Like the milkman “Tevye” in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, we went back and forth “on one hand – on the other hand,” over numerous refreshments while we soon discovered how the Gunbarrel Saloon got its well-deserved reputation. We stretched into the corners of the envelope and determined that the Pros were twofold – the lift was for sale - most importantly, and it was diesel powered which would allow us to operate it without running a new power line up to the saddle on Mt Strachan.
The Cons were more numerous - it was old and it looked old, with the seeming dilapidated and outdated lattice towers, cracked molded pinkish-orange fiberglass seats, an ungainly and greasy old motor mounted to the drive assembly (with a little Volkswagen Beetle gas motor as the standby evacuation drive). Due to its configuration, it would also be a significant effort to get it redesigned and rebuilt in less than three months and get it up to a road-less “wilderness” on upper Mt. Strachan.
In the end however it was our only realistic chance to get a lift installed that summer. After leaving the next morning, with vows to never visit the Gunbarrel Saloon again – ever! Dolman and I decided that with some paint, full replacement of all the wearing parts, a new cable, new seat slats, and some other general refurbishments that we could make this chairlift work. We were so eager and committed to building a lift that all the shortcomings could undoubtedly be overlooked.
The day we got back, we went up the Green Chair with some flagging tape and climbed all over where we generally thought the lift could go. We went back and forth determining how we might set a line from top to bottom. We used our outspread arms at the breakover to try to connect the best bottom station location to the best top station location.
Unfortunately, there were some tree branches hanging would not allow us to a good visual from top to bottom. I rented a survey transit and tripod the next day and we went back up the mountain. While I sighted out an approximate line with the transit, Dolman climbed trees to remove individual branches. It was hard to tell but we identified his cuts by getting him to shake the branch to determine which one was blocking our line of sight. We used a radio call based on the movie “Cool Hand Luke” – “shakin’ it here boss” when we were ready to take a sighting.
Eventually with select branches removed on some of the trees, we finally got a visual to the mid-point and set up rough survey control from top to bottom – most was on top of snow but we were able to set up some temporary nails into tree stumps whereby we could re-establish our line.
Apex Alpine Resort was in receivership at the time in the mid 1980’s so Maureen Collins, our “they broke the mold” Accountant, contacted the Receiver (which was a branch of a chartered bank). We made an initial offer based on what we thought it was worth considering the condition – “$25,000 as is where is”, which we thought was more than generous!
The representative for the receiver was quite dismissive of this as a serious offer and came back with a much higher number. Maureen and I ended up going back with a summary of the lifts shortcomings as a reality check for the bank. After they reviewed this, we finally settled on a price tag of $50,000 - it was ours! We prepared a brief for the owners and got the purchase approval after some significant persuasion. We also got an installation budget approved - which was pretty well picking numbers out of a hat - but we knew we would be held accountable for getting it done for that amount. The owners’ financial approval really put the pressure on our project team – me, Maureen, Linda, and Dolman.
When the snow melted out, I rented a Total Station electronic survey instrument (I had worked as a control and construction surveyor all around Alberta for 5 years in the mid 1970’s so I was well versed in running survey equipment) and Linda and I did a centerline profile based on the alignment that Dolman and I figured out over snow. The alignment worked out perfectly – the lower station nestled into a tight space at in the saddle of Mt. Strachan and the top station would unload skiers right before the mountain slope dropped off to the North – not at the Summit but close enough to have an unmatched view.
Maureen and Linda would be involved in every aspect of the project from then on, including firing up what the Green Chair in the morning, often in the cold and darkness and taking care of all the business activities to allow us to focus on the build. They would run the crew up the lift, then get the call at darkness to run us back down. In the absence of any participation from the Resort brass, they provided valuable support during all the concrete flying and basically everything to do with building Sky Chair.
By the time all of the purchase details were sorted out and financing was secured, it was coming on to the last week in August – Dolman and I were feeling the pinch. As soon as the change in ownership of the lift was confirmed, Dolman headed with a crew to Apex to take the lift down and load it up on flat deck trucks to ship down to the shop at Cypress. Again, Dolman’s incredible talents paid off as within two weeks the lift was sitting in the Cypress yard to start the re-build.
Dolman and Pat Boyle came up with the strategy of putting the lattice towers together on the flat decks with one tapered tower stuffed into the next to allow for multiple 15 metre towers to go on one truck. The alternative was to unbolt all the tower pieces and mark them for re-assembly. Incidentally, when we purchased the two old Green Chairs from Whistler a couple of years later, we had so many towers that we tried the disassembly technique to try to ship the pieces on our dump truck and it turned out to be a nightmare. Luckily, Dolman intuitively avoided this pitfall with all our timing constraints in that summer of 1987. One of those Whistler Green Chairs now sits on Cypress Mountain as Midway Chair installed in 1990 – that is another story, and the other was re-sold to Purden Mountain in northern BC several years later, where I believe it is still operating.
The Apex lift had been manufactured by Mueller Lifts in Austria and installed at Apex in 1968 by Mueller Lifts Canada out of Vernon. The Canadian branch of the company was owned by a fellow named Karl Ernst. At first meeting I thought that Karl was a bit of an arrogant crusty little Austrian and for sure he was a shrewd negotiator. He was one of those guys that really scoped you out and tested you at first meeting. However, it was soon obvious that he approved of our team and our mission. With mutual respect in place, we worked together with a very productive relationship to cover all obstacles in moving the project forward.
Karl also had been involved as a younger man in the construction of the Hollyburn Aerial Tram in 1950 - the single chairlift that ran from the upper levels of West Vancouver up to the last hairpin on what is now the Cypress Bowl Road. Cypress had a special place in his memory. He quickly put together a list of necessary upgrades with a price tag for the retrofits and parts that would be required to get the lift operating and able to pass the provincial safety requirements.
I had a couple of old reports in a file box that were given to me by the General Manager who in turn had received them from BC Parks as part of the turn-over of records during the sale of the resort in 1984. One of them was a report on the potential of reclaiming some vegetation on the slopes which BC Parks had bulldozed when they were building the facilities under the NDP ski area development push from 1972 to 1975. The trees had been cleared during the aforementioned logging and then the BC Parks crews had finished the destruction by blasting rock and bulldozing all the stumps and remaining ground cover into ravines and hollows to contour ski slopes on the mountain faces. What was left was a barren rocky tragedy which has taken to this day and beyond to try to repair.
This report that I mention had been prepared for BC Parks by an environmental consulting company named Talisman Land Resource Consultants. I thought that since we needed to do an environmental study to get government approval that it would be beneficial to have some continuity with a company that had already done some work at Cypress. I looked up Talisman in the yellow pages (before Google) and ended up talking about the project to a fellow named Paul Christie who was a principal in the company. He was enthusiastic about participating so we arranged to meet up on-site to take a tour. Paul and I developed the scope of the report which he then fleshed out with some additional site work and mapping. I submitted the report which included our impact mitigation requirements. Paul was a great resource for me and we worked together on many projects over the years including the install of the cell tower which was another turning point for Cypress development.
Back then, the critical guys in the BC Parks brass, Lou Campeau and Dennis Eggan were guys that had worked together to develop Cypress Bowl back in the early 1970’s so they knew the drill in dealing with the approvals. A chairlift to the peak of Strachan had been proposed by BC Parks back in the day so once we had our environmental impact plan in place, they had us file a few more details for their review relating to the diesel engine and fueling process.
Shortly afterward we got a letter from the BC Parks Regional Manager - old "fish eyes" they called him, giving approval to proceed with the project. I hired John Ogilvy to undertake the lift line design. John was living in Jasper at that time and he was recognized as the foremost authority on chairlift engineering in Canada and beyond. I sent him the proposed centerline profile and he designed the tower locations and loading at each site. We went back and forth to make some small adjustments but his first draft was pretty close to where everything now stands – he was very responsive to our needs and helped accelerate the construction timeline.
In the meantime, we approached the engineering firm which had done the foundation design for the Murray Latta manufactured “Green” and “Black” Chairs in 1975 at Cypress Bowl. The firm had no personnel left from that time however the engineer, at what was now a “one man shop,” agreed to take the project on. We worked through the standard drawings from Mueller Lifts, and he expedited a set of design foundation design drawings that satisfied the loading that we would have on the new John Ogilvy configuration.
With this information in hand and the snow completely melted out, I rented the Total Station survey instrument again. Linda and I laid out survey stakes on the lift centerline which we had temporarily set up in the spring. We put in offset survey control on both sides of the tower locations with alignment and grade on each stake. From this we would measure to build the forms for the two pedestal foundations needed for the lattice towers.
Over many years I have worked on a lot of projects both in Alberta and BC. In this case, we assembled what turned out to be the best crew I have ever had the pleasure of working with on a construction project – we were teammates in every sense of the word. The productivity of the crew was at such a high level and everyone enjoyed working with the other guys so much that everyday working on the lift was a delight. The crew was generally divided into three groups - the mountain guys, the base area guys and the shop guys with some movement in between but mostly the teams were focused on a single portion of the job.
The Mountain crew was highly spirited and necessary jobs were picked up by the person who was at hand – no one needed to be coached or motivated. At the end of the day the entire crew ran down the old Strachan Trail which we knew like the back of our hands – every rock grab and toe-hold. Linda and Maureen would be on radio to fire up the lift to take us down in the darkness. Then it was off to the “Club” in North Vancouver for refreshments and to discuss the days progress. Usually these discussions went on until it was way too late and the sound of the early alarm clock would make you think for a bit - but next day it was the same thing all over again.
I worked ninety days straight on the project until completion – all the hours that could be packed into the light, and sometimes darkness, of day. All of the other guys would have been in there for just as many but they were hourly and we had to keep a handle on overtime as usual in the ski business.
Project Management Team
Ernie Mcfarlane – apprentice mechanic at the Cypress Shop
Russ Parrott – downhill rental shop supervisor
Tom Saunier – downhill rental shop supervisor
Sean Aylott – cafeteria cook
Don Nolan – former mine millwright but working in the Hollyburn Lodge kitchen
Ron Krywiak – mountain operations
Tracey Stevenson – building maintenance
Michael Szucs – downhill rental shop attendant
Base Area Crew
Larry Unrau – building maintenance
Mike Morrison – Head Mechanic
Rick Opheim – Assistant Mountain Manager
Rick Parton – Mountain operations
We started off the on-mountain part of the project with Russ Parrott and Tom Saunier hand clearing and shoveling off the blueberry bushes and dirt off the rock at the tower locations in preparation for drilling rock anchors. We brought up a Honda generator and a vacuum cleaner we called “Victor” to clean up the rock in order to provide a good future bond for the concrete.
Some of the tower locations had huge stumps left from the original logging. I hired a fellow named Conrad Revill, who had a cabin on Hollyburn Mountain and had worked in his previous life as a blaster. I will never forget – Conrad was a different “cat” and marched to his own drum as a self-proclaimed “troglodyte” or hermit, but a very skilled blaster he was indeed!
He and I went up by ourselves on a weekend. Very few people hiked to the top of the mountain in those days and the only navigable route up was the Old Strachan Trail off in the forest to the east. We posted some signs on the trail and then proceeded to the tower locations to shove a bar into the dirt under the stumps to make a hole in which to pack in sticks of dynamite. Conrad then stuck a blasting cap into a stick and wired up the blast. We went for cover stringing along wire connected to his little blasting crank – “fire in the hole” and then - kaboom! When we returned to observe the results, it was amazing, no stumps in sight and there were only fragments of wood on top of bare exposed rock. It was a site to see as I had been perplexed on how we would access the ground in those areas with stumps the size of a truck.
By helicopter we flew in a large compressor to which we could attach two rock drills with extended lengths of hoses. Those 50’ rubber hoses must have weighed in at about 75 pounds each and I recall hauling them up and down to the mountain with much strain in order to access the various tower sites.
We painted out the tower pedestal footing shapes on the rock at 90 degrees to the centerline alignment (the Pythagorean theorem was constantly at work on the foundation layout), collared the holes with a short rock drill bit and then proceeded to drill 2’, 4’, 6’, and 8’ steels into the hole to accommodate the specs of the rock anchor – twelve anchors cement grouted in at every tower and a multitude more at the drive and return stations.
The helicopter also dropped in bundles of shiplap lumber and 2x4’s at each tower location which we had prepared to build the forms around the drilled rock anchors. The rock anchors were pull tested to ensure that they could safely anchor the loads which the foundations would be exposed to during operation of the chairlift. Donny Muirhead, a former Cypress grooming machine operator had started up InterMtn Testing for chairlift work and came down from Kelowna to do the anchor test – all passed with flying colours!
When we had the first set of forms built at the return bullwheel station and the base station, we had to get ready to fly in concrete. The bottom terminal needed concrete first as we needed to pour a base to set the huge counterweight tube on before building the rest of the forms. We also had the top station foundation forms ready so we decided to go for it and schedule our first helicopter concrete work.
At the last minute before the concrete was flown to the forms, we decided - why not put lights on the towers to allow for some night skiing on the chairlift line. As a result we needed to stick our heads into the forms to weave in copper wire to the rock anchors to beef up the electrical grounding.
Our structural engineer came up the day before our first pour to inspect the anchors and reinforcing bars to ensure that everything was consistent with the design before it was covered with concrete. At the end of the day we got to the top terminal form and upon inspection he discovered that we had grouted in eight three quarter inch rock anchors where they were supposed to be full one inch anchors. He determined that we would need to drill another four - eight foot deep three quarter inch anchors to be the equivalent for what was required for strength.
This was very bad news! There were only a couple of hours of daylight left and the helicopter was scheduled for the next morning. Everything had had been packed down to where the compressor was at Tower 6 for removal the next day after the concrete pour – 60 lb. rock drills, drill steels, rebar anchors, left over 50 lb. bags of cement group, and those damned heavy air hoses!
We had no choice – Don Nolan, Russ Parrot and myself determined to stay to fix the error. Before the rest of the guys left, we all hauled everything up to the top of the lift. We sent down to Linda and Maureen to get some lighting sent up the lift as it was going to be a long evening. Russ, Don and I, drilled the holes and grouted in the anchors before we left in the darkness. What a brutal task – again everything was heavy to carry, the rock drilling was tough work, it was dark, and it was exceedingly difficult getting down into the form with the reinforcing, anchor bolt and rock anchors already in place. We had to get the engineer back up at daylight the next morning to verify and approve the foundation as ready to pour. Approved! What a relief!
For flying the concrete, we secured a company out of Richmond however they did not have a concrete bucket on hand. They could not get one suitable for their helicopter, so they had one made up. This was the biggest mistake of the entire project. When the day came to pour, the concrete was loaded into the makeshift bucket and the chopper picked it up for flight to the top of the mountain. As the story goes, the helicopter was surplus from the Viet Nam war and the pilot was highly experienced but had never flown concrete before.
On the first cycle (and our first experience as well) the machine circled up towards us from the southeast as we waited anxiously standing on top of the 2 metre high forms. He gradually and with much uncertainty zeroed in on the target and hovered over the form. One of the crew grabbed onto the lever to release the load however it would not let go until a couple of guys yanked on it – a design flaw made the significant weight of the concrete work against the release handle – it was going to be a long day!
As he approached on the second cycle, he brushed the top of a nearby tree - scaring the hell out of all of us. The result was that he had to abort the flight and turn back to the base area where the ground crew was set up. As he approached the parking lot, the concrete bucket released on its own and dumped a full load of concrete onto the new roof we had just completed on the Black Mountain Lodge. What a nightmare – the mountain crew did not witness the episode but we got the report that it was terrifying and we helplessly wondered what we were in for from that point.
The concrete delivery trucks were backing up and the concrete was precariously close to the time when the loads needed to be dumped before they set up in the trucks. Luckily, Dolman oversaw the ground crew, and he worked on the release mechanism and fashioned up a bungie cord arrangement to hold the lever in flight. We managed to eventually get all the concrete poured that we had been set-up for, but by the end of the day we were exhausted – every load was an adventure! Surely, we hoped the entire concrete pour part of the project was not going to be this difficult??
As it turns out, for the second and third pours we secured a machine and pilot from Okanagan Helicopters who had experience in flying concrete – I forget his name, but he was an “artist.” He would deftly slide the professionally designed bucket in from the side toward the form, tilt his chopper a bit to the side so that he was looking directly down at the crew. He would drop the concrete bucket exactly in the right place so we could easily pull the lever, and off he would go for the next load. We were so relieved to have such a skilled pilot to make our job so much straightforward and safer!
The rest of the forming and concrete work was completed in a seamless manner and we then had to wait for the concrete to sufficiently cure to put the towers in place on the anchor bolts.
The Equipment Rebuild and Replacement
Dolman headed up the crew down at our shop rebuilding and painting the old equipment and replacing the wearing parts with new pins. He also had our mechanics doing an overhaul on the old diesel engine that would drive the lift. New bearings and liners were put in the bullwheels and new sheave assemblies were matched up with each tower (different loading on the uphill and downhill sides and configuration unique to each tower). As well, Towers 1 and 2 were newly manufactured tube towers which need to also be set up and painted.
I recall that the diesel was fitted with what was called a “Golden Silencer” which was deemed necessary to dampen the noise of the motor. The shop team did an incredible job of getting everything ready for “Fly-Day” and after everything was installed there were no deficiencies and the equipment was good to go. All the towers and equipment were hauled up to Parking Lot 1 and set up in sequence in a staging area for an orderly installation from the top down.
The Ski Terrain
As mentioned, the Ripcord cut was already cleared but it was a steep expert slope which would limit the ability of many to utilize the chair. The top section of what is now T-33 was also cleared in the 1970’s and it was great intermediate slope however it had no connection to the bottom of the new lift and it transitioned into a steep forested area now known as Top Gun.
Climbing down through the 6 foot high blueberry bushes on the T-33 cut we noticed a natural draw heading across the mountain towards the lift and we followed it for about 50 metres until it transitioned into an impassable rock face. Hanging onto blueberry bushes we swung our way along the face until we came to another bit of a draw which headed across just below the Tower 3 location of the lift.
If we could connect the two natural draws we could make a passageway that would suffice as an intermediate ski trail connecting the west terrain back to the lift. This required drilling and blasting to create a notch into the rock face to allow a snow cat to get through.
With our compressor in place to drill rock anchor holes for Towers 3 to 6, we also had an alternate shift of guys working with me hanging by ropes to drill horizontally into the face (like the guys who drilled the holes to build Mount Rushmore!). We kept at it drilling and Conrad Revill blasting, working together with a large backhoe which would drag the rock and stack timbers to gradually build a road. We finally got to the final blast at the connection point between the two draws. The backhoe operator unexpectedly decided he could no longer take his machine out onto the unproven mat of timber and rock. At the point of exasperation one of our winter snow removal equipment operators, old Harry Terrillon picked up the torch and took our D-6 bulldozer up to push the material and make the crossing. Thank goodness for Harry! When he was done we had a nicely contoured and passable road and a confirmed intermediate ski terrain connection – narrow but passable (over the subsequent years we would widen the T-33 on three occasions – each time getting more aggressive in achieving a more skiable width).
The chairlift installations above the T-33 Road would remain accessible for summer maintenance only by hiking and climbing, until North Construction built the road to the south peak of Mt. Strachan in 1998.
The final terrain project was to fell the trees which remained between the two sections of what is now Top Gun. We hired a tree faller from Vancouver Island, and he skillfully dropped the trees that were approved for cutting, into a pattern that would aid the contouring of the slope to mitigate the little off fall-line section in the middle. We went in to clean up the area the following summer and this cutting got us through the all-important initial season.
Flying the Towers
This was the big day – the day we would see the tangible transition of the formwork into a full- fledged chairlift installation!