Murray Sovereign doesn’t have the fondest memories of the couple of times he tried to hike to Mount Habrich from the top of the Upper Shannon Falls Trail in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.
“It was the most brutal bushwhacking,” Sovereign told the Georgia Straight by phone from Squamish. “I think I made about 200 metres in an hour, and then I had to turn around and push my way back through all the same stuff again. I’ve tried a few different ways of getting around up there, but because it’s all this overgrown alder on old logging roads, a lot of it’s almost impenetrable.”
Thus, it’s no surprise that the owner of the Valhalla Pure Outfitters outdoor-gear shop at the Squamish Station Shopping Centre is looking forward to riding the Sea to Sky Gondola after it opens on May 16. Last fall, he took advantage of a limited-time offer and bought a $99 annual pass. Sovereign believes the sightseeing gondola will “open up” the upper Shannon Creek basin, which was previously difficult to access, to hikers, climbers, snowshoers, and ski tourers.
Sea to Sky Gondola Corporation began construction on the $22-million project, which cuts through Stawamus Chief Provincial Park, in March 2013. From a base station next to the Sea to Sky Highway, lying between the Chief and Shannon Falls, the gondola will take eight to 10 minutes to carry passengers to a ridge northwest of Mount Habrich.
At an elevation of 885 metres, the upper terminal area will offer two walking trails, three viewing platforms, a suspension bridge, and a lodge with a restaurant and bar, teahouse, and gift shop. Weather permitting, visitors will enjoy vistas of the Chief, Howe Sound, Sky Pilot Mountain, and Atwell Peak.
Jared Sissons, a board member for Tourism Squamish, told the Straight the gondola will make some trails accessible to seniors and people with disabilities. He noted that Squamish, which promotes itself as the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada”, depends on hiking and mountain-biking trails to bring tourists to the area.
“They’re expecting about 300,000 people to go through the gondola every year,” Sissons said by phone from the Executive Suites Hotel & Resort, where he is the general manager. “Rather than people just using Squamish as a gas fill-up area, people are going to stop for longer periods of time.”
According to the Sea to Sky Gondola website, the company has developed six hiking trails on Crown land. Al’s Habrich Ridge Trail offers an 11.6-kilometre round trip beginning at the upper terminal area. Involving a 10-kilometre round trip, the Sky Pilot Valley Trail strikes off toward Sky Pilot Mountain. The Skyline Trail heads up the ridge between Sky Pilot and Goat Ridge for a round trip of 17 kilometres.
Grouse Grind enthusiasts may be drawn to the Sea to Summit Trail, which begins at the gondola base and rises 916 metres to the upper terminal area. The lower portion incorporates parts of the Lower Shannon Falls and Chief Peaks trails, and all of the Upper Shannon Falls Trail in Stawamus Chief park. The six-kilometre one-way trip will take three to four hours.
“You do see how popular the Grouse Grind is,” Sissons said, “and it’s very, very popular. We anticipate that a lot of people will want to take advantage of something that’s a little bit different than the Grouse Grind and actually take advantage of doing some trails in Squamish. So, there should be a huge interest in it, because it’s something different.”
Jayson Faulkner, general manager of Sea to Sky Gondola, would not make himself available for an interview. Elyse Mailhot, the company’s public-relations representative, mentioned in a phone call that an overnight hut will be located in the upper terminal area.
In 2012, the Sea to Sky Gondola sparked controversy after the Straight revealed its developers had applied to remove 2.36 hectares from Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. Ultimately, the legislature passed a bill changing the boundaries of the Class A park, and the B.C. Liberal government redesignated the 20-metre-wide gondola corridor as the Stawamus Chief Protected Area.
On February 4, a cabin fell off the gondola line during testing. No one was injured, but the Doppelmayr cabin, which cost $50,000, was damaged beyond repair.
The B.C. Safety Authority is investigating the incident and is looking at the environmental and operational conditions that may have contributed to it. In an email, BCSA communications officer Julie Hewlett told the Straight that preliminary findings indicate that wind was a factor.
Katy Chambers, B.C. Parks’ area supervisor for Squamish and Whistler, told the Straight that Sea to Sky Gondola has built a short trail connecting its base area with the Lower Shannon Falls Trail, which links Stawamus Chief and Shannon Falls provincial parks. The company has also committed to upgrading the Upper Shannon Falls Trail, which it anticipates will see higher traffic.
According to Chambers, a trail strategy developed by the company in collaboration with B.C. Parks proposes more new trails in Stawamus Chief Provincial Park. She noted B.C. Parks plans to use trail counters and visitor surveys to assess how the gondola affects park usage in its first year of operation. For instance, the lower portion of the popular Chief Peaks Trail is certain to get even busier, since hikers headed for the Chief’s three summits and the gondola’s upper terminal area will share the path.
“It’s a huge change for that area,” Chambers said over the phone from Squamish. “So, we really want to stand back and monitor and really see what the use patterns are like and what the public wants to be done, within reason, to that area, before we go ahead and develop a whole bunch of new trails in the area.”
During the summer season (May 16 to October 13), the gondola’s opening hours will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a later closing time of 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays. Day tickets will cost $34.95 per adult, $22.95 per youth, $13.95 per child, and $89.95 per family (two adults and two kids). Admission will be free for children under six years old.
Parking at the base area will be free for three hours. Visitors staying longer will have to pay for parking at the base or take a shuttle bus from a free lot a kilometre away.
On September 21, the Coast Mountain Trail Series is scheduled to hold its Sky Pilot race at the Sea to Sky Gondola. Trail runners will tackle challenging 12-kilometre and 25-kilometre routes.
Sovereign is most interested in using the gondola to gain backcountry access to Mount Habrich and Goat Ridge. The Valhalla Pure Outfitters owner hopes the gondola and its associated trails will reduce the number of hikers ascending the often-crowded Stawamus Chief.
“If it takes some of the hiking pressure off the trails on the Chief,” Sovereign said. “I’m all for it.”