Pemberton has the weather conditions and mountains to be a world-class international competitive paragliding venue, says the man who secured the 2012 Canadian National Paragliding Championships for the village, but is being let down by the condition of its road accessing the launch sites for the sport.
Organizer Jim Orava, owner of Cayoosh Expeditions and Canadian champion paraglider of the year in 2009, says access via the Mackenzie Basin Forest Service Road to the upper and lower launches on Mackenzie Ridge can only be accessed by rugged 4x4s.
The first section of the road runs from the lower valley to the first launch five kilometres away; it is another four kilometres to the upper launch. Paragliding, mountain biking, hiking and other activities take place there — last weekend`s Nimbyfifty mountain bike race took place on nearby trails.
"Basically, that whole Mackenzie Basin is the Pemberton playground. It's our equivalent to the Whistler Blackcomb ski area... and the road is a mess, huge potholes and bumps," Orava said.
A warm and cold spell around Christmas last year has made it worse, he added.
The 2012 nationals launch from Mackenzie Ridge from August 5 to 12, with the Canadian National Hang Gliding Championships scheduled there for the following week.
Orava told Pemberton Council in a presentation in March that he expected at least 100 paragliders to take to the skies for the event, with 70 participants from 12 countries signed up to take part in an international component that week. Participants are coming from as far away as Germany, Australia and Ecuador. As well, Red Bull has explored the possibility of sponsoring competitions there.
For the nationals, competitors complete various flying tasks to gain points in a timed competition over the region's complex terrain. At a recent event in Mexico, they were often seconds apart after three or four hours of flying, Orava said.
"We literally have the people who wrote the book on the sport coming here," he told councillors in March, adding such an event "would bring 400 well-heeled (international) visitors here for two weeks of events."
The launch sites on Mackenzie Ridge are currently tenured through a Land Act licence of occupation to the West Coast Soaring Club from the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.
Orava told Pique in an interview that he would like to model the lower and upper launch sites and access on a similar project that transformed Golden, B.C.'s launch areas a decade ago.
"All of it was upgraded, along with parking lots and outhouses, like a high-end park scenario, and that really became a focus point for the town," he said.
Many in the community have already spent hours of volunteer time in creating high quality launch sites on the ridge, it was now time to take it to the next level Orava said. He hopes to get money from the Canadian Hang Gliding-Paragliding Association as well as provincial associations and local supporters to upgrade the road.
The upper launch, built just three years ago, is the best of the two for his sport, Orava added.
"The problem with the lower launch is that good old Squamish wind, it comes whipping over Whistler and down the canyon and around the corner — it makes our lower launch quite turbulent," Orava said.
"The upper launch is preferable, the convergence of wind and air pressure at that level gives it incredible lift. It really is a magic place."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said in an email that road maintenance on a FSR is generally assigned to an industrial road user through a Road Use Permit. This allows industrial road users, such as forestry companies, to use the road in return for conducting all routine maintenance.
The road use permit for the Mackenzie Basin FSR was terminated in 2008 as the last industrial use for the road was in 2004, according to the ministry, and there is currently no permit holder, and no resulting maintenance provided by industry.
Alternatively, high value recreational sites can receive support from the ministry but "must be established" by the ministry, a process which can take up to 18 months. The launch site for paragliding and parasailing on Mackenzie Ridge is not currently established. However, establishing the launch site as a high value recreation site would not ultimately guarantee funding would be available for road upgrades.