Ryan Foster, with co-founder Shane Spencer, is managing partner of Axis Mountain Technical, a company specializing in high-elevation construction projects. This year, they finished installing the breathtaking 130-metre suspension bridge and cantilevered viewing platform atop Whistler Peak. Mr. Foster grew up on a remote cattle ranch in B.C.’s West Chilcotin, and today lives with his wife and daughters on Vancouver Island.
I love ranching, it’s a beautiful thing. But it’s a challenge for multiple generations to flourish off an agricultural operation, especially for some of the smaller family ranches.
We’re right in the heart of the coastal range, it’s not really cattle country, very rugged, but probably the most beautiful place on earth.
It was homesteaded by my grandfather. He came up from California. In those days it was just dirt, basically a wagon trail. It was the Wild West; still is. It seems less populated now than even 40 years ago.
My grandmother decided she was going to put her foot down, said we were going to take Sundays off. My grandfather thought about it a second and said, “Do you realize that’ll be 52 days a year we wouldn’t be working?” That was the end of the conversation. Seven-day push/365.
Things naturally have a cycle on the ranch. There are down periods when you restore a little bit, but end up working on all your equipment. It just doesn’t end. It’s a beautiful lifestyle but it’s not surprising that young families aren’t hanging on.
It pretty much gave me all the tools, the ability to take on challenges and problems as they arise, and to come up with solutions quickly. My partner, Shane, grew up on a homestead; his dad was in the logging industry. So we both had similar upbringing.
We met at school in Kamloops, in an adventure guide program. One of the ideas to make our family ranch a bit more diversified was to start doing adventure tours, but there’s a lot of risk. You can spend huge amounts of money and catch no fish. I didn’t enjoy it. Shane and I both immediately recognized we were from the sticks, and related on a lot of things, always kind of figured we would work together. He called me about five years later to do the avalanche work up in Stewart, and we just carried on from there.
I had started taking some training from the Canadian Avalanche Association, built up the technical knowledge base, did lots of ski touring.
It is pretty natural [to run a business without a formal education], coming from a family-run ranch. You see it, live it, breathe it. All the accounting, the tracking, the fundamentals of any business are happening at the lunch table. Operational costs are part of the daily conversation.
A strength of our company is not being solely driven by return. We get a huge amount of reward by bringing the best possible team together, having fun out there and producing incredible projects. It really is the joy of working with exceptional people in the field. From one project after the next, the teams just keep getting stronger and learning every step of the way.
We install avalanche systems using remote-controlled detonations. Because they’re in high rocky mountain terrain, safety is the first step. It’s a tactical operation and we take on an almost militaristic approach. We operate at a very high level, rely on our teams to operate at that level. We have some basic processes to ensure we’re recognizing and documenting the hazard, and we go ahead and build. We’re often in suspension on ropes, and flying in concrete on helicopters and … yeah, lots of fun.
Trust is at the entire basis of our work. And accepting and recognizing risk. Any job that involves flying, that teamwork has to be right on with the heli-pilot. We demand expert pilots. It’s rare things don’t work out. If they don’t, we shut it down.
We have specialized gear, oriented for remote construction. It’s all portable, [brought in with] helicopters. All of our main excavators will fly under a certain size of helicopter. It’s 100 per cent portable.
The [Whistler Peak] bridge is our first design-build project. We’d built a [suspension] bridge here in the valley bottom, called Train Wreck. The engineering crossed into an artistic realm, and that really suits us because skilled artisan builders are on our team.
Whistler Blackcomb had a schedule that seemed reasonable from my perspective, but it was actually quite aggressive. The idea was, we would design, install, open and commission the bridge and cantilever by the end of September . The tender was in March. The engineering team we got together with, said, “You do realize that’s not possible?” And we were like, “We don’t like that attitude. We’re doing this." … We were able to complete the civil work last year [and complete the project this year].
So that was a real learning experience for us, trying to push a design-and-build schedule that tight. It was challenging, costly, more opportunity to make mistakes. The wire rope, for example, is a special type used almost exclusively on bridges. It doesn’t stretch or twist. The lead time for procurement was like 14 weeks. This thing has a design life of 75 years – you can’t rush something like that. One of the concerns was that the environment can impact the structure in tremendous ways; ice, for example, can build up.
It’s in a very exposed space and part of the concern was being able to maintain it in the winter, so we designed it to be removable. The loads are so high because part of the design was to have a reasonably low-angle walking surface.
We wanted it to be within 10 per cent grade, which is like six degrees, so there’s not a lot of sag in the rope. The tighter you pull the rope, the more force there is on the foundation. That really set the stage for what the foundations would look like. We ended up prepping a fairly large footprint, excavating all the loose rock, and trim blasting to create a proper footprint. We poured an approximately 30-metre leveling slab on each side and then surveyed-in our anchor locations, brought in our drill, drilled 14 six -to eight-metre anchors on each foundation.
Once you build the structural foundation on top of the leveling slab, you actually have a huge hydraulic jack attached to the anchor, and tension the structural slab to bedrock. You have huge steel plates embedded in the structural slab; there’s about 6,000 pounds reinforcing the steel rebar in each side of the foundation.
One thing we are good at, is judging character. We rely on knowing who we are working with, trusting who we are working with. That goes to the contractor/company relationship too. We generally don’t work with folks we don’t trust.
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