We’ve been receiving reports and news releases about the grand opening of  Whistler/Blackcomb’s new Peak 2 Peak Gondola on December 12. This new lift, costing $51 million, will connect the near-timberline slopes of Whistler Mountain with the near-timberline slopes of Blackcomb via a 2.7-mile ride that goes right over the Fitzsimmons Valley. At its scariest point, gondola cars will dangle 1,400 vertical feet off the deck and users will pray that no low-flying military jets are on training ops anywhere near the thin cable supporting them. Some users of the lift may also pray they don’t get the gondola cars with the glass bottoms (2 of the 28 cars will be so equipped).

One the one hand, the Peak 2 Peak is a gimmicky cry for attention. How badly do skiers really need such an extravagant lift when they can ski down one mountain and take pre-existing lifts up the next mountains to reach the same spot? This requires and extra 30 minutes of time, but $51 million is a whole lot to pay for novelty and speed.

On the other hand, the gimmick works. There’s something intrinsically attention getting about a lift transporting 4,100 skiers per hour across such a gaping gap. The lift produces a Wow-Response. It also raises a handful of needling questions: How did they loop 5.5 miles of steel cable over that gap? How do they tension such a cable? How do they splice different segments of cable into one loop? How strong are the splices? How do they keep airplanes from colliding with the cable? How do they evacuate skiers if the lift breaks? It all becomes rather Disneyesque…which means even if it is short on substance, you’re still going to want to see and ride it.

Other releases we’ve received have announced that Whistler/Blackcomb, like Missions Ridge, is actually operating now. That makes these two mountains about the only game in the region in this slow-to-launch ski year. That got us thinking about a David vs. Goliath matchup: Mission vs. Whistler/Blackcomb—how do the two rate side by side? Truthfully, it’s a ridiculous comparison – the two mountains are opposites in most every way. And yet it’s actually fun to look at the stats.

Size. W/B: mega-massive (8,170 skiable acres). Mission: medium-sized (2000 skiable acres).

Snow. W/B: big-time dumps (average of 402 inches/year). Mission: one of the thinner snowpacks in the Northwest (average of  170 to 200 inches/year — depending on who you believe).

Weather. W/B: one of the cloudiest, stormiest regional resorts. Mission:  one of the sunniest hills going.

Vertical drop: W/B: 5,280 feet. Mission: 2,250 feet.

Lifts. W/B: 38. Mission: 6 (2 of those being dinky surface lifts).

Lift capacity. W/B: 65,507 skiers/hour. Mission: 4,910 skiers/hour.

Mission pales by comparison, doesn’t it? But here are the stats that balance the ledger. That which makes Whistler/Blackcomb the biggest, baddest mountain resort in North American comes with a price. A huge price. A price so staggering that Whistler’s website won’t even tell you the cost of an adult one-day ticket ($89 Canadian as of 2008). That’s partly because the price is scary, partly because the resort wants you buying some form of multi-day pass. Mission inflicts about half the pain with its day ticket ($50 US as of 2008).

Seasons passes at W/B sinks another knife deep in the heart: Adult passes run $1,529 (as of 2008) for an early-season ‘deal’, $1,879 if purchased now (as of 2008). By comparison, Mission runs $299 for their early-season pass, $519 if purchased now (as of 2008). For all of Whistler’s buzz, there’s a sizable group of skiers in Central Washington, who would give up the sport if they had to pay Whistler prices. They may wish they could ski W/B, but when push comes to shove, their money is on Mission. We’re part of that group.

Picture: Despite not being the biggest, baddest hill, many Northwesterners think Mission Ridge rocks.

This post was originally published on 12/11/2008.

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