Landslide marks a rocky road to Winter Games

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2008, 12:00am


When thousands of tonnes of rock collapsed on Highway 99 - the road that connects Vancouver to the mountain resort town of Whistler - last week, it really couldn't have come at a better time.

Sure, the massive rockslide was the largest in recent history. And it's hard to find a silver lining among the bus-sized boulders that have cut off the main route between the joint host cities of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

But consider this - just days before, a massive outdoor concert featuring Jay-Z and Coldplay brought 40,000 people along the same stretch of road, with thousands of drivers gridlocked on the highway for hours.

As it was, no one was hurt in the rockslide. There was just one tour bus in the area, carrying a sole passenger, when the landslide happened at around midnight on Tuesday. 'It was like driving through a massive hailstorm of rocks and debris,' recalled passenger Luis Araujo.

The driver managed to get his foot on the accelerator fast enough to get the bus out of the danger zone, even though the vehicle's windows were blown out by the thunderous descent of 16,000 cubic metres of rocks. Thank God, politicians said, that no one got hurt.

But Vancouver Olympic committee organisers remained silent. No one in an official capacity wants to raise the spectre of what might happen if such a slide occurs in 2010, with thousands on the road travelling to and from Olympic venues.

Since Vancouver learned that it would be hosting the 2010 Games, hardly a week goes by without the lament going up: what if this happens during the Olympics?

Last month, for instance, a power outage shut down about half of the downtown area, forcing the closure of hotels and restaurants.

The provincial minister in charge of the Olympics said there was no cause for concern that such a rockslide would disrupt the Games. Athletes won't have to travel on the highway to get to their venues, he pointed out.

'It's one of the reasons there are two separate athlete villages [in Whistler and Vancouver],' said Colin Hansen.

But no one is addressing the issue of the spectators, many of whom will be travelling on Highway 99 daily during the Games. The Olympic dilemma has certainly added urgency, but the problem of Highway 99's vulnerability is not new.

The 50km winding stretch of road has two nicknames. The tourism brochures lyrically call it the Sea-to-Sky Highway; others, more bluntly, refer to it as Killer Highway. Dozens of people have died on Highway 99 over the past decades.

When Vancouver Olympic organisers were bidding for the Games, they assured the International Olympic Committee that work would be done on the highway and that there would be multiple modes of transport between Vancouver and Whistler.

Yes, the provincial government has spent many millions of dollars in shoring up the road, although not at the stretch where the rockslide occurred. And what about the alternate routes touted by the government and the Games organisers?

It was left to private boat operators to ferry stranded tourists and residents around the rockslide - at increased fares. If you had the money, you could try getting a ride on a private helicopter.

Of course, if time was no object, there was always an alternate land route.

But on good days, it takes two hours to get from Vancouver to Whistler on Highway 99; the alternate route is an eight- to nine-hour drive.