Written By: Bobby Swain (former President and General Manager, Cypress Mountain Resort)
Recent Drone pic looking north up Howe Sound above the top of Sky Chair
In 1987, I had what you might call a hybrid ski resort management position at the time - sort of an Assistant General Manager without the title - I was directly responsible for the food and beverage operations in Downhill and Nordic plus the road clearing contract and snow removal operations. As well, I was involved in relations with BC Parks and I had written up the 10 year development plan proposal which had been submitted for government approval.
Throughout the late spring of 1987 I didn't know at the time a course of events that I will soon later describe. I would also at that time, get approval for a short term expansion plan of the base area facilities (including significant expansion of the restaurant and rental buildings - including the renovation of the original bar to double its capacity - 50 to 100 seats! I was particularly motivated to get the latter project done to ensure that I could get a seat after work, as Bobby’s Lounge was a very busy spot back in the day!
From September to December 1987 a group of staff working at Cypress Mountain then, erected a chairlift to the south peak of Mt. Strachan in Cypress Provincial Park. The chairlift line had been mostly cleared in the 1970’s during early ski resort planning but the area was otherwise left in its original state with no vehicular or other access to the area. It was a daunting task to take on without any experience, however the crew succeeded in getting the project completed and the chairlift operating by opening day December 10, 1987.
The winter of 1986-87 wasn't a great season for skiers and the small number of snowboarders who came to Cypress Mountain in those early days. It was one of those middle of the road years where snow coverage was sparse on the lower mountain but there was tons more on the upper slopes - as seemed quite common then. In those days. With only one real grooming machine, a 1984 Bombardier BR400 , at “Cypress Bowl” as it was then known, it was pretty much a four ski run mountain along with the bunny slope on the Rope Tow where Easy Rider Quad now stands. Fork and Panorama off the old double Black Chair on Black Mountain and Collins and Horizon off the Green Chair on Mt. Strachan were about all the skiing you could get with any semblance of grooming.
Snowboarding had just really started in Vancouver that year and Cypress was the first mountain in BC to allow riders. These “knuckle draggers” as many thought of them in the early years, were originally only permitted to ride the Rope Tow. Prospective riders had to pass a skill test conducted by a fellow named Dave Ewing who was a true pioneer of the sport locally in the mid-eighties. After a physical skill test he would sign a little card which authorized new riders to purchase a lift ticket. Due to his appearance and his laid back attitude we called him “Hippy Dippy Dave”. You had to hand it to the guy, he was persistent and really helped the sport get a foothold in the Lower Mainland despite almost overwhelming opposition from old school skiers, traditionalists and resort operators.
Cypress Bowl had originally opened in January 1976 and was developed and operated by BC Parks right through until the end of the 1983/84 season. The development of the area was quite a controversial undertaking back in the 60's, with indiscriminant old growth cutting by logging companies who had been given government leases for ski area development.
This matter was so controversial that it was a major platform issue in the 1972 provincial election and resulted in the Social Credit government being voted out after two decades in power. The NDP government of Dave Barrett was elected and quickly proceeded with the installation of the two chairlifts at Cypress and the construction of the access highway from 1972 to 1975. In the 1975 election, the NDP government who were the promoters and developers of the ski facilities, were again voted out. The election saw the Social Credit Party retake power and they spitefully cut off any further funding for the ski resort development after losing an election over it. The ski area would go without any further improvements until the So-Creds privatized the facilities in 1984.
As part of the 1972 to 1975 development, trees were cleared for a ski area design done by Mel Borgerson and Associates out of Seattle, which attempted to make a resort layout out of the clear cuts. Part of this design included clearing a 50 metre wide ski trail to the top of the South Peak of Mt. Strachan.
After Cypress Bowl Recreations took over operations in 1984/85, the services were significantly upgraded and lighting was installed for night skiing prior to the 1985/86 season. During the first three seasons of operation the attendance grew significantly after being freed from bureaucratic burden. Something however was still obviously missing when you looked up that expanse of clearing above the top of the Green Chair which accessed the mid to lower part of Mt. Strachan (now Lions Express) – there was a mountain top to conquer!
Myself and Steve Dolman, the Mountain Operations Manager (“Dolman” as he was universally known to friends and acquaintances in the ski business – had worked previously at Mt. Norquay in Banff, AB), at some point during the winter season, discussed how we should come up with a plan to put a chairlift to the top of the mountain. We didn’t really think that the idea would ever come to fruition, but it didn’t hurt to dream – we were both competitive and wanted Cypress to get a leg up on the competition on the North Shore mountains. We really thought this could be the pivotal point.
It was encouraging to have Dolman onside as a co-conspirator for the idea. He was one of those guys that I call a “true engineer” – not only was he a licensed electrician, able to design the night lighting system which was installed two years prior, but he also naturally understood everything about all things mechanical and just about every other skill you might require at a ski resort. I really liked Steve and his skills were critical to getting the project done in the end.
The realization of the dream all started one beautiful sunny day in April of 1987. After discussing the possibility of the expedition at length the night before in "Bobby's Lounge", the iconic former watering hole at Cypress Mountain, Linda Acheson, myself, Dolman, and my brother Tommy Swain, disembarked off the top of the Green Chair and headed over on foot to climb what is now Rip Cord up to the South Peak of Mt Strachan. Little did I know on that afternoon that it would be the first of many climbs that Dolman and I would make up to the peak that spring.
As mentioned, the RipCord cut had been logged in the early 1970’s by the NDP government of the day as a response to try to formalize a reasonable ski resort trail layout within the area which had been clear-cut in the mid 1960’s. The logging had been partially undertaken by one of the original ski resort proponents (legend has it that the company owned gambling casinos in the Bahamas and that Cypress Bowl was destined to become an exclusive casino resort sited high above Vancouver). What is now the upper section of T-33 was also cleared then, with the intention by BC Parks to build a lift to the top and connect the upper mountain to the triangle shaped clearing on what is now Lower Top Gun. They left a large section of trees uncleared starting just below the current intersection of Top Gun and the T-33 road, where it starts to get very steep, down to the highline logging area below.
The climb with our ski boots on and carrying our skis on our shoulders was quite difficult up the steep terrain. Although the snowpack was firm, it was like mashed potatoes on the surface and each step up the steep slope needed a kick to get to a support layer. Once we got up the steepest part of the climb, we had brought some “refreshments” along and we stopped to rest at a location adjacent to about where Tower 7 is now located. We took in the sunshine and the amazing view which we were all seeing for the first time. The city straight below us, Mt. Baker to the southeast, the Lions to the north and Georgia Straight and Vancouver to the west – unparalleled!
After lunching, we were deciding on where to make our descent. Since we had just walked up the RipCord cut and pretty well knew what was in store there, Dolman and I wanted to get a taste for what was down the future Top Gun side to see if it would make a good alternate route to the base if we were ever to build a lift to the top.
We headed down in beautiful ski conditions - soft forgiving snow on the surface and firm pack underneath - it couldn't get any better! I was not a great skier which was clearly evident when we hit the steep pitch within the trees which would become Top Gun. We picked our way down through the trees, zigging and zagging until we came to the clearing which we had always referred to as the Sunshine Face when looking across from the top of Fork on Black Mountain. The triangular high line clearing was clearly visible as the second growth was small then and did not pierce the surface of the snowpack in those days – it was wide open.
Well this little stretch of sublime skiing was the cherry on the top for me, a fall-line intermediate drop through untouched snow. For that minute I felt like I was the best skier in the world and when we got to the bottom, I couldn't wait to make the climb and do it again. As far as I was concerned from that moment on there was no doubt that we were building a chairlift to the peak!
Can we actually get this done?
We knew the company could never afford a new fancy chairlift so we immediately started looking for any used chairlifts that might fit the bill. We learned that the PNE was de-commissioning the Sky Ride – a vintage Murray Latta chairlift which was used to transport people in the air across the fairgrounds. It would be perfect for the length of the alignment we were looking at and we already had two Murray-Latta chairs on the mountain – the old doubles on Mt. Strachan and Black Mountain. Unfortunately, we found out that through some personal connections, the lift had been committed to Mt. Seymour and would be relocated as the future Brockton Chair there.
We went back to the drawing board and found out that there was a lift at “Apex Alpine” in Penticton which had not operated for a couple of years and was located on the opposite side of where the resort had proceeded with new development. Dolman and I jumped into his truck, old CB 02, and headed out early one morning to Apex to take a look at the lift and see if there was any hope as a solution for our adventurous plan.
Once we got to the Apex resort we hooked up with an old Mt. Norquay acquaintance of Dolman’s, Steve LaPrairie who I believe was the assistant Mountain Manager – Pat Boyle was the Mountain Manager at the time. Pat very soon went on to become the head of Poma in Western Canada and we crossed paths on many occasions over subsequent decades – most notably on construction of the original Sunrise Quad in 1997 and then the relocation of that lift to Raven Ridge in 2007. Every meet up with Pat Boyle was an enjoyable experience – one of the truly nicest and funniest guys in the ski resort business.
Anyway, Dolman and LaPrairie and I skied the morning at the main new side of Apex, shaking and baking down some double diamonds that I had no business being anywhere near – not sure how I got through that? After all the activity, we then went in the afternoon to check out this abandoned carcass of a chairlift located across from the then legendary “Gunbarrel Saloon”.
We kicked tires on the desolate lonely lift sitting there across the parking lot, old and rusty with a diesel engine attached to drive the bullwheel, and the big lattice towers heading off over the hill into the distance.
Mid 1980’s Apex Alpine Trail Map – what would eventually be Sky Chair was the “Beginner Chair” in the top right hand corner of the map. It was on the other side of the mountain of the new Apex development and had been closed down for a couple of years when we pulled in out in the summer of 1987 and shipped it to the Cypress shop.
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 turnign 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 snowcat 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!
The crew waiting for the first Tower to arrive at the Tower 8 location – high anticipation of dropping that first tower structure down in very late October 1987!
When we were putting the anchor bolts in the forms before we poured concrete, we had made plywood patterns (basically two sheets of plywood hinged together) on which we traced out and drilled holes for the eight anchor bolt locations for each of the six lattice towers. This allowed us to adjust the anchors bolts to ensure that there were no mistakes when placing the towers.
Karl Ernst had driven down to Vancouver to watch the towers get placed and he brought a bunch of long bars that he distributed to the crew stating from his considerable experience, these would be necessary to twist the tower feet to fit the anchors on top of the concrete pedestals we had built.
The helicopter that we had obtained (again from Okanagan Helicopters) was much bigger than the lighter duty ones we had used for flying concrete, equipment and materials. It looked like a flying bus and the noise, deafening. The propeller wash was night and day from what we had previously experienced. How distracting was this going to be, we thought.
Tower 8 was the first one flown in and this photo above shows the crew waiting for the chopper to deliver the tower and head frame. The pilot of this craft was also exceptional – he flew in the first tower and dropped it without any adjustments on the bolts and waited for the crew to thread nuts partially onto the bolts and released the lanyard – no sweat!
As we proceeded down the mountain – one tower after the other, we ended up ditching the heavy bars as we ran down. I guess in Karl Ernst’s experience, the installers had never taken the extra precaution of mapping the bolt locations – in the end it was well worth the effort. Karl had never seen a lattice tower installation go so smoothly.
After all the Towers were flown, the terminal structures placed, and all the other materials flown out we took a deep sigh of relief – we now had a chairlift! String the cable and communication lines, get the diesel engine fired up and we were in business!
After all the elation, my stomach dropped when on our way home we stopped on the Cypress Road at the powerline crossing to check out the newly installed towers. Looking from that perspective, and since there is no clear line of sight from top to bottom to confirm, it appeared that one of the towers was badly out of alignment. But, after some reassurance from Dolman we confirmed that it was an optical illusion with the angle and change in slope between Tower 6 and Tower 7. I swear for 30 years afterward, every time I drove up the mountain, I saw that optical illusion and would reminisce about the day I figured I had made the biggest mistake in my survey alignment.
The view from Sky Chair’s Tower 7 looking to downtown Vancouver in the background – photo courtesy of Joffrey Koeman taken when wearing a helmet was still somewhat of a novelty
Finishing off the Project
I vividly recall a very cold day in late November of 1987, setting up a survey transit on top of the bullwheel to finish the fine tuning of the tower head alignment. I climbed up a ladder and was plumbed over the center point on top of the bullwheel spokes. I took a backsight on our trusty nail in the tree then flipped the scope to aim up the line. Rick Opheim and a helper banged in steel wedges under the tower feet to shift it the necessary centimeters into exact alignment.
Dolman and crew strung the cable and attached the chairs – some still had the fiberglass-formed seats and most had new green slats bolted on.
Harry Terrillon used the dozer to carve out a little bench slightly uphill to the east of the bottom terminal for us the partially bury a diesel fuel tank. A fuel line was dug in by hand to feed the diesel engine at the front of the lift by gravity flow. This arrangement created a significant logistical process of needing to fill the 500 gallon tank a couple of times a week to run the chairlift – this would continue for many years until we installed a high voltage cable from the base area twenty years later.
Larry Unrau and his base area crew came up the mountain and quickly constructed the 16 foot high deck at the unload station just before the towers were flown. He also headed up efficiently building the lift huts top and bottom in short order.
I cannot possibly summarize all the items that required addressing as we came near completion - there were details at every turn – alignments, adjustments right down to the splicing of the cable. Wiring up the controls in the lift huts and installing all the electronics necessary to operate the lift were all left in Dolman’s capable hands. The logistics of getting everything done on time was certainly a credit to the whole project team.
With snow already on the ground, we hired Al Dupuis and High Mountain Electric to install an electrical cable up the lift line by hand. I had designed a clamp to bolt onto the top cross piece of the tower to thread on a light fixture and had 16 of them fabricated at a welding shop in North Vancouver. High Mountain installed the clamps, mounted the lights, and wired everything up – we were in the night skiing business all the way up to the peak!
The final bit of paperwork was to have a legal survey done of the chairlift alignment. We hired Chapman Surveys out of West Vancouver to do the survey and complete an “as-built” drawing of the profile and alignment. When Maureen went down to pick up the legal survey at Chapman’s office near Park Royal, the legal surveyor commented on how “tight” the actual lift locations were to the design drawings for stations and elevations – everything within millimeters - we were pretty proud of that!
Naming the Chairlift and Ski Trails
The Park planner who had developed the Master Plan for the ski area in the late 70’s was still around and suggested that we should name it the Sky High Chair which I believe was the name he had planned to use. We had already been throwing around the word Sky as the name when we were working on the lift so in a meeting before opening that season we collectively decided that it would be called Sky Chair – which to my knowledge was well before the name Sea to Sky Highway was popularized some years later.
Once we had Sky Chair, we combined that with the jet crash site at Tower 3 and decided to stick with the theme – Top Gun which was embarrassingly the most popular movie at the time, T-33 was the type of Canadian Airforce Jet that crashed at the site, Rip Cord was the perfect name of the steep chairlift run, and Tom Cat was the name of a popular 1980’s fighter jet – mission accomplished!
Canadian Armed Forces – T-33 Fighter Jet
Commemorative Plaque at T-33 Crash Site just above Tower 3 on Sky Chair
Opening Day 1987/88 Season
Snowfall was late that year and there was a long stretch of mostly mild weather coming into the winter season. In fact, the entire construction period was much warmer and dryer than normal. Without that great stretch of weather, it would have been much more difficult to pull off the project in time.
Eventually the snow came and after some grooming, setting of rope-line and some avalanche control – Sky Chair was ready to open. We actually delayed opening the entire resort until we were finished on Sky Chair as we had so much of our resources deployed in getting it ready.
In our tests leading up to opening day and during the inspection by what was then a branch of the Ministry of Transportation, the machine ran like a dream with the “sweet smell” of diesel exhaust permeating the loading area.
That morning, Dolman and I were on the first chair. We sat silently on the ride up, taking everything in as we crested at Tower 6 admiring the 360-degree view. I don’t recall for certain but I’m sure one of us must have mentioned how much easier this ride was in comparison to all the climbing we had done in the previous months. It was amazing to have this new easy access to the peak.
We headed down T-33 and then took the narrow trail back across to the lower terminal. It was so narrow then you could barely get your skis turned a bit to control your speed - but it worked.
We took a few more runs down Rip Cord and then picked down Top Gun and back to the base to check out the little climb you needed to make to get over to Horizon – a little inconvenient but workable.
With Sky Chair added, attendance to the Resort doubled from the previous record season and really made a difference to Cypress Bowl’s reputation as a great place to ski (and soon to ride as snowboarding became more popular). It didn’t hurt that it was also a banner snow year from top to bottom.
The view from the top of Sky Chair looking west to Vancouver Island beyond the Strait of Georgia and Bowen Island.
I recall being the finish line timer for a snowboard competition we held on upper Horizon that winter. Racers headed down through a giant slalom course which we had prepared and ended at what we used to call the Horizon S-Turn (a tight corner which was always difficult to navigate until we straightened it out along with re-contouring Mike’s Corner on Collins in the summer of 1998). We had about 15 competitors and it proved to be a big boost in legitimizing snowboarding on the North Shore.
In the spring we staged a free BBQ at the top of Sky Chair – a logistical nightmare, but much appreciated by our Sky Chair enthusiasts. This was at the crest of the Cypress Beach phenomenon which occurred every spring with literally thousands of people digging in pits along the roadside to suntan throughout the spring. We figured that the BBQ might help get some of the people off the road pits and buying ski tickets – I think we had some success.
We now had an expansion of the original Ski Area layout built by BC Parks so it helped build an identity for all of us working at Cypress then. We also had expanded the Black Mountain Lodge and the Rental Shop that summer so we were starting to turn a corner. In the end, the addition of Sky Chair was a key step in allowing the resort to realize its potential and it set the stage for the investment that has followed building on those humble beginnings.
When the old chairlift is removed this summer, it will be a bitter-sweet day for all of us who were involved in the construction – sad to see her go, but excited to see what’s in store with the improvements included in the new lift. Here’s to progress!