Grant Costello is ripping through British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains in a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The narrow gravel route is 36 kilometres of washboard and rockfall and stream crossings and sharp corners. On one, the rear end slides wide. Mr. Costello hits the gas and the vehicle straightens out. He barrels on, and smiles. The old Jeep has clocked nearly 250,000 kilometres. It’s still going strong.
“I can’t believe how tough this is,” he says, practically patting the dashboard. “It just pounds through the potholes.”
Pounding across rough road has become something of a specialty for Mr. Costello, who has driven this particular stretch of B.C. back road hundreds of times, chasing a billion-dollar dream that lies at its end. Here, the gravel runs into a chattering stream once crossed by a bridge that has now washed out. Mr. Costello pilots the Jeep across rocks submerged in knee-deep water to the other side. He stops, grabs a roll of architectural plans, and spreads it on the ground.
This, in a quiet forest in the midst of the Purcell Mountains some 500 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, is the spot where Jumbo Glacier Resort could one day lie. Its shape is drafted onto the architectural roll, a thin two-kilometre stretch of hotels and condos and shops paralleling Jumbo Creek, the namesake for this valley and for the resort itself – not to mention a rallying cry for opponents who, until this year, had managed to keep this particular dream on hold.
When the B.C. government approved its master development agreement in March, Jumbo sprung back to life – 21 years after its backers first formally applied, and more than four decades after Mr. Costello first came to this valley. This week, it took another step forward, when the B.C. government approved a mountain resort municipality – complete with mayor and two councillors – for Jumbo. It is a move that promises a simpler decision-making process as the resort slowly takes shape.
The plans for Jumbo are staged, starting with summer snowcat tours to the Farnham glacier that could begin next year. Then, a $25-million to $50-million first phase of the ski development: a gondola, a chair lift and three T-bars, accompanied by a restaurant and lodge. Accommodations will come later – as will the other elements of the grand billion-dollar plan, drafted by Vancouver architect Oberto Oberti, that Mr. Costello has unfurled on the ground. It could see 6,250 housing units, plus a total of 23 ski lifts. It could take 50 years to do it all.
That is, if it can be built. B.C. has become a killing ground for outsized mountain ambitions. Garibaldi at Squamish, a $2.9-billion proposal to build 123 ski runs, two golf courses and 21,922 beds, backed by some of Vancouver’s most prominent families, has faded away after being turned down on environmental grounds. Similarly ambitious plans for the Cayoosh Ski Resort, backed by skier Nancy Greene, also foundered years ago.
Jumbo is, relatively speaking, a more modest proposal. But it has stoked an outsized opposition – environmentalists and first nations argue that it will industrialize a region that should be protected for grizzlies and ecological integrity – and hefty skepticism. It is, its critics will tell you, a white elephant that will never succeed. It is, its backers will tell you, a chance to build a jewel in the B.C. mountains. Jumbo’s construction will depend in large measure on the ability of those backers to bring new dollars to a project on a continent stung by recent ski resort failures, at a shaky moment in the global economy.
The project’s ultimate success, however, may depend on whether the Jumbo Valley, and the glaciers that surround it, hold the same appeal with the public as they do for Mr. Costello.
“It’s my life’s project,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re going to have people skiing on glaciers in Canada.”
None of the plans for Jumbo Glacier Resort make much sense if you think of the Jumbo Valley as just another assemblage of slopes and trees and peaks and meadows. Mountains are lovely. They aren’t particularly rare.
But something odd happens when you ask people about Jumbo. They swoon.
Take Rod Gibbons, general manager of RK Helicopters, a fierce Jumbo opponent who says the resort, if developed, will steal his prime ski terrain. Mr. Gibbons once ordered up a map of the region, colour-coded to accentuate areas with a 20- to 40-degree slope since, as Mr. Gibbons puts it, “that’s your ideal skiing.” On the map, “Jumbo Creek jumps out.” Why? “It is perfect terrain. That’s for sure.”