Pushing my skis along the skin track third in our group of four, I shuffled my way up the slope. Passing winter-naked larches standing tall and majestic, I remembered how their golden needles glistened against a powder blue autumn sky on my only previous visit to Jumbo Pass.
On this April day, the sky was a powder grey, with light flakes fluttering down adding to the late winter snowpack. Climbing higher above the forest, an expansive view gradually opened up. Cradled with pointed rocky peaks and snow-covered summit ridges, the end of the valley curved before us like a giant horseshoe cradling kilometres of fresh powder slopes. A light breeze brushed my cheek as I skied past fresh pine marten tracks imprinted on the snow surface.
After riding on the back of a snowmobile for an hour on a spring track made bumpy with repeated freezing and thawing to arrive where we began our ski ascent, the silence was exquisite. With no motors, no machines and not a man-made structure or any other people for kilometres, the sense of wilderness was all encompassing and life giving, like oxygen itself.
As I look out I imagine what this might look like in the coming decades for after a 22-year process the Jumbo Glacier ski resort is set to take it's first steps as an operating business this summer — on May 21 the third reading for zoning of the Farnham Glacier portion of the Jumbo Glacier resort was proposed and passed by the newly created Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality. In the coming years ski lifts, gondolas and lodges will become part of the landscape. While the government has given it the thumbs up there has been opposition from numerous different stakeholder groups, many of whose members fear they are more likely to be saddled with a white elephant than a great white powder dream.
With so many questions around the Jumbo plan I decided to explore the local communities' reactions to the plan and some of the behind-the-scenes controversy.
It's called Jumbo for a reason
At full build-out — estimated to take 40 years — the $450 million Jumbo Glacier Resort (JGR) would consist of 5,500 bed units (plus 750 staff accommodation beds), vacation homes and condos, shops and amenities. It would also include up to 23 ski lifts capable of accommodating an average of 2,700 skiers daily. Overall, the development would cover an area of about 60 square kilometres.
It will, promises the JGR, be unlike anything existing in North America, as gondolas carry visitors of "all fitness levels" into the heart of the high alpine amidst a wonderland of 3,000-metre peaks and sprawling glaciers. Its lifts would be the highest in Canada, rising to 3,415 metres, and would be expected to attract international tourists as a complement to the Canadian Rockies' national parks.
Winter or summer, the view would indeed be splendid. Throughout its website and Master Plan, JGR compares the potential of Jumbo to the highly developed alpine regions of Europe's Alps, and the large numbers of visitors who would enthusiastically spend money to see such a grand development in B.C.'s mountains. At the same time, however, JGR promises the scale of the resort to be small in comparison to existing B.C. mountain resorts, such as Whistler.
Facilities offering splendid high alpine views are nothing new to Western Canada's mountains — Jasper's Tramway operates in summer only, while year-round Banff's Sulphur Mountain Gondola, Sunshine Village, Lake Louise, Fernie Alpine Resort and Golden's Kicking Horse Mountain, are all within a few hours' drive of Invermere (the closest town to Jumbo). For decades, hundreds of thousands of tourists have ridden snow coaches onto Jasper's Athabasca Glacier, stepping on the ice and filling their water bottles.
Jumbo, however, promises more, with four "accessible glaciers," reached by a gondola stretching across the landscape. According to the Master Plan, skiing will mainly take place on Glacier Dome, the summit of which reaches 3,000 metres, and whose inaccessible east flanks drop in sheer cliffs down to the Lake of the Hanging Glaciers.
For Whistlerites however, one item on the JGR website might stand out a little more than others, as the project claims to be "the only year-round ski resort in North America." Whistler Blackcomb has run a summer program for decades, hosting a dozen groups and camps on Horstman Glacier between late June and late July. Open to the public, Whistler's "longest snow season in Canada" offers two T-bars and a terrain park.
When asked to clarify its "only year-round skiing" statement, JGR senior vice-president Grant Costello replied, "I think you can best describe Jumbo Glacier Resort as providing the opportunity for year-round skiing and sightseeing."
In numerous magazine and newspaper articles, JGR has repeatedly promised the focus will be on skiing and sightseeing, and not real estate development.
The promise is that the resort would bring economic development to the Columbia Valley region, with spin-off visitation expected to fill hotels, B&Bs and restaurants in neighbouring communities including Invermere and Radium (15 minutes' drive north). With the province having given final approval to the project in March 2012, followed by officially designating Jumbo a mountain resort municipality last November (despite the fact it has no citizens), Costello said he was excited that this summer JGR would be open to the public.
Sightseeing will be offered daily through the summer, with cat skiing on the weekends and race training for all alpine team disciplines offered from July 1 thru Nov. 5, all of which will take place on the north slope of Farnham Glacier. All support facilities, such as hotels and restaurants will be provided in Radium, 55 kilometres from the Farnham site. From there, access is via the gravel Horsethief Forestry Road and a rougher side-road up Farnham Creek.
When asked why he believed developing the Jumbo resort would be good for the Columbia Valley, and for B.C., Costello replied, "It's about building the economy. It's about creating jobs."
"That results from investment and that's what strengthens the economy."