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First new ski area in almost 30 years in B.C. moves ahead

60-year agreement includes Simpcw First Nation

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As B.C. ski resorts push ahead to make their operations year-round and non-dependant on snow, a rogue resort seems to be breaking the mould with plans to attract nearby snapshot-happy tourists as well as purists who will never ski on man-made snow.

No new ski resorts have opened in North America for almost 30 years — the last ones being Blackcomb Mountain and Boulder Creek, Colo., that got their lifts running for the winter of 1980. (Kicking Horse and Revelstoke Mountain were small operations expanded into destination resorts in 2000 and 2007, respectively.)

Valemount Glacier Destinations Ltd., which last week announced the signatories to its 60-year Master Development Agreement, has an anticipated opening date in December 2018.

The proposed small-scale resort of fewer than 2,000 tourist beds will be located near Mt. Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park in the Premier Range — about seven hours from Vancouver, three hours from Kamloops, and more than five hours from Edmonton — and is designed to take advantage of four peaks with the main lift transporting skiers from the base of Mt. Pierre Elliot Trudeau to the top of Twilight Glacier at an elevation of 2,530 metres (8,300 feet). The crowning glory will be laying claim to the highest non-contiguous vertical in North America at 2,090m — eclipsing Revelstoke Mountain at 1,713m and becoming the third highest in the world behind Zermatt, Switzerland, and Chamonix Aiguille du Midi, France.

It is what Tom Oberti, vice-president of the Vancouver-based Oberti Resort Design, calls a unique opportunity with no need for snowmaking.

"There's nothing quite like it in Canada. It's very big mountains and glacier sightseeing — it's unparalleled from that point of view," said Oberti. "Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is the only real resort in North America where you have a major on-mountain summer component in terms of sightseeing, not just mountain biking. WB took that European model and has pioneered it in North America. This takes it a step further," he said.

The initial $100-million investment flies in the face of the typical build-out of ski resorts, Oberti explained.

"B.C. government guidelines are basically written to maximize the capacity of the mountain in order to maximize the real estate. But we were trying to convince them that we're not looking to build a city," he said. "So we had to do some convincing to change the thinking. It's not about how many people you can put on a run in terms of maximum, it's about how much mountain can you access with the lift: The bigger the mountain, the more people can spread out," he said.

The Valemount development looks as much to sightseeing as it does to skiing because one key market is Jasper, which Oberti explains draws its visitors to its spectacular scenery and which number more than one million a year. Banff draws about 7.5 million visitors, and the Columbia Ice Fields play host to about one million visitors each year, Oberti said.

The numbers alone would suggest that Valemount can tap into the benefits of such high-profile Rockies destinations. And the popularity of the Sea to Sky Gondola, for example, illustrates how much visitors will pay for access to hiking trails with killer views.

While resorts grapple with climate change and fewer numbers of skiers, the Valemount plan cites the need for ski areas that "can guarantee a white Christmas." As such, this push to a higher elevation puts the resort in a position to compete with the best of Colorado — which draws twice the number of skier visits as B.C. — and the Alps of Europe. Valemount's average annual snowfall is 536 cm.

Valemount is designed to appeal to skiers and boarders with its low-density terrain — 813 hectares when the build-out is complete and with a lift capacity of 9,500. WB's capacity is 69,939 skiers per hour. Oberti said the typical crush of skiers that snakes back to the Creekside Starbucks on a busy weekend will not be the reality at this development.

"Valemount is more for the ski enthusiast — and the bigger market, of course, is the American market and the emerging Asian market," he said.

Valemount's Cariboo Mountain terrain is not affected by Arctic outflows that hit Jasper with minus-30 temperatures, or the rain of the Coast Mountains, Oberti said, and the projected 300-day season — as opposed to the typical 180-day season — is sparking interest.

"This will have big summer skiing," Oberti said. "We get so many emails from ski teams because there are not many options other than Mt. Hood (in Oregon at 3,400m), and to a lesser extent, the Horstman Glacier (on Blackcomb at about 2,330m), so that's an exciting thing. It's just one of the pieces that make it fun to work on."

The idea was broached in the late 1980s, and took off in 2011. As the Village of Valemount struggled with declining forestry and wood-processing industries, the solution seemed to lie in tourism. The Valemount master plan was approved by the B.C. government last fall.

Last week's signatories to the agreement include the provincial government, the Simpcw First Nation, the Village of Valemount, the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George and the Valemount Ski Society.

"It's been quite an interesting process and certainly respectful of our rights and title in the area," said Simpcw First Nation Chief Nathan Matthew. Reminiscent of the recent signing of the 60-year Master Development Agreement between WB and the Lil'wat and Squamish First Nations, the Valemount agreement also includes benefits and responsibilities for the Simpcw that mark a new beginning for the people who were forcibly removed from their village and relocated to Chu Chua, near Barrier, and to other locations about 100 years ago.

"With mountain resorts, it's becoming a little more respectful of First Nations' rights — and certainly getting this written into the deal is good in terms of the broader relationship," he said. "We have a number of benefits that include some revenue sharing, some land and continued participation in planning, and also opportunities for employment and contracting with the development of the resort.

"People here are really interested in it," he said. "This is very positive for this territory."

The master plan can be viewed at valemountglaciers.com/master-plan.

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