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North Construction Takes on Project of Olympic Proportion

Mon October 20, 2008 - National Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

When skiers fly down the sides of mountains, it is called sport. When 35-ton (31.7 t) excavators do the sliding, it is called risky business. North Construction is perfectly familiar with each kind of mountainside thrill.

The North Vancouver, Canada, “extreme terrain” contractor specializes in moving earth in places that might give pause to Great Plains contractors. Typical job sites for North are slanted 60 degrees or more.

“There are several other [ski slope] companies in the North Shore area,” said Ian Lacoursiere, project manager and North’s No. 2 man behind owner Kevin Webb, “but we often end up doing a lot of the most challenging work. If it is really weird and wonderful, we often get the call.”

North got the call three years ago to construct all the venues on Cypress Mountain for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The events include freestyle skiing (aerials, moguls and ski cross) and snowboard events (half-pipe, parallel giant slalom and snowboard cross).

Each of these slopes is exactingly different, but North Construction went into the bidding totally familiar with specs for individual downhill routes. Company executives also knew the lay of the land in Cypress Provincial Park, where the slopes were to be created, because North has helped Cypress Mountain officials carve ski trails from the provincial wilderness since the winter resort’s inception in 1998.

Farther north of Vancouver are neighboring Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Olympic Alpine skiing and sliding (bobsled and luge) events will be staged there. Although North also has extensively worked the terrain at those resorts, its contract with the Vancouver Olympic Committee is solely for work on Cypress.

Though the company is not creating ski venues at the Whistler / Blackcomb mountain resort area, it has been involved in a corollary project to link the pair of adjacent mountains. Though not officially part of the Olympic effort, a “peak-to-peak” gondola ride that is to open in December no doubt will benefit from international exposure in 2010.

The ride is 5 mi. (0.8 km) across and will carry skiers from one mountain to the other at heights of up to 1,500 ft. (457 m) above ground. Because North often works with ski lift companies — including international companies Poma and Doppelmayr — it was invited to help create access roads to isolated lift sites situated near the mountain peaks. Explosives and excavators were used.

Farther east toward Calgary lies Revelstoke Mountain Resort where North worked with ski lift builders to help create what is advertised as the longest lift-serviced vertical ascent in North America. The company dragged into place all the power lines that let the mountaintop machinery lift skier-filled gondolas to the start of their runs.

On Cypress Mountain, North has completed its major earth work as November approached and is involved in what company owner Webb calls “sports overlay.” These include pulling up the mountainsides the media and timing cables and other lines that help turn former high altitude wilderness areas into public playgrounds.

North’s biggest Olympic project on Cypress in terms of volume of earth moved was the parallel giant slalom course. Construction of these courses does not have a long history because snowboarding was introduced to the Olympics just 10 years ago.

To shape the course on Cypress, North crews moved some 26,600 cu. yd. (35,000 cu m) of earth, reshaping the land as needed and removing scrub trees growing in the course’s path. The trees were ground down using a Promac Brushcutter attachment. Fitted to the end of an excavator’s arm, it is hoisted to the top of a tree and lowered, systematically shredding both trunk and limb. When major forest is in the path of a new ski run, the company subcontracts a logging company.

Some parts of the Cypress slalom course pitch downhill at about 60 degrees. Snowboarders will weave through banked S-curves side by side on slopes that have been created with symmetrical radiuses so one competitor will not have an advantage over another.

“Most of the tolerances on the Olympic stuff are pretty close,” Webb said of the precise earthwork that underlies the snow pack on a competitive run. This is in contrast to the custom courses normally built by his company, which are keyed simply to giving a skier a fluid and exciting ride down a mountain.

“Our background is that we build ski resorts, so we do anything on the mountain a resort owner would require, but our typical project is either to construct a new run or recontour an existing slope,” the company owner said. “Our goal is to work with the terrain rather than move large volumes of material, anything that will enhance a run for the skiing public and make it that much more enjoyable.”

To meet stringent Olympic standards, the half-pipe, mogul and ski-jump courses were “fine-tuned,” Lacoursiere said, “plus or minus a couple of inches. On regular slopes, we normally make it more fluid so skiers can enjoy the ride, but these had to be very exact.”

In some cases, the course-work flowed down the mountain with survey stakes marking the way as if it were a road job. In all its work, North employs new generation survey technology, including laser, robotic Total stations and GPS positioning tools.

The so-called half-pipe is a deep channel cut into a slope; when viewed from the end, it looks like a cross-section of a pipe cut in half. It is precision built. The steep sides of the pipe must curve regularly and steeply so snowboarders can control their ascent, slipping across the bottom of the pipe before shooting up the sides and into the air to perform competitive routines.

Various makes and models of excavators — including a John Deere 350D and Caterpillar 320 CLU — were employed on the half-pipe construction with Volvo A30D articulated trucks hauling away excess dirt – and rock. (Mountain terrain is about 70 percent granite, Lacoursiere noted.) No special equipment was used on the half-pipe — unless you call the excavator operators special. Lacoursiere and Webb do.

“We built all those walls with the nice, rounded shapes using only excavators and talented operators,” Lacoursiere said with evident pride. “A lot of our people have lots of fine end work. We have three or four very good operators, who have been with us for 10 years or more.”

Most of the mountainside soil and rock moved by North crews is, in fact, excavated rather than pushed around by bladed equipment. The company doesn’t even own a bulldozer, Webb said, instead hiring dozer owner/operators when needed. Dozers were used, for example, on the freestyle skiing slopes of Cypress. The routes required major recontouring across comparatively gentle slopes and North management has found that dozers are effective on grades of up to 25 percent. Beyond that, however, the work falls solely to excavators.

It is the steepest areas where North operators show their mettle as well as their skill.

“Some of our guys have big kahunas,” Lacoursiere said, meaning lots of nerve. “They don’t mind working in an excavator as it is sliding down a hill. Some of our operators aren’t cut out for that, but we have a couple of guys who go on slopes that are pretty extreme.”

The latter operators are North employees who are willing to create “double black diamond” runs, which are slopes reserved for, in Lacoursiere’s words, “crazy” skiers. In ski slope terminology, green slopes are flat and wide, blue courses are for intermediate skiers, black diamond courses are for experts and “double black diamond” courses are reserved for extremists — and for the nervy excavator operators who create them.

On the company’s Web site, a North excavation specialist, Derek Coolen, observes that “knowing where your center of gravity is at all times is critical.”

Before the more harrowing excavations begin, Webb or Lacoursiere will walk a potential slope site with the operator who has been given the task of turning the piece of mountainside into a commercial attraction.

“We find out where they are comfortable,” said Lacoursiere. “They have to feel comfortable. There have only been a couple of slopes where they said, nope, I’m not comfortable.”

In those cases, a dozer is positioned on stable ground above the slope and a cable is run down to the excavator, anchoring it to the dozer. The machine is “yo-yoed” up and down the slope as it methodically works its way across the route. Lacoursiere said the technique doesn’t generally result in the best kind of slope.

Most of the company’s mountain work is 3,000 to 4,000 ft. (914 to 1,219 m) above sea level, but sometimes North equipment works as high as 8,000 ft. (2,438 m) above sea level. Webb said that heavy equipment continues to function well on up to 10,000 ft. (3,048 m), but after that engine set-ups have to be tweaked to offset high-altitude barometric and oxygen conditions.

One piece of North equipment is almost unique in this part of the world — a Volvo FC3329C self-leveling excavator — is one of two in North America, according to Lacoursiere. The other machine is involved in logging work elsewhere in British Columbia. The excavator’s swing ring is fitted with a LevelMax leveling module that keeps the operator platform on a horizontal bearing.

Another complication faced by North as it transforms slopes high above normal access roads is how to refuel its heavy equipment. The answer in at least some instances is to lift fuel to the needed height by helicopter. A sister company, Sierra Helicopters, operates a small fleet of choppers, including two Bell 206 models and a Eurocopter EC120. They airlift containers of fuel to caches near where the equipment is working.

The copters also ferry equipment operators and other personnel up and down the mountains as well as move small pieces of equipment to otherwise inaccessible job sites. One helicopter is reserved for Lidar work, the pulsing light system that produces maps and topographical surveys from the air.

Webb himself is a licensed fixed wing and helicopter pilot and, Lacoursiere said, the person most responsible for North’s reputation as the company to call for “extreme” jobs.

“If it can hurt you, Webb does it,” his second-in-command said with a laugh. “Surfing, scuba diving, extreme skiing. If no other company will do something, he will have North do it or at least give it a try.”

Webb worked his way through college in construction work and on the ski slopes and eventually combined his experience when he formed North Construction in 1994. Through most of the year, the firm employs about 25 people, double that in busy seasons, with an annual business volume of about $10 million. Resorts in British Columbia have kept the company so busy that Webb has not even looked for jobs in the United States.

Besides specializing in extreme terrain development, the company advertises its readiness to provide project management and civil engineering services and construct road and highway infrastructure. And do helicopter logistical work. And survey and GPS mapping. And design/build consulting.

“We had to diversify,” Lacoursiere said.

In its off-season — in-season at the ski resorts — North crews work on more mundane projects at lower altitudes in the coastal communities of British Columbia. It has a 100-lot subdivision development project ready this fall and usually picks up some pipe-laying jobs.

“In the summer, it is all in the mountains,” Lacoursiere said. “But we are going to get chased out pretty soon now, as soon as the snow comes in November.” CEG

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