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.”
Or take Dave Brownlie, president of Whistler Blackcomb. Jumbo, he says, “is absolutely unique. And it is totally differentiated from so much else – it’s far more high-alpine European glaciers. It’s absolutely beautiful. Like, absolutely magical.”
It has glaciers that, when developed, will provide an uninterrupted winter run with 1,715 metres of vertical drop, powder top to bottom. It has Lake of the Hanging Glacier, where chunks tumble thousands of feet from a glacier hanging off a peak onto another glacier, which in turn breaks into turquoise waters.
And it has Glacier Dome. This is how Mr. Costello describes the spot he hopes will one day feature a restaurant, accessible by a gondola year-round, even to those with disabilities: “You look anywhere on the horizon, you see glaciers and mountain tops. You look down, you’re looking at an alpine lake with icebergs floating in it.”
“Nothing,” he says. “compares with it.”
That view, Mr. Costello says, should lure visitors in droves. Jumbo is counting on summer tourists to bring in substantial revenue.
But any talk of revenue must face a thicket of thorny facts. Even at Whistler, which has created a huge array of off-season attractions – mountain biking, glacier skiing, sightseeing – summer accounts for just 15 per cent of revenue.
Then there’s Jumbo’s location: Whistler is inside of a five-hour drive for seven million people. Jumbo is a four-hour drive from Calgary, population one million, and visitors have to drive past some of Canada’s best-known ski areas – Lake Louise and Sunshine – to get to it. And those skiers aren’t growing in number in Canada. That means there’s really only one way to build a new hill: “market share war,” says Nate Fristoe, director of operations with RRC Associates, a Denver-based market research firm.
Plus, Jumbo is located in a part of B.C. that has suffered in recent years. Just ask Hank Swartout, who calls the Jumbo resort “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.” Mr. Swartout was one of the backers of the Copper Point golf and condo development just outside Invermere, where the road to Jumbo begins. In 2008, Copper Point called itself “luxury’s new address.” The next year, it fell into receivership.
“I can tell you, the worst investment in my life has been investing in that valley,” Mr. Swartout says. He adds: “I sold some lots for as high as $260,000. Now I can’t get $70,000 for the next-door lot.”
And those in industry say the days of funding a ski hill through real-estate sales are not just waning. They are dead. As for Jumbo, “if they do it in a more intelligent and measured fashion, and limit their up-front development costs, it’s quite possible something there could work,” says Jon Peterson, a resort consultant. That, in fact, is what Jumbo is proposing, with its initial ambitions so tempered that it expects not to pave its road – although it will eventually need some real-estate sales to balance its books and propel growth.
But it faces a barrage of local opposition. Scott Niedermayer, the defenceman, was raised in Cranbrook not far from the Jumbo site. He has called the project a “jumbo mistake,” a sentiment echoed by provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix, the head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the Union of British Columbia Municipalities and the local Ktunaxa Nation, which has launched a legal challenge.
The criticism has had a tangible effect. Earlier this year, representatives from Compagnie des Alpes, a French company involved in some of Europe’s biggest ski resorts, came to visit Jumbo. They were contemplating an investment. According to Mr. Oberti, the ensuing uproar made them rethink that notion. (Compagnie des Alpes did not answer questions.) Instead, Mr. Oberti says, it’s more likely a private investor will step forward – although current long-standing investors have the means to build the resort, if they can be persuaded to pour in more money.
Mr. Oberti is actually designing another glacier resort near Valemont, B.C., which has the support of a local first nation. “If I was to start now, I would say to my original clients to go to Valemont, not to this one,” he says, referring to Jumbo.
Still, this would not be the first time skiers have embraced a place with odds stacked against it. People thought Whistler was crazy at first, too. But replicating that success could be difficult. Today, Whistler’s Mr. Brownlie says, “unfortunately, the overall market is not in a good place – and that’s the challenge.” But Jumbo would “add to B.C. as a world-class ski destination.”
For Mr. Oberti himself, though, it’s clear the years have taken a toll. Will Jumbo – can it – be built?
“That’s a good question. After 20 years, I thought it would be,” he says. “You tell me.”