Reaching 7th Heaven

When Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing in 1980, it had four triple lifts and one two-person chair that carried eager skiers up to the top of today’s Catskinner lift. In 1982, the Jersey Cream Chair expanded the lift-accessed terrain available on Blackcomb, but the mountain still needed something more to compete with Whistler Mountain. They found it with the 7th Heaven T-Bar.

Avalanche forecaster Peter Xhignesse came into the office of Hugh Smythe in the spring of 1985 and told him he wanted to show Smythe some skiing on the south side of Blackcomb. According to Smythe, he hadn’t done much hiking or skiing in the area and thought that it was unlikely there would be much promise in the south facing area known to be windy with lots of rocks. After being shown the area by Xhignesse, however, he was convinced that the area had potential.

Peter Xhignesse is credited by many with realizing the skiing potential of the 7th Heaven area. Photo courtesy of the Xhignesse family.

At the time, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises was owned by the Aspen Skiing Company and the Federal Business Development Bank (FBDB), who also co-owned Fortress Mountain Resort in Alberta. Smythe knew that there was a relatively new T-bar on Fortress that wasn’t being run due to the drop in business after Nakiska Ski Area opened. Over the space of two days and a night, the T-bar on Fortress was quietly taken down and transported across the provincial border. With the T-bar in the Blackcomb parking loot, Smythe approached Aspen and the FBDB about funding its installation. Though at first they refused, pointing out that they were trying to sell Blackcomb, Smythe convinced them that he could fund the lift by selling incremental season passes.

On August 18, 1985, Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises officially announced the start of construction on their new “High Alpine T-Bar,” which would provide access to the area identified by Xhignesse, with a catered luncheon, heli-skiing, and a rendition of the 1983 Parachute Club song “Rise Up” encouraging skiers to “Rise up, rise up to the Mile High Mountain.” The addition of the T-bar promised to expand Blackcomb’s skiable terrain from 420 acres to 1,160 acres with 22 new runs and increased its vertical reach to 5,280 feet (1,609 m) or one mile (according to Smythe, there may have been a “little bit of license” taken on that number), the highest in North America.

Despite the summer start, wet and cold weather in October and November delayed the completion of the lift. In mid-October, with about half of the towers installed, Operations Manager Rich Morten reported that they needed only two and half days of clear weather in order to pour the rest of the footings and erect the towers. By the beginning of November, they were still waiting for a break in the weather to allow helicopters to complete the work.

Skiing the T-bar bowl on 7th Heaven, some of the terrain opened up by the new lift. Greg Griffith Collection

The High Alpine T-Bar was finally completed in mid-November but it would be another month before it opened to the public. Because of the rougher terrain (described as “boulders the size of cars and buses” by Blackcomb’s Dennis Hansen), more snow was needed before the new runs would be ready for skiing. Once the T-bar did open, however, it gathered rave reviews.

The new terrain was described by Trail Manager Garry Davies as “fabulous” and according tp Nancy Greene, “The enormous variety of slopes and spectacular views are really unequalled in North America.” Even the competition were impressed, with Lorne Borgal of Whistler Mountain claiming that the opening of the T-bar opened up the “big alpine world” and put an end to Blackcomb’s uniformly designed character. The T-bar was the first destination of sixteen year old Mike Douglas on his very first ski trip to Whistler, who described arriving at the top of the lift as being “dropped off at the edge of the world” and the trip down as “the coolest adventure ever.” For Smythe, the T-bar was a turning point for Blackcomb and he credits it with both inspiring Whistler’s Peak Chair the next year and with attracting Intrawest to purchase Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises.

Though it was a huge development for Blackcomb Mountain, the T-bar didn’t remain in place for very long. In 1987, the T-bar was replaced by the four-person 7th Heaven Express, with continues to transport skiers and snowboarders to the windy and rocky terrain pointed out by Peter Xhignesse.

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