Whether they’re firing Howitzers as part of an avalanche control team or working at drilling, blasting or construction, B.C.’s Axis Mountain Technical Inc. was born for high altitude contracts. The team was responsible for building the two newest attractions at Whistler Blackcomb—the Cloudraker Skybridge and Raven’s Eye Cliff Walk—with a little help from a heavy lift helicopter.
The steel suspension bridge spans 130 metres from Whistler Peak to the West Ridge, high above the Whistler Bowl. The bridge connects to the Raven’s Eye Cliff Walk, a steel cantilevered viewing platform extending 12.5 metres out from West Ridge and offering panoramic views of the location.
Axis had built the Trash Trail Suspension Bridge at Whistler in 2016. It’s a smaller wood deck bridge supported by steel infrastructure. The company was later invited to submit a proposal for the new project, a design-build competition for both the suspension bridge and observation deck. Axis headed up the project team as the installation contractor.
“We brought in Morrison Hershfield as engineers because of their experience on similar bridges, including North Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge,” says Ryan Foster, one of the two principals at Axis.
“George Third & Son was our steel fabricator and we also engaged with Duncan Wylie, who’s the godfather of geotechnical engineering in our area. Design, fabrication and installation were all provided by BC companies.”
The team engaged early on with Whistler Blackcomb to realize the company’s vison and overcome any concerns about the way in which the project might affect skiing operations.
“The suspension bridge had to provide adventure for visitors in the summer, but preserve the pristine conditions of ski runs below during ski season,” says Foster.
“To prevent ice and snow from collecting on the bridge and possibly impacting the skier experience, we designed the deck to be removable.”
The design involved a system in which the 101 steel modules that make up the deck could be clipped on to the steel suspension cables during construction, then removed at the beginning of ski season using a crane.
Work on the bridge began in March 2017 on a project site known for its unpredictable environment.
“You have extreme weather, extreme temperature swings and extreme loading with weird dynamic loads caused by snow and sudden icing,” says Foster.
“Add that to winds of 200 kilometres per hour through the wind tunnel at the top of the mountain.”
Axis workers are certified both by the Society of Professional Rope Access Technicians and the Industrial Rope Access Trade Association, which covers safety, inspection and emergency rescue skills.
The construction site for the bridge was accessible by Axis’ off-road boom trucks and trailers which delivered almost 95,000 lbs. of steel to the bridge site, with the assistance of Whistler Blackcomb’s in-house crane.
Delivering the steel frame components for the cantilevered portion of the Raven’s Eye Cliff Walk was slightly more challenging.
“Our schedule was heavily dependent on the availability of a heavy-lift helicopter to move the steel components from mid-mountain to the job site,” says Foster.
“It was probably the most challenging installation feat of the entire project. The structure was made of four beams 12.5 metres long and weighing 4,000 lbs. each, which were delivered by a K-MAX helicopter supplied by HeliQwest Aviation. The ends of the beams wouldn’t quite fit together because the extreme winds were pushing the helicopter around and deflecting the connectors out of alignment.”
The installation crew improvised by using rigging and winches to pretension the existing connections, compensating for the helicopter’s rough ride.
“Once we pre-tensioned, we were able to complete the installation in an afternoon,” says Foster.
The soft opening of the bridge occurred on Canada Day 2018, with Raven’s Eye completed about a month later.
“Out of all of the places we’ve worked, there’s something special about the geography and viewscape of this location,” says Foster.
“It feels like you’re on top of the world.”