Vancouver faces Olympian hurdle as rock slide cuts off vital corridor

Thursday, July 31, 2008


With reports from Justine Hunter in Victoria, Sunny Dhillon in Lions Bay and Cathryn Atkinson in Squamish

VANCOUVER — It almost cost Vancouver the 2010 Olympic Games five years ago.

Now, the narrow and precarious cliff-side Sea to Sky Highway is coming back to haunt the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee a year and a half before the big event.

Thousands of cubic metres of jagged boulders laid strewn 10 metres high, blocking the vital artery linking Vancouver and Whistler, the Games’ two primary venue cities. The rock slide Tuesday night near Porteau Bluffs south of Squamish is the highway’s biggest in a dozen years. It is expected to shut down the road for five days and has conjured disastrous visions of stranded athletes and tourists during the 2010 Olympics. The cliffs above the highway are geologically prone to weak planes of rock.

Commuters, tourists and businesses are girding for a long wait.

It will take days to clear the truck-sized chunks of rock blocking the sinuous artery that links the Lower Mainland with Squamish, Whistler and nearby communities. In the meantime, the roughly 13,800 vehicles that rely on the road daily are out of luck: The only other route to Whistler and Squamish from the Lower Mainland requires a seven-hour detour.

Concern for worker safety will slow more than usual the arduous task of blasting the massive chunks of rock into smaller pieces to be carted away by the truckload. Geotechnical engineers scaled the ridge of the cliff checking for stability yesterday afternoon, at one point bolting as bowling-ball-sized rocks tumbled off the cliff.

RCMP sniffer dogs combed the site yesterday and didn’t detect any people trapped beneath the rubble, but Squamish RCMP Corporal Dave Ritchie said it’s impossible to tell for sure until all the rock is cleared.

The slide caused at least one close call: Whistler resident Luis Araujo was travelling by bus from the Vancouver International Airport Tuesday night around 11:20 p.m. when he heard what sounded like thunder.

“We didn’t know what was going on. It was like driving through a massive hailstorm of rocks and debris,” he said. “We could just hear the whole mountain just crash behind us. It was unbelievable.”

Bus driver Peter Skeels sped up and pulled the 24-passenger bus out from under the 16,000 cubic metres of plummeting rock. Both he and Mr. Araujo emerged without a scratch; the only damage was to the vehicle, which lost most of its windows and had its sides punctured.

“[Mr. Skeels’s driving] really saved our lives. Otherwise we would have been under the rubble right now,” Mr. Araujo said.

B.C. Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon said yesterday that it still isn’t clear what caused the slide, but the region’s weeks of dry weather followed by a heavy rainfall could have destabilized the rock. He said no construction was going on nearby.

Mr. Falcon said engineers have determined that an overhang on the cliff is dangerously unstable and will have to be blasted and removed to enable workers to operate safely underneath. He said crews are trying to determine how to install explosives under the cliff and that the blasting will probably take place today.

“It’s unstable enough that they can’t risk having the workers clearing down below,” he said.

Although the Department of Fisheries and Oceans usually prohibits dumping rock into the sea, Mr. Falcon said, permission was given to do so. “They’re very co-operative and are allowing us to do it in this case, which means we don’t need to break it all up and truck it to the highway. … Whatever needs to be removed can now be safely dumped into the ocean at the site there.”

The last slide of this magnitude on the highway was in 1996, when 30,000 cubic metres of rock fell near Cheakamus Canyon, closing the highway for several days.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said yesterday that the province will do an inventory of the entire highway over the next couple of years to ensure that it’s safe.

Canadian National Railway’s two trains, which run on the coastal tracks daily, are also out of commission thanks to the boulders piled on the rails near the water just below the highway.

University of British Columbia geological engineering professor Erik Eberhardt said the rock on the cliffs near the Sea to Sky Highway develops faults that deepen with every rainfall until – like a paper clip that’s been bent too many times – it snaps off.

Prof. Eberhardt said cutting away parts of the cliff face during construction could have weakened the rock left behind.

“The rock they removed might have been a buttress that was holding back a block that was unstable,” he said. “If they removed rock that was holding a large block in place, now that they’ve removed that, the large block is free to move.”

Acting mayor of Squamish Greg Gardner said many of the city’s residents commute to the Vancouver area daily and now have no way to get to work.

“Obviously, the closure impacts them directly,” he said. “We also rely economically on goods and services and visitors travelling to our area.”

At tiny Squamish Airport, local operators experienced a sudden boom in business as desperate travellers tried to catch flights at Vancouver International Airport and patients tried to get to doctor appointments and operations scheduled in Vancouver.

Glacier Air Tours, which usually takes tourists for short jaunts over surrounding peaks and glaciers, was charging passengers $125 for the 25-minute flight to Vancouver Airport. The firm brought in two extra planes and was running five small aircraft non-stop from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. yesterday, said office manager Lauren Patar.

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