Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed Out

Gondola up the Chief? Think bigger!



By G.D. Maxwell

There are three routes up Pecos Baldy. Rising 1,000 feet above Pecos Baldy Lake in the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico, the peak tops out well above treeline at just over 12,500 feet above sea level, offers a stunning view of the Pecos Wilderness to the north, east and south and drops several thousand feet on its west side into the headwaters of the Rio Medio. From the nearest trailhead, the hike to its base is seven hours or so of persistent, mostly uphill, packin’.

An easy switchback trail from a saddle on its south flank takes you to the top. It joins a much longer crestline trail headed back towards Santa Fe. A steep scramble along the northern horizon, often through a herd of big-horned sheep, will also get you to the top, winded but in relative safety.

The best way up though is straight up the face above the lake. It’s a non-technical climb requiring rudimentary bouldering skills and no susceptibility to vertigo. The exposure is deadly but you’d pretty much have to pass out to fall.

Nonetheless, it was heading up this route with a nascent case of altitude sickness when I first remember musing about how nice it would be to simply transport, Star Trek style, to the top. Once on the top, sprawled out in the September sun, watching eagles play an airborne game of tag and keeping an eye on thunderheads forming to the north, the thought of someone else transporting to the top was appalling. I didn’t even particularly appreciate the interruption when a marathoner and his 13 year-old daughter jogged up the crest trail and engaged me in conversation while they snacked and rehydrated, though I was impressed with their lung and leg power.

In a state with uncounted mountains and climbing routes, Pecos Baldy is not a destination climb. That didn’t change the fact climbing it infused me with a hard to define feeling of earned ownership, an attitude bordering on righteous that made the thought of someone arriving at the top without having spent the energy and felt the burn as phony as a deathbed conversion.

So I can understand the righteous indignation, the outrage of the climbing community – or at least that segment of it who regularly climb the Stawamus Chief – at the thought of someone building a gondola ride to the top of that awe-inspiring chunk of rock.

Clearly from a capacity and elbow room standpoint, there’s nothing mutually exclusive about rock climbers and gondolas. Both can co-exist. The objections are both experiential and esthetic. A gondola intruding on a climber’s focus is as unsettling and unwelcome as a ringing phone during coitus.

But the climbing community is up against a pair of formidable foes. Peter Alder and Paul Mathews have a history of getting things done. Both have had a hand in creating a number of ski resorts, other tourist facilities and successful businesses. Both are, shall we say, reasonably well connected.

And both are okay guys. Peter’s had more than a passing hand in shaping Whistler and, as Bob Barnett related at last spring’s Words & Stories, took a very cool trip down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. with his mom in an unheated MG in the early ’50s during winter. How can a guy like that be a devil?

And Paul, notwithstanding some of his old time friends still refer to him as the Ugly American – which not an insignificant number of my old friends refer to me as – was also a guiding force in the shaping of, most particularly, Blackcomb and its appurtenant real estate. He’s also featured prominently in the Toad Hall poster, an act for which I’ll let him tell me to go to hell any time he wants.

Having said those nice things about both of them, I can’t support the gondy up the Chief idea in its current configuration, not that my opinion matters for squat. But as long as I’m opining, really guys, I’m disappointed in you.

I know all of B.C., at least as long as Tippler Campbell has his hands on the controls, is focused on boosting tourism. And I know boosting tourism means building tourist attractions. And given the current chaos of air travel, rubber tire traffic is king. And catering, touristically speaking, to drivers means Roadside Attractions. And, finally, we all know the best roadside attractions are cheesy beyond belief.

So why stop at just putting up a gondola. Jeez, talk about a lack of imagination.

Let’s be honest. As far as way cool vistas, the view from atop the Chief is marred by, well, Squamish. Sorry Squamptons but facts are facts. There are any number of views out Georgia Strait from along the highway pulloffs that top the view from the Chief.

So, if we’re going to engineer attractions, why not really wow the tourists? Why not think BIG! British Columbia is already home to the World’s Largest cross-country skis, hockey stick, trout, fly fishing rod, and, strangely, truck. And in the not-necessarily-biggest but truly bizarre category, the rest of the country has Husky the Muskie, Mozzy the Mosquito and Max the Moose, to name just a few roadside attractions.

If we want to really grab the fickle attention of the travelling public, we’ve got to think BIG. World Class. The only thing worth turning the Chief into just another roadside attraction and ruining the climbing esthetic would be something globally awesome. Like going head-to-head with the godless communists and joining the race to build the WORLD’S BIGGEST FERRIS WHEEL right atop the Chief.

Currently, the worlds biggest Ferris wheel is the London Eye, built as part of that city’s millennium celebration. But both Moscow and Shanghai are in a race to build an even bigger one. Moscow’s will have minibars and toilets in the cars and Shanghai’s will reputedly house several thousand peasants during off hours.

B.C. has a chance of a lifetime here and why not Squamish. C’mon guys, I know you’ve got it in you. A Ferris wheel all lit up with garish neon on top of the Chief, big enough to be seen by cruise ships headed to or from Alaska, big enough to bathe Squamish in an otherworldly neon glow from dusk to dawn. Or a rollercoaster dropping the Chief and racing out into the bay? How can you say no?

If it can be built it should be built… shouldn’t it? I mean isn’t that the philosopy we’re operating under here?

Really, if all you’re going to do is build a gondola and piss off the climbers, I’m embarrassed for you. Go big or go home.