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Exploring the wild frontier of Jumbo Valley, B.C. Add to ...

Twenty years ago, with a faded orange rope lashed to my waist and an unfamiliar ice axe in hand, I stepped atop the rounded summit of Glacier Dome, in British Columbia's Purcell Mountains. My nerves were tingling after an ascent that led past cavernous blue crevasses and up precipitous pitches of ice, and the vista before me was dreamlike: wave after wave of jagged peaks and shimmering ice caps in every direction. A furious storm had passed during the night, leaving the land caked in a pristine blanket of white.

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There were 12 of us, nervous and excited young men with peach-fuzz beards and brand-new Gore-Tex jackets, standing silently atop what was our first summit of an intensive three-month mountaineering semester. Our gruff Scots guide taught us the European tradition of respect upon reaching a peak: a rousing cheer of " Berg Heil." Loosely translated: "Long live the mountains."

In the stillness that followed, being new to the West and unaccustomed to such wilderness, my overriding thought was: This must be a national park. Of course, it wasn't, for British Columbia is blessed with vast tracts of such land and the government, on behalf of the Crown, manages a full 94 per cent of the province.

Unbeknownst to any of us, only months earlier, a Vancouver-based architect and developer had entered preliminary discussions with the B.C. Ministry of Lands and Parks over a proposed ski resort in upper Jumbo Valley, including the construction of a tea house and gondola station on the exact outcrop where we stood. It would be 15 years of travel - to many wild and remote corners of the planet - before I moved to the nearby community of Kimberley, and first heard of the proposed resort.

Suddenly Jumbo was everywhere. It was unavoidable; in newspapers, on the radio and adorning ubiquitous bumper stickers. Views were polarized, emotions volatile and the issues complex.

My initial views were mixed. I love to ski. (Who doesn't want to be first in line on a good powder day, especially knowing that the resort would be just a short drive away.) I also trust in travel as a basic force for good, offering sustainable economics alongside profound personal growth. Yet I've seen first-hand the damage the search for profit has wrought on hidden landscapes - my environmental sensitivity is no secret.

So, late last year, as whispers of a looming government decision began to swirl, I decided to dig, to attempt to uncover the bedrock issues at the heart of the Jumbo debate.

SETTING THE STAGE

Jumbo Valley, or Qat'muk (pronounced Gat Mook) as the local Ktunaxa Nation calls it, is a quiet drainage tucked deep in the Purcell Mountains.

For more than 20 years, determined developer Glacier Resorts Ltd. has battled fervent local opposition to a proposed billion-dollar, year-round glacier-skiing resort at the head of the valley.

For 20 years, the local Ktunaxa Nation has insisted that it will never abide such major development on what is, to it, profoundly sacred land.

For 20 years, a Byzantine legislative process has stumbled and staggered. Entire ministries have been reorganized and renamed. In the nine years it held the Jumbo file, the Environmental Assessment Office - a critical cog in the approval process - had its procedures streamlined and core act rewritten. At the same time, scientific techniques evolved, revealing earlier decisions to be based on faulty assumptions.

Twenty years of intense bickering over a complex array of subsidiary issues have rendered Jumbo a bitter and near undecipherable mess.

Now, two recent developments - a groundbreaking grizzly bear census and the Ktunaxa Nation's declaration that it will do everything within its power to protect the land - have changed the landscape of the battle.

THE DEVELOPER'S VISION

Vancouver architect and developer Oberto Oberti has a vision of creating a European-style ski resort - à la Zermatt or Chamonix - in North America. In 1990, Oberti's company, Glacier Resorts, identified the Jumbo Valley as a potential site, providing access to four large glaciers, offering commanding views and holding the potential for year-round skiing.

The proposed resort includes 22 lifts and gondolas, a high-elevation tea house and a 6,250-bed village at the base. On completion, the resort would include 369 hotel rooms, 240 townhouse units, 974 condo/hotel units, 143 single-family chalets, as well as retail outlets and restaurants. Compared with others, this resort village is small - company literature uses the word "boutique" - but Glacier Resorts promises runs that, compared with Whistler-Blackcomb, "will be longer, more dispersed and run over a higher and larger territory of glaciers."

"Final build-out will take several generations to achieve," says Grant Costello, senior vice-president of Glacier Resorts. The first phase of construction is predicted to take 10 years, and would see the installation of a gondola, two chairlifts and some base infrastructure. "If that is successful, then we'll make the decision to invest in further lifts."

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