spinning things and yellow pipes and emergency stop-ropes.

boards, but a million wires still connect everything together, revealing the legacy technology that runs the beast. Wayne pops the doors off to get me a better look. Above the glass computer doors are the infamous flashing lights, showing the position of cabins on the line. Cabins can be marked with the big blue button as they leave the terminal; once tagged they will set off that familiar alarm bell as they enter the station (I am sure many think what I did when first hearing that disarming klaxon: whoops, almost lost another one!). Usually this is done


main computer readout. “On this screen is your stop history and speed history,” says Wayne. He checks the time on the screen. The time is wrong, and hasn’t been corrected for daylight savings time, perhaps since 1988. A bit of math and we sort it out, scrolling through the self-checks and safety-checks that began at 5:15a.m., with the lift running since 7a.m. without a stop — it’s been a good lift day, with low wind. As for the glass computer cabinets, they now hold modern processor

to send up supplies such as flats of beer and send down the composting. It’s not a smart system; the cabins aren’t geotagged in any modern sense. Every morning the lifties build a tracking list, noting the position of each cabin on the line with a good ol’ notepad. That’s pen and paper — no slick iPads here. “If we have a storm cycle rolling through, like tonight,” says Wayne. “We’ll take cabins off. They’ll all be parked inside here and downstairs. Then when they input the cabins in the morning, they’ll record their number and where they are. So if they want to find one, they can, but it’s not easy. And they never do.” So don’t go worrying now about your

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4. Whistler’s largest untapped rave space. 5. Things to keep in mind. 6. The heart of the beast runs on a 1/4” drive belt. 7. In case of zombies, remove from wall. 8. Looking out at the storm.


Up Into the Innards
“It’s all mechanical,” says Wayne. “Like, the spacing of the cabins, and driving the cabins through the stations.” We are standing below the ladder, with cabins passing by on either side. He nods, and heads on up. I swing my camera over the shoulder and follow, gaining the metalmeshed walkway some 20 feet up. “Be careful when we’re above the bullwheel,” he says, “and don’t pull that red rope.” The bullwheel weighs three tons. The red rope, running at waist-height alongside the walkway, stops the whole show. The hum and noise of the machine is loud, but smooth. Wayne details the deceleration process for me as the cabins come up from the Village; the other side, of course, does it all in reverse, with an accelerator. “The power is taken from the bullwheel, through the drive shafts, to the decelerator,” says Wayne, gesturing at the numerous spinning wheels and clamps, which are at waist-height beside me. We duck under two fast, spinning pipes painted yellow. I clamp my toque on tight. “As the cabin comes in, the grip will open, dropping it onto the carrier, running the same speed as the haul rope. These tires slow it down, matching the speed to the chain.” The result? A smooth transition, slowing the cabin down from the fast bullwheel line to the meandering pace of the station chain. A number of sensors and switches ensure that everything is in place; a metal rail, for example, ensures that the grip is aligned properly. Everything is mechanical; if something doesn’t click right, the whole system shuts down. Dropping back down the ladder, Wayne points out the massive hydraulics that maintain constant tension to the lines,


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which allows the friction of the drivewheel to operate efficiently. These hydraulic rams accommodate the changing weight and sag of the gondola — especially noticeable after sales on chicken wings and pasta in the village. out Whistler’s infamous festival of lowbudget, amateur horror filmmaking, held on Halloween.) In 2007, all the grips and hangers were replaced during a $4 million, major overhaul, which included the gearbox at G4, station rails, bullwheel bearings, and rails. Last year, the gearbox at G2 was replaced as well. If you think your car is a burden, imagine how many bits and pieces of the gondie require upgrading on a regular basis; each repair is double-checked and signed off by not one but two techs. Wayne points out the parts charts on the walls — schematics detail each and every part, with the appropriate numbers for reorders. Specialist tools are neatly kept in labelled places — for some reason I am immediately drawn to the heaviest, most brainless implement of them all, the orange Dead Blow Hammer, which, as Wayne puts it, “gives you a little bit of jam when you need to wack something.” A plastic hammer with a little lead shot in it — now this is the protagonist’s tool for said-possible-horror-film-shoot. Then we waltz into the motor room. A massive spinning drive shaft leads up from floor to ceiling. Backup electrical drives and emergency motors sit like lurking rhinos, colour-coded yellow, green, and blue. A spinning disc is guarded by metal grates; it spins at 1,600 rpm when the gondie is running at full speed. As Wayne points out to me, everything I’ve seen so far is entirely mechanical; you can almost run it all with bailing wire and duct-tape. Unlike the Peak 2 Peak, computerization is minimal, and there is very little black-boxing of its core operations. Like an old car, you can get under the hood and wack at it. “It’s our primary workhorse for Whistler Blackcomb, and carries A generation ago, back in 1988 when hair was more passengers than big and pants were bright and tight, POMA any other lift in our America came to Whistler and said, let’s get company,” says Doug shakin’ on up to the hiiiigh alpine. And lo, Forseth, Whistler stretching all the way past the old triples, Blackcomb’s Senior all the way up to the Roundhouse and Pika’s, a VP of Operations, gondola was built, a modern chariot for those who has also ridden seekers of the powder stashes. Long before the gondola several Blue chair was removed and Harmony installed, thousand times in back when two-seater, colour-coded wooden uniform, jumpstarting chairs were London Mountain’s mainstay forms innumerable of transport, there was the Whistler Gondola. conversations during As of today, this year of Mayan prophecies the 15-minute ride. that is 2012, the Whistler Gondola has been “It has done that in in operation for 56, 414 hours—and counting. its current state since Or more precisely, the Upper Whistler Gondola 1988.” has clocked a few hundred hours more than Though the gondie the Lower (probably to ferry staff members was upgraded in seeking to break the records of the Gondola 2007 with heavy-duty Challenge). Indeed, the Upper and Lower components so that its gondola are technically two distinct lifts. capacity is now greater The lower gondie is number 4.22, with the — so it can haul more upper claiming 4.23 (which leads me to wonder: ass, basically “what who got Poma lift 4.20?). has not been done The gondie stretches some 4,998 metres, yet is a new paint suspended by some 63 towers, operating at a job,” says Doug. “The maximum speed of 5.5 metres per second, and cabins are really the hauling our collective corps up (and then next big thing.” some) 848 vertical metres. Whereas the Peak So here’s what 2 Peak is a stroke of minimalism, hanging to expect. First, the suspended cars across the Fitz Valley like, number of cabins will well, some kind of bird on a wire, the probably increase from Whistler Gondola is a workhorse, a beast of 156 to about 190. And burden, a two-birds-in-the-bush metaphor. In there will be new, walkfact, it is a metaphori, that which transports in cabins, still with us around, herding our heavy, valley bodies up skis on the inside — into the lightness of being metapherein. keeping it easy for lifties dealing with twintips and rockered planks — The cost of the upgrade racks in at but with comfortable, assigned seating for eight. Yes — no longer around $45,000 per cabin, making it a will the strange, oblong benches, too high $7 million upgrade that will benefit both for some, too low for others, upend tourists winter and summer riders. Solutions for and locals alike. It will be much more like bike carriers are still being brainstormed, the Excalibur gondola, notes Doug, and will with bike carriers a possibility. Upgrading enhance carrying numbers from 2,150 per the gondie will likely take place around hour to about 2,640. This means “shorter lift the same time as the Harmony upgrade to a six-pack lift, and the transfer of the lines, and better service,” says Doug.


Behind the Blue Door & Down into the Guts
An inauspicious blue door opens to reveal metal stairs leading down into a huge, cavernous parking garage, cluttered with open-air work cars, ambulance cabins, and ordered stacks of parts of every size and description. Two-thirds of the gondie’s cars can be stored down here. At two storeys tall, it’s the biggest untapped rave space in Whistler. Massive cement columns provide the structural foundations of this echoing, ideal dream-goth-dungeon — supporting arches originally built to hold a 10-storey hotel on top. Huge sheave trains lie in neat rows, ready to go for the spring shutdown and rebuild. Wayne leads me past the stacks of sheaves — no, not the hand-fashioned prisoner weapons of choice, but what you and I would call the wheels that support the gondola cable — to a maintenance bay in the back. Here, gondies as well as quad chairs can be rolled in, hanging at accessible heights for the repair crews. Grips and hangers are repaired regularly, with 25 per cent taken out of service and tested using spray-on magnetic particle that reveals wear and tear when shocked with electrical current under ultraviolet lights — creating a psychedelic nightclub atmosphere for the jumpsuit mechanics. Meanwhile, “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel plays on the stereo. With a subtly-graffitied, 1970s-era Workers’ Compensation Board poster on the cement wall, the atmosphere is a bit Reservoir Dogs. Two mechanics yank away at a gondie in the dock, fiddling with the door. I realize that this location would provide a truly excellent location for a Heavy Hitting Films Horror Film Fest entrant. Just sayin’. (If you’re around in the fall, do check

Midlife Cabin Crisis
Several upgrades are rolling out across Whistler Blackcomb in the coming few years — including improvements to the Whistler Gondola, possibly as early as summer 2014, but more likely beginning in 2015.

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The Gondola Challenge has been complicated over the past few years—with the addition of the Peak 2 Peak, it now requires an extra ride(r) or two to complete the whole circuit. There’s also the added confusion of how to complete the route. Up Creekside, down the Whistler Gondola, up Blackcomb, then P2P over? Or begin with the 15-odd minute epic of the Whistler Gondie? Tough calls for the ol’ up-and-down. Besides the P2P — which is the hardest to pull off, precisely because getting a cabin to yourself requires some, errr, finessing — the Whistler Gondola by far has the most space for testing the cabin’s cable clampers. For two generations now, newbies have practiced getting on and off the various gondolas with the cabin classic. the maze),” says Dan, who is smoothly scanning passes as we speak. We estimate he easily scans hundreds of thousands of people a year. “It’s pretty hectic,” he adds, his eyes out for scams, including photocopy forgeries and dudes wearing fake moustaches to cop their buddy’s pass. Yes — he’s seen them all. The guys who drop their skis and gloves, creating a diversion while someone else squishes past… or the dazed loner who stands off to the side, pretending to be lost or looking for something — and then tries to pull a fast one. Then there’s the crowds that just mob you. Most of them, says Dan, just aren’t that good at it; last year he had a group flock him when no one else was in the maze. It was beyond obvious. I’m not that stupid, says Dan. At least try something better than that. He has had women hand him 555 numbers, with offers of après hook-ups (sorry girls, not worth losing a job over). Then there are the regulars, a few infamous characters, true ski bum squatters, dreaded and recognizable, hawking clipped tickets, which try near daily to slip in. It doesn’t work, and everyone is politely sent on their way. Last, but never least, there’s the inebriated. “We’ve had a few guys who have come along completely drunk, pants falling down to his knees, could barely even walk, stumbling around,” says Dan. “We do get a few, and we have to send them away for safety.” Sometimes there’s lift line conflicts between anxious and agitated tourists, swearing at each other, parkrats taking on the gapers, etc. Dan’s job is to keep the herd grinding forward in peace. But there are ways to make your powder morning a faster flow, especially if rolling single and suave. Coffees and muffins to hold a place in line are never a bad idea, says Dan, with a chuckle. “We just want to keep the vibe good,” says Dan. “We’ll shoot you up the line to ride with your friends if you’re nice and help us out.” ■

existing, quad Harmony chair over to Crystal on Blackcomb, replacing the old triple. The top five list of the master plan timeline also calls for the renovation of Rendezvous, which has found itself increasingly popular as a destination eatery for Peak 2 Peak sightseers. The $5 million expansion would increase seating and enhance the back-of-thehouse, though no word on the all-night disco yet. If no one wants the old gondie cars, they might be auctioned off though only time will tell whether local ski culture will find the gondie as attractive as the old Creekside tinbox.

Flowing with the Forgeries and Fakes
“It depends on how it wakes up in the morning, y’know,” says Dan, describing his relationship with the Whistler Gondola. “If it’s freezing up there, and doesn’t have a good night, it plays up a bit. But usually we get along quite well. There’s a few days, when it’s super cold, when it doesn’t want to wake up in the morning, and we have to call in the maintenance guys to help us out.

But usually it’s happy, and we have a working relationship 90 per cent of the time.” Dan Pooley has been the lead lift hand for the Whistler Gondie’s Village base for the past two years. He’s one of those forgivably handsome Brits, and like me, chuckles at nearly all aspects of the universe that flows around him. He used to work in Leeds Castle, organizing highbrow banquets and dungeon tours; the mountain figured this was good experience for packing the sardine tins on a daily basis. As I’m talking to Dan about Clowns to the left, jokers to the right---Dan Pooley dress-up parties and the high welcomes the fakers. morale of Guest Relations — it’s evident he digs his job — another liftie hands him a mangled 7-Eleven ticket. They see this kind of thing every day, and have in place a fast track priority to bounce people up who have issues with their tix. “Between 9 and 10:30a.m. is our busiest point — we’ve got ski school, two lines of kids, normal ski school, three lines (from

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