Sea to Sky Gondola to split Stawamus Chief Provincial Park in Squamish
Kevin McLane has been scaling the Stawamus Chief for decades. By his own estimation, he’s done hundreds of rock climbs on the 702-metre-high granite monolith’s world-famous cliffs.
In the midst of working on a new edition of The Climbers Guide to Squamish, McLane recalled a failed 2004 proposal to build a sightseeing gondola to the top of the landmark’s second peak. The cofounder of the Squamish Access Society told the Georgia Straight that the outcry from local residents, as well as climbers and hikers from across British Columbia, was deafening.
“One thing that really, really dug deep into a lot of people was the idea of steel being bolted—wires and steel being pounded and bolted—all the way up to the top of the Chief when you can actually walk up not that difficult,” McLane said by phone from his downtown Squamish home, which looks out at the Chief.
Now, a new gondola project has Squamish residents and outdoor-recreation enthusiasts talking. Sea to Sky Gondola Corp. is proposing to build a gondola rising 820 metres from a base between the Chief and Shannon Falls to the wooded ridge northwest of Mount Habrich.
But although it’s clear to everyone the gondola would slice through the southern reaches of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park—though not up the Chief itself—many onlookers are unaware the proponent applied in December to permanently remove land from the park to build it.
Sea to Sky envisions 100,000 to 400,000 tourists, locals, and outdoors enthusiasts a year paying up to $30 to take a seven-minute ride to the gondola’s upper terminal. The Squamish-based company, whose principals are former Intrawest executives David Greenfield and Trevor Dunn, says its facilities would be barely visible from the Chief and downtown Squamish but would deliver spectacular views of Howe Sound, Mount Garibaldi, and Sky Pilot Mountain.
Located on a former gravel pit along Highway 99, the gondola base would feature free public parking and washrooms, along with a ticket office, coffee shop, and gift shop, and trail connections to Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks. At the top, a previously logged area, visitors would find a day lodge and interpretive centre—with a restaurant, theatre, gift shop, and guest services—and trails offering viewpoints, as well as access to hiking, snowshoeing, ski touring, mountaineering, rock- and ice-climbing, and mountain biking in the backcountry.
Greenfield told the Straight the gondola is targeted at the almost 500,000 people who visit the Chief and Shannon Falls parks every year. According to him, the first phase of the project would cost $15 million to $20 million. Sea to Sky hopes to start construction in September and open the gondola on July 1, 2013.
“Today, Squamish is missing what we call a key piece of tourism infrastructure,” Greenfield said by phone from his home office in Whistler. “It’s got some great natural amenities that cater nicely to the more high-intensity sports—rock-climbing, kite-boarding, mountain biking, things of that nature—but they don’t have something which provides a little easier access and mechanism for people who don’t necessarily have the skills or the abilities to be able to get up into the alpine.
“So if we can offer something for the more broad-based tourists, then we can hold them in Squamish for a couple hours,” he added. “They’re now more inclined to be looking for places to eat and stay and shop within Squamish itself. So there’s going to be a lot of indirect benefits that are likely going to flow into the community as a result of something like this.”
The Sea to Sky Gondola would rise 820 metres from a base between the Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls in Squamish.
On February 7, District of Squamish council unanimously gave final approval to rezoning the 2.5-hectare base property and amending the official community plan to allow development of the lower terminal.
District of Squamish councillor Patricia Heintzman told the Straight that Sea to Sky will have to obtain building and development permits before starting construction. Heintzman, who’s also the vice chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, admitted she didn’t know about the company’s application to change the boundaries of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park but said she didn’t think it was problematic.
“I think it’s been very loud and clear in our community that there’s the odd voice of concern out there but generally overwhelming support for the project,” Heintzman said by phone from her home in Paradise Valley. “So I think the town’s looking forward to it.”
Although the base sits in the District of Squamish, the 860-metre-high, 68-hectare upper-terminal site lies on Crown land in the SLRD’s Electoral Area D. On February 27, the SLRD board of directors gave first reading to bylaws to rezone the land and alter the official community plan. Sea to Sky also requires approvals from B.C. Parks and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations to go ahead with the gondola.
Electoral Area D director Moe Freitag is the former president of the Squamish Chamber of Commerce, which, along with the Downtown Squamish Business Improvement Association and Tourism Squamish, formally supports the project.
“It’s in the public process now and we look forward to hearing back from the proponent and trying to make sure that we keep an open mind,” Freitag told the Straight by phone from Whistler. “We look forward to working with our neighbouring municipality, Squamish, and doing the right thing—whatever that may be.”