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Backcountry BC pushing for uphill skiing corridor on Blackcomb Mountain

President of organization planning a protest trip to Whistler
Bill Maurer, the president and founder of Backcountry BC, says its time for WB to facilitate uphill travel through Blackcomb to Garibaldi Provincial Park. Photo submitted

Members of the backcountry community are calling out Whistler Blackcomb (WB) for failing, once again, to dedicate a touring corridor route through Blackcomb Mountain this season.

Under the terms of successive lease agreements with the province, Whistler Blackcomb has been required to commit to work towards establishing year-round, non-motorized public access to Garibaldi Provincial Park for years.

"The Developer commits to work with the Province to designate year-round, non-motorized public access corridors through the Development Area to Garibaldi Park," reads the 2017 Blackcomb Master Development Agreement (MDA).

"Specifically the required access is winter and summer access to the park (including an alternate to Rescue Road access)."

And while WB's current operator, Vail Resorts, said it is working towards establishing a route, the president and founder of Backcountry BC claims the ski operator behemoth is not committed to the process.

Bill Maurer, who is also a director of the BC Mountaineering Club (BCMC), recently took to South Coast Touring, a popular Facebook page for the backcountry skiing community, to voice his frustration and publicize some forthcoming trips up Blackcomb Mountain.

"After 39 years of patience, here's hoping that our access corridor through Blackcomb can be restored this ski season," posted Maurer, adding that he will be posting Facebook events indicating specific crossing dates "when we can cross as a group ... These will be during and after normal lift operating hours."

Maurer said that he is hoping to work collaboratively with WB to ensure skier safety and that the route that he is proposing is a "safe corridor."

It would see skiers leave from Base 2 and skin up Gondola Road and Sunset Boulevard before ending at the base of Seventh Heaven, where they can access Garibaldi Park.

"There are all kinds of things [WB] could do to minimize the safety risk, but they're not even dealing with the issue," said Maurer. "They're not accepting the fact that there's a requirement for them to have an uphill corridor through the [Blackcomb Controlled Recreation Area]."

The 2.5-hour route would provide access to a wealth of backcountry skiing terrain located on the south side of the Spearhead range.

The terrain is accessible via the Singing Pass Trail, which lies within the Whistler Development area and is a designated backcountry access point. Yet Maurer said that accessing the terrain via this route isn't practical for day trips.

Maurer said that if there is a negative interaction with WB ski patrol the group will ensure it's "all over social media."

"Ski patrol doesn't have authority to remove people physically, right? So they would have to really get police or security or somebody involved," he said.

"And if they do that, then we'll bring this up with council in Whistler, and obviously it'll blow up."

Maurer said that he was driven to take up this cause after he saw WB post a Facebook video last January telling people not to skin up their terrain.

From there, he sent a letter to the province, which resulted in a meeting in April 2019 with a host of other stakeholders, including the Spearhead Huts Society, the BCMC, and WB.

Maurer said that while that meeting went well, things broke down from there, with the province's Mountain Resorts Branch cancelling a proposed follow up conference call.

In Maurer's view, WB is stalling, and the province is abetting this behaviour by relying on an erroneous interpretation of the Blackcomb MDA clause that says that as long as the parties are working towards a solution everything is fine.

"When we talked to the [province's] Mountain Resorts people, their interpretation was, 'we just have to hold meetings, we don't actually have to [establish] a corridor,'" said Maurer.

Sarah McCullough, director of government and community relations for WB, said that the resort is committed to "looking at options" for an uphill skiing route, but that the route proposed by Maurer is unsafe.

"We reviewed [it] in depth, and it's not safe," she said. "We can't have active downhill ski runs being used for uphill travel. It's just too much of a risk to public safety."

McCullough added that WB is in full compliance with its agreement with the province.

"There is no timeline attached to this and we have confirmed with the province that we are not in breach of our master development agreement," she said. "We have received a letter from the province confirming this."

And while Vail Resorts does offer backcountry access, via uphill corridors, that run through some of its resort properties (including at Vail), McCullough said that each mountain is different and requires a different approach.

"I think you have to look at it in terms of the very, very different and unique terrain that we have," she said. "Both managing [the] terrain and also doing the control work to open up the terrain is vastly different resort by resort, so you can't compare that terrain in any way to (WB's) terrain."

The province also appears to in support of WB's position—that it is not in breach of its master development agreement.

"Whistler Blackcomb has been actively working to fulfill their commitment to designate year-round public access corridor(s) through the Blackcomb Development Area and is adhering to the conditions of the MDA," it said in a statement.

"Finding long-term solutions that best fit the needs of all major stakeholder groups is very challenging. All visitors to the resort are accessing Crown land within the Controlled Recreation Areas as facilitated by Whistler Blackcomb and public safety is paramount."

The potential creation of a backcountry corridor starting at the base of Blackcomb could have major implications for WB, especially given the growing popularity of ski touring and walk-up day ticket prices that can approach $200 in peak season.

(WB does sell backcountry access tickets for $59, allowing those touring to ride the gondola to the top and then skin out.)

In a statement to Pique, BCMC President Chris Ludwig put the organization's support behind Backcountry BC's efforts, saying that BCMC members are being negatively affected by the access issues.

"The BCMC was central in the original efforts that led to the creation of Garibaldi Provincial Park," wrote Ludwig. "The BCMC, therefore, in principal supports those individuals and organizations who would advocate for the preservation and improvement of ours and the general public's historic right to access Garibaldi Provincial Park in a free and unrestricted manner."

Jayson Faulkner, president of the Spearhead Huts Society (SHS)—which recently opened the first of three huts to be built along the Spearhead Traverse in Garibaldi Park—said that the organization is in favour of improved access to the park.

"The SHS has always been supportive of improved non-motorized public access to the backcountry and to our BC Parks," wrote Faulkner. "Much work has been done over the years to work on these challenges and we are hopeful that the outcome for backcountry skiers and hikers will be positive. We greatly appreciate the work that all parties are doing on this on trying to come to an agreement."

What's next for the delicate work of establishing an uphill skiing corridor through Blackcomb is yet to be seen. But according to Jennifer Goad—executive director of the province's Mountain Resorts Branch—the protest skin that Backcountry BC is planning might not help the cause.

"In this context, BCBC's recent online posts identifying and promoting ... active downhill ski runs for the purpose of uphill travel poses a real and serious risk to public safety," she wrote in a letter to Maurer that was shared with Pique.

"Whistler Blackcomb does not endorse the 'Blackcomb Access Corridor;' therefore, uphill skiing on this route is not permitted. Posting erroneous and inaccurate information to public forums does not support continued engagement and positive collaboration with the Province and Whistler Blackcomb on this issue, particularly when public safety is at stake."