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Uphill Battle

Recently opened uphill skiing corridor leaves much to be desired, advocates say

Despite Whistler Blackcomb opening an uphill skiing route on Blackcomb Mountain with access to Garibaldi Provincial Park on Dec. 1, more still needs to be done to live up to an agreement made more than 30 years ago, according to the BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC).

The 1979 Blackcomb Master Development Agreement (MDA) between Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises (formerly known as Fortress Mountain Resorts Ltd.) and the province to further develop the ski resort, laid the groundwork for uphill access.

An Oct. 1, 1991 amendment to the agreement stated Blackcomb must provide year-round access for individuals on foot or skis through the mountain’s controlled recreation area (CRA) to Garibaldi.

However, in the 30 years since that amendment took effect, it was never followed through on by the mountain, or the province’s Mountain Resorts Branch.

“This [corridor] is new. It was tried as a temporary corridor a couple of years ago, then it was allowed to lapse with COVID being the excuse. There’s just been a series of excuses why things can’t be done,” said BCMC director Paul Kubik, before explaining that the corridor now in place doesn’t meet the specific requirements in the 30-year-old amendment.

“For one thing, snowshoers should be allowed up into the park; so should hikers. The corridor is supposed to be five metres wide. It’s not supposed to be interfered with by Whistler Blackcomb (WB),” he said. 

“That means it’s not subject to their mountain operations. Ski Patrol doesn’t have the ability to prevent people from going up it.”

There are other things that are “objectionable” about the corridor, Kubik added, noting it’s only open four hours a day.

“There’s no permanence to it,” he said. “The corridors that we had seen in the agreement were permanent.”

When asked about certain aspects of the corridor not living up to the prior agreements, a spokesperson who declined to be interviewed but provided emailed statements for WB cited safety as the main reason the corridor isn’t as accessible as expected by the other parties involved.

“For the safety of our guests, employees and the backcountry community, users must adhere to the 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. open window specifically designated for uphill travel. This is critical as the resort engages in avalanche mitigation, complex grooming work, and other industrial functions outside of these hours,” said the emailed statement. 

“For their safety, users will be turned away if they have not reached the park by 9 a.m. Users must also follow and adhere to all posted signage, which may at times indicate the route is closed for safety reasons.”

While the original MDA’s Oct. 1, 1991 amendment never specifically said the corridor should be accessible 24/7, the wording used in Article 5.10 (e) of the agreement, which refers to Garibaldi Provincial Park access, can be understood to mean the corridor would be accessible by the public a majority of the time, with Fortress Mountain Resorts—now Vail Resorts as per the new MDA signed in 2017—given the right to “temporarily interrupt such access from time to time where it believes it is necessary to do so to ensure public safety.”

Advocacy pays off for BCMC, but the work continues

Even though it may not cover all the bases the BCMC hoped it would, the fact remains there is still an uphill skiing corridor open on the mountain—largely due to the work and persistence of people like Kubik and the various backcountry advocacy groups in the area.

But the fact that it took this long to get something that was promised 30 years ago begs the question: Why is it all happening now?

The short answer to that question is, until recently, nobody really knew about this section of the MDA, according to Kubik.

“We only uncovered this information largely due to a Freedom of Information request that we made in 2018. This is kind of the dirty side of the whole thing—the province and Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises had made all these arrangements. They made an agreement, they put it into the [MDA], but they never made it public. We only uncovered this in 2018,” he said.

“Whistler Blackcomb has had a pretty darn good thing for the last 30 years. They’ve been able to charge people for access to the Spearhead Range, and I can see why it hurts not to have that. The mountain used to be able to control that. They’ve been making money off of it, improperly, in my opinion, because they haven’t allowed for public access.”

Despite the mountain not being held to the obligation outlined in the original MDA, the commitment to “work with the province to designate year-round, non-motorized public access corridors” to Garibaldi Park was transferred to the new 2017 MDA.

As well, according to Schedule K of the new MDA, these corridors fall under prior rights, which legally bind the new developers to adhere to all promises made in the previous agreement.

“What I understand that to mean, is that they have to implement these corridors and if [they don’t], they are in default and their tenure would be cancelled, all their operating privileges would be gone and the facilities would revert to the ownership of the province,” said Kubik. “They would actually lose their investment, so I don’t think it’s in their best interest to continue to obstruct access to the park. I think it is in their best interest, actually, to comply with their obligations.” 

However, whether more work gets done on the corridor to get it up to Kubik’s standards all depends on if the corridor that is currently in place is deemed, by the MRB, to meet the criteria set out in the MDA.

Pique reached out to the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, which is the agency that oversees the MRB, to find out where they stand on the current corridor.

In an emailed statement the Ministry said it will continue to work to explore options for a permanent access route on Blackcomb that meets the requirements of the current MDA.

“The opening of this interim route will provide an opportunity to monitor use through traffic counters, better understand user experience and operational considerations,” said the statement about the current corridor that has been opened on Blackcomb. 

“Once the interim access route has been in use for a couple of months, the province and Whistler Blackcomb will reach out formally to collect feedback from members of the public and stakeholders.  The information gathered and the learnings will help inform the process as we work towards a long-term solution.”

‘Now is the time’ to solve the issue: MLA Sturdy

Local MLA Jordan Sturdy—who has been one of the major players in making progress on this issue—agrees with Kubik that it has taken much too long to see any action on the uphill skiing corridor. But with 25 years of experience as a ski patroller on Blackcomb, Sturdy sees both sides of the issue.

He said he understands the initial reluctance of the mountain to open access for people to walk up as they choose, as he personally had to deal with skiers trying to ride the mountain for free.

“To go have a pristine backcountry experience without having a helicopter drop on you or a snowmobile rip by is getting harder to find. And so increasingly, Garibaldi Park is an important place for people to be able to do that,” Sturdy said.

“At the same time, now that there’s these RFID readers at every lift but the Magic Chair, there’s no concern about poaching anymore, or there should be very little anyway. You really can’t bypass the bottom lift and then ski for free. It just doesn’t happen. So I think now is the time that we’ve got to make sure this thing gets solved.”

Sturdy has been pushing the MRB for a solution to the issue for a while now and believes that there is no reason for the mountain to not get it done, especially considering similar trails like the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver and the Sea to Summit trail under the Sea to Sky Gondola have proved to be valuable assets to the surrounding communities.

While getting a corridor that meets all the requirements outlined in the MDA will be an ongoing battle, Sturdy is a bit hesitant about whether this particular route—which starts in Whistler Village and climbs parallel to the Excalibur Gondola before cutting across Sunset Boulevard and up to the Park past 7th Heaven Chair—is the best one to accomplish what the goals of the route are.

“The problem is that there’s too much potential for conflict on Sunset. I just don’t think it’s safe to be ski-touring up Sunset when people are tucking down. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a solution to be found … I just don’t think that’s the route,” he said. 

According to Sturdy, finding this perfect mystery route up the mountain is just a matter of time and effort. In fact, he has taken the issue into his own hands by personally making the climb with a GPS to map out a potential new route. He encourages others in the community to do the same and send the routes to him to get where they need to go.

“I believe that this is an interim step. And I think we should all view it as that. It doesn’t achieve what I think the promise is or what the intent is of the MDA. And in my view, the intent is that we would have free and unrestricted access through the CRA at all times. That’s my view. And I think that can be done,” said Sturdy.

“I don’t know the ideal solution. But I think it’s incumbent on the community as well to participate in creating a solution. Let’s figure out what we think is the best route and advocate for it.”