The Summit Deck of the new Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish is full of laughing and lounging visitors basking in the sun, enjoying a bite or a drink and generally feeling uplifted.
The tables on the upper deck are full of people sitting and talking. The odd pair, slightly tattered and sun-beaten from an excursion in the alpine, seek vacant seats where they can rest their legs. On the lower section, guests take in the view and pose for pictures against the backdrop of Howe Sound, the Tantalus Range, Goat Ridge and Sky Pilot. On these nice summer days, the Sea to Sky Gondola is a busy place. It's opening up a part of the world previously unknown and inaccessible to a majority of visitors to the region.
People from around the world are coming to see what it's about. Fabian Brusco and Ricardo Peres of Sao Paulo, Brazil are on a three-month trip to Canada. Today is the first time the pair has headed north of Vancouver. So far, they are pleased with their gondola experience. "It's amazing," says Peres. "They chose the perfect spot for the view. You see such diverse landscapes. That's very different for us. Back in Brazil you have rainforest and beach, nice landscapes too, but here, the contrast is bigger."
Adds Brusco, "You can do everything the same day, like go to the beach and hike and ski."
The Brazilians are on a tour with friends, Ian Ross and Andrea Lyle whom they met in Vancouver. They'll go up Highway 99 to Pemberton, around Duffey Lake Road and back down the Fraser Valley.
"Sometimes you meet people who you know are going to appreciate what we have in our backyard," says Ross, who's acting as a tour guide for the group.
How it all began
In the spring of 2009, Trevor Dunn and David Greenfield spent many hours driving up and down the highway that the Brazilian tourists experienced for the first time.
Their mission found them thrashing in the undergrowth endeavouring to find a suitable location to build the now-operational Sea to Sky Gondola. The pair had previously worked together at Intrawest, a developer and operator of resorts. They left that company in 2008 and started their own business, Ground Effects Development Inc. While doing consulting work on a business plan for the Squamish Oceanfront Development Corporation they realized the potential for a project like the gondola.
Greenfield points to the competitive advantage in the natural beauty of Squamish as key to the plan.
"There was a real discrepancy between that fact that you've got the Chief, Shannon Falls and Howe Sound and the fact that Squamish is sort of totally almost unrecognized as a place to go to," he says.
That got the pair thinking: "Wouldn't it be great to create some greater access to the Chief and the Falls?" And so, the idea of the gondola was born.
Finding an ideal location was the first in a series of struggles to build a reality from an idea. The duo had to assemble the necessary expertise, acquire the land (which spanned three different jurisdictions), reassure concerned Squamish residents that the visual impact wouldn't be an issue and that no gondola was going up the Chief. They also had to woo the local stakeholders, pugnacious advocacy groups and First Nations.
Once built, those challenges gave way to a whole new set of obstacles to overcome including ensuring guest safety, maintaining high service standards, securing sufficient parking and creating new ways to sell the experience with the arrival of winter — all while continually addressing the matter of sustaining long-term, economic viability.
History to build on
Gondolas aren't foreign in this part of the world. In 1904, an aerial tramway was installed at Britannia to connect the mines with the shipping dock at the beach. In the 1940s, logging operations in Squamish employed tram systems with passenger cars in order to cross the Squamish River. In 1950, The Riblet Tramway company built the "Chairlift to the Stars," a mile long, single-chair ski lift at Hollyburn Ridge in Cypress Provincial Park. In 1966 both Whistler and Grouse Mountain opened their aerial trams.
In 2004, Paul Mathews and Peter Alder put forth a proposal to build a gondola up the Chief. It didn't fly in large part due to the town's opposition to a commercial operation atop the iconic monolith.
The $53 million Peak 2 Peak gondola in Whistler had some 500,000 riders in 2013, five years after its opening, and the "Super Skyride" at Grouse Mountain sees more than 1.2 million visitors annually.
Dunn and Greenfield's original concept for a gondola was to connect the Squamish Oceanfront to the Papoose (a rock outcrop south of the existing base and west of the highway). But that was quickly abandoned, as it was fraught with logistical headaches, geotechnical complexities and it needed to cross a channel full of boat traffic and high-tension power lines. "That thing died a very quick death," says Greenfield.
Within a few months, the pair were back to finding a suitable location — not too far off of the highway, not spanning the high voltage lines, on acquirable property with flat land at the top and bottom upon which to build terminals.
They identified the existing site, and the difficulties then became acquiring the privately held land (at the base), securing access to the parkland (through which the gondola would run) and the crown land on which the top terminus would be built.
The parcel of land off Highway 99, now the base of the gondola, was previously owned by The Land Conservancy (TLC) of BC. In February of 2012, the Sea to Sky Gondola bought the 2.5 hectares with a restrictive covenant that prohibits a gondola from going up the Chief, or landing within Stawamus Chief Provincial or Shannon Falls Provincial Parks. By June of that year, the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) board, which oversees the crown land behind the park where the gondola terminates, unanimously granted final approval for bylaw amendments to the upper-terminal area. During this period, the now incorporated Sea to Sky Gondola claims some one hundred consultations with the public and interest groups took place.
The first group they approached about the project was the Squamish Nation. "We always are of the opinion that the people that live in a place know the most about it," says Dunn.
Adds Greenfield: "The ten-tonne elephant was the perception that we were going to put a gondola up the Chief — the town's apprehension."
The legacy of the 2004 gondola proposal up the Chief plagued the Sea to Sky project.
"All through our public engagement process, that just kept coming up time and time again," says Greenfield. "People would refer to it as the gondola up the Chief, the media would refer to it as the gondola up the Chief. We still get people who show up here today and they are standing at the bottom, looking up and they are going, how does this gondola go up the Chief?
"It doesn't go up the Chief!"
Opposition finds a voice
Up the Chief or not, there were, and are, people who adamantly oppose the Sea to Sky Gondola. Some members of the public have expressed general concern over the detraction from the experience of climbing and hiking in the two provincial parks (The Chief and Shannon Falls) that the new gondola creates.
Steven Berger, who helped the TLC buy the 2.5 hectare lot adjacent to the highway in 2004, says that such a project, "spur(s) ecological degradation of the terminal lands as a greatly increased number of people travel in the higher elevation regions."
Anders Ourom, former president of the Climbers Access Society of BC, initially started Friends of the Squamish Chief (FOSC) in order to fight the 2004 gondola proposal. The group was revived and reinvigorated in 2012 in opposition against the Sea to Sky Gondola. Its main objection lay with the lack of process given to the boundary readjustment for the removal of 2.36 hectares from the Squamish Chief Provincial Park through which the gondola runs.
The FOSC collected over 1,000 signatures in support and directed concerns at Terry Lake, the B.C. minister of the environment, with whom the decision rested.
"The practice in the past with creating a new park, or adjusting it is boundaries, is to have an inclusive public process managed by BC Parks and that simply wasn't done," says Ourom.
"We were left with the impression that the minister of the environment overrode that and that BC Parks was not given any role in the discussion.
"I strongly object to taking land out of established existing parks, especially high-profile ones without a really comprehensive public process."
The developers could have built it outside the park, says Ourom, citing a location where Gonzales Creek crosses the highway up to a knoll northeast of Petgill Lake. He also expressed his disappointment with the TLC, which sold the parcel to the Sea to Sky Gondola Corporation for $2 million.
"As far as I'm concerned, they betrayed us, the public," says Ourom.
"Their instruction was to protect the park from development. They gave it to the developers, with the lamest restrictive covenant imaginable."
By November of 2012, Sea to Sky Gondola had jumped through its final major administrative hoop. The developers received the "final signed" park-use permit from the Ministry of the Environment. From there, the principal group now consisting of five members with the addition of Michael Hutchison (president of Bethel Land Corp), Jason Faulkner (Whistler councillor and former co-owner of the Escape Route) and David Smith (former senior executive at RadiSys, a wireless tech company) were able to commence physical construction of the $25 million dollar venture.
In a project like this, which transports people up a 1,920-metre gondola ride to the summit — 885 metres above sea level — and provides access to the backcountry, safety concerns are omnipresent.
On February 4, 2013, a gondola car fell off during testing. No one was injured, as the car was empty. Greenfield cites an Arctic outflow (erratic winds) during testing, and calibration of the equipment as the cause.
"It appears that the gondola was gusted one direction, then the other direction, at the same time that the gondola was coming through a station (tower)," says Greenfield.
"Basically, the shiv assembly (part of the tower that connects the wheels with the rest of the tower) hit the arm (the part of the car that allows it to disconnect from the cable) and was pried off.
"That situation is very isolated and very specific and, to some degree, was also dictated by the fact that our adjustments on the sensors, that we were still fine tuning, weren't calibrated where they should have been for that particular occasion.
"That's why you test these things out..."
In response to the investigation by the BC Safety Authority the gondola operators implemented new operational procedures and enhancements in order to mitigate the risk of recurrence. These included installing an additional wind meter on Tower #7 where the incident occurred (this is in addition to the three others already in place), setting specific wind speed warning and alarm values for the local conditions that will automatically slow the system in potentially dangerous winds, and installing a camera to monitor Tower #7 for cabin movement, which sends live data back to the operator to better inform operating decisions.
The official opening of the gondola took place on May 16, 2014, and as the first gondolas carried excited visitors to the top, operations were firmly focused on keeping safety a number-one priority. The company aims to protect itself by informing visitors of the potential hazards in the surrounding area. Limited liability waivers are included with ticket sales and signage is posted to inform visitors to take adequate precautions and responsibility on their adventures.
"You have to exercise a certain level of due care and attention because you are providing access," remarks Greenfield.
"But (at the same time) you can only take it so far because at some point you have to allow people to make their own informed decisions for themselves."
Says Dunn: "We advocate the same way that a ski hill works with your responsibility related to using the lift. You are potentially on your own to the extent that you go outside of our tenure."
Out-of-bounds areas are clearly marked, adds Dunn, and the 68-acre tenure around the top terminus — an area including a network of highly-groomed and semi-groomed trails, the suspension bridge and the lodge — are monitored by six patrollers who respond to incidents within the area. The gondola also employs some 25 people trained in lift rescue.
At the outset of the project, there were concerns that Squamish Search and Rescue (SSAR) would be stretched thin due to an increase of incidents requiring its services. The concern was that the gondola would draw more visitors and facilitate more backcountry access to an area previously difficult to reach.
John Howe, President of SSAR, says that it's too early to tell if this is the case. "Clearly there's a significant call volume related to the gondola, but has the call-volume on the Chief gone down as the same volume that the gondola has gone up? There might be just a migration of use," says Howe.
Gondola operators and the SSAR plan to sit down in the coming weeks and consider what improvements can be made, as well as to look at the specific challenges posed by winter.
This summer, there were a number of rescues involving lost or injured hikers as well as two deaths — both of which occurred on Sky Pilot. On Sept. 13 one man who accessed the mountain by driving up a forest service road slipped and fell in the glacier. On July 5, a man who had taken the gondola fell from higher up on the mountain.
This summer, there were also incidents of lost hikers and a rescue involving raising an injured hiker up to a gondola car in order to evacuate them.
Like in all aspects of life and business in the corridor, things will change at the gondola come the winter. The operation will close for November and run on a limited schedule (Thursday through Sunday) from December through April. Winter activities are still in the works, but so far the list includes: walking on groomed trails, old-fashioned tubing, cozying up in the lodge and snowshoeing both on groomed trails and in the backcountry.
Greenfield says of the winter: "We've had a lot of anecdotal evidence that it's going to be used a lot, but we don't know. What we do know is that it can't be just a backcountry access. The market's not deep enough to do that alone. So we're trying to broaden the product."
The winter also brings the additional concerns of incidents requiring rescue — with darkness falling earlier, and colder temperatures the norm, rescue can take on a whole new urgency.
Putting Squamish on the map
Will the Sea to Sky Gondola elevate the town of Squamish to become the renowned tourism destination that it yearns to be?
Only time will tell if this is the project that will ultimately signal Squamish's transition to a tourist destination, but it seems like things are off to a strong start. It has just been nominated for the Brewster Travel Canada Innovator of the Year Award.
Dunn is reserved about financial and ridership numbers, but earlier this season he said: "We had forecast between 200,000 and 300,000 visitors (for the year) and we're on track. We think we'll do better than that by 30 to 40 per cent."
While these figures may seem high, there are 9.5 million people who drive the Sea to Sky Highway every year and 60 per cent of them are sightseeing. The gondola is located right between two of the region's most popular attractions, Shannon Falls and Stawamus Chief provincial parks, which collectively get 650,000 visitors a year.
Indeed Squamish has been attracting a growing number of visitors since the highway was upgraded in 2010 thanks to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Lures to the town include the world-class Squamish Music Festival, Squamish Days, the Test of Metal bike race, yacht races and the on-going growth of kite boarding in Howe Sound. So far in 2014 there has been a 40-per-cent increase in traffic through the Tourism Squamish visitor centre so far last year.
From May through the end of July, over 110,000 people rode the gondola — it costs $35 for one adult, round-trip ticket, and $99 for a season's pass.
"It clearly adds to the tourist options and opportunities for the whole Sea to Sky," said Jordan Sturdy, MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, who visited for the May 16 opening of the gondola.
"I would expect, the fact that it's a new project, everybody is going to take a trip up there. You might find that it peaks this summer for a bit, then levels off and slowly builds its reputation over time."
The Sea to Sky Gondola operators are marketing internationally with the intention of making a destination out of Squamish and building attraction for the whole corridor.
"We've been primarily using P.R. to push our message out to the broader market," says Dunn.
"We've had writers come in from all over U.S and Europe and we've had a huge number of television cameras, television stories and writers come to the gondola, from China, Japan, all over Europe and North America."
Business-focused website, CNNmoney.com, recently named Squamish the best mountain town to visit in North America
Greenfield summarizes his outlook: "It's one of those key pieces of making Squamish something that it's always had the potential to be... A lot of people are waking up to the fact that this town has a lot to offer."