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A car makes its way along the repaired cable of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, B.C., eight months after it came crashing down when someone cut the cable deliberately.

Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

One thing the perpetrator hellbent on wiping the Sea to Sky Gondola off the face of the Earth could not know – and probably still doesn’t – was how close they came to killing someone.

On Sept. 14, just after 4 a.m., a security guard stationed at the gondola’s base just south of Squamish, B.C., saw the passenger cars begin suddenly swaying on the line - an ominous sign. There was no wind that morning.

Just one year earlier, a saboteur had hiked in, climbed a tower at mid-span, then cut the 52-mm steel cable that the guard was now watching. This caused what engineers labelled a “catastrophic failure” – the sudden and total destruction of the tourist attraction. It cost $5-million and took more than six months to rebuild.

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The newly reopened gondola had been operating on a mountain ridge south of the Stawamus Chief Mountain for all of five months. The Chief, one of the largest granite monoliths in the world, is a sacred place to the Squamish Nation who know it as Siám’ Smánit, says Khelsilem, a young councillor with the nation.

The myriad crevices in its 500-metre slate grey face - visible from just about anywhere in town - provide natural nesting areas for peregrine falcons and chunky grips for the climbers who make pilgrimages to it from across the globe. For a few years starting in 2014, Alex Honnold, probably the best known name in climbing, and local legend Marc-André Leclerc took turns setting speed records free soloing its Grand Wall.

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and mail, source: technical safety b.c.

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To get eyes on the support towers on Sept. 14, the security guard ran to the clearing beneath the rope. It was hopeless: The Squamish Valley was blanketed by a thick wall of smoke. It had blown north from Oregon where out-of-control wildfires would eventually swallow more than 1,000,000 acres of land. The timing of the incident - when the area was shrouded by a literal smoke screen – was not likely a coincidence.

The guard gave up, stepping past the gondola line to call in the disturbance. Seconds later, the 50-ton rope came crashing to earth, sending dozens of cable cars caroming down the granite cliff, like ping pong balls bouncing down a wooden staircase. Red, orange and silver sparks lit the still-dark sky as steel smashed against the igneous rock face formed of molten lava 100 million years ago. The sound - steel crashing against rock at horrifying force - was heard across the highway and in a nearby campground.

Had the guard lingered even a few moments longer, he would have been crushed. And this strange, West Coast mystery that has set the town of Squamish on edge would have become a homicide investigation.

Eight months later, the whodunit is still very much alive. With the gondola slated for its third grand opening on June 11, much is at stake, both for it and the rapidly growing town surrounding it. Launching anew without a culprit behind bars adds a layer of trepidation to the affair, though few locals say they plan to stop riding the lift.

The story has also shed light on another unsettling issue dividing what was once a working class forest town. In the past decade, a rush of newcomers have moved in, sending rents and house prices to unfathomable heights, pushing out a lot of the people who made Squamish what it is - weird and wild and wonderful.

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At top, photos from the technical safety report show the cut rope – its strands, wires and plastic core exposed – and a cable car that crashed in the woods. At bottom, the mountain's shadow falls on the buildings at the gondola's base. It was here that the security guard first noticed the cable cars swaying last September before the rope fell.

Photos: Technical Safety BC, Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

The ridges and valleys of the Coast Mountains surrounding it are steep and unforgiving. Sinuous trails used by hikers, mountain bikers and the odd cougar rise through dense, loamy rainforest. Thrills here seem to require a sacrificial offering, whether it’s a cracked callus, road rash or a blistered ankle.

Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, as the highway signs now label it, is built at the northern tip of the coastal fjord of Howe Sound. Vancouver is a 45-minute drive south along the Sea to Sky Highway, one of the country’s more scenic roadways. Whistler is 35 minutes to the north.

The town of 24,000 is the Canadian epicentre of rock climbing and more recently of mountain biking - with better trails and après options than Whistler or Pemberton. Kiteboarders and windsurfers, meanwhile, tell you nothing in Canada rivals the wind-shipped waters of the Howe Sound, where kiters deke and dodge portly sea lions and playful seals pig out on herring. The Elaho, a glacier-fed Squamish River tributary, meanwhile, boasts pretty decent Class IV rapids.

These are some of the reasons local renegades keep adding “Outdoor Capital of Canada,” to the District of Squamish signs on Hwy. 99. The painted lettering so perfectly mimics the district’s font that at least one former councillor believed local government was behind the signs, chuckles former mayor, Patricia Heintzman.

That’s what made the gondola, which transports visitors up 1,920 metres to the summit in less than ten minutes, so different. It opened up the wonders of Squamptopia to the rest of us — the chill seekers, not thrill seekers.

A round trip costs $60 and offers panoramic views of the sound and a patio with a solid wine list. None of it requires breaking a sweat. Almost immediately after its 2014 opening, the gondola began drawing half a million annual visitors and an entirely new class of tourists to Squamish.

At top, an information board about the region's geological history stands near the top of the gondola. The summit is also home to a restaurant and bar, shown at bottom being prepared for reopening.

Photos: Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

If old Squamish drew its resources and economy by extracting from the woods, starting in the nineties, newcomers “extracted an economy, culture and enjoyment by using the forest just as it was,” says Kevin McLane, a writer and climber who came from Britain to climb the Chief in 1972, and never left. But a local economy fuelled by adventure sports and outdoor rec is being supplanted anew, this time by frenzied development driven by a white hot housing market.

The waterfront, once home to a pulp mill and a chlorine producer, is being redeveloped. The $6-billion project is a partnership between the development firm Matthews Southwest and the Squamish Nation, whose vast traditional territory stretches from here to North Vancouver. Another major housing development will add 1,000 new homes to Britannia Beach, site of an old copper mine. It is led by Chinese developer Tigerbay, and will be anchored by B.C.’s first surf park.

Developers are clearly tickled, but the people trying to settle down, start families and earn a decent living in a place with a zero vacancy rate in the rental market and an average house price of $1,045,481, are less thrilled. (The affordability problem predates the gondola, of course. Its genesis was the rebuild of the old Sea to Sky Highway, a key part of Vancouver’s winning 2010 Olympic bid.)

Graham Young, who owns the local rafting outfit Canadian Outback, says he’s pushed wages as high as he possibly can, but is struggling to retain workers and keep his business running: “My staff just can’t afford to live here anymore.”

The rush of development is also stirring resentments and anxieties over what the town has apparently become: a white collar adventure playground.

That’s not all bad. One thing Squamish’s many boosters tend not to talk about is how often it buries its talented - and achingly young - residents. The list includes freestyle skiing icon, Sarah Burke and Mr. Leclerc, Mr. Honnold’s former climbing rival. More recently, the Chief has claimed the lives of ski cross racer Mikayla Martin, 19, who was killed two years ago while biking its back side and, a few months later, climber Ken Anderson. The 33-year-old died while out for a morning lap on the Chief - two weeks before the first act of sabotage took out the gondola.

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The view from the top of the gondola.

Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

The Squamish Nation supports the gondola, whose traditional territory it bisects. And many locals are season’s pass holders, using it to access a tube park and alpine trails.

Nonetheless, the gondola’s appearance in 2014 was met by some locals with a mix of resentment and spite. Opponents, mostly climbers, were enraged that the Land Conservancy of B.C. sold a parcel of parkland to the corporation behind the gondola for $2-million; its five principal investors are mostly former developers from Vancouver and Whistler.

In February, 2019, six months before the gondola was destroyed the first time, the corporation announced the launch of a “sky spiral,” an accessible, circular walkway overlooking the valley. This triggered more grumbling from climbers, who saw it as yet another idiotic incursion, another magnet for crowds.

The owners have never received a letter or manifesto to accompany the acts of sabotage, says general manager Kirby Brown. “The message is in the act itself,” he says. “This has never happened in the industry before. Now it’s happened twice.” Mr. Brown believes the saboteur’s ambition is to bankrupt the company. “They haven’t done that. Not by a long shot.” None of the owners has backed off, he says. “They all invested more. This has made the company stronger.”

Kirby Brown is the general manager for the Sea to Sky Gondola.

Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

When the security guard phoned before dawn last Sept. 14 to tell him the cable was down a second time, Mr. Brown initially thought he’d misunderstood: “My brain wanted to believe I misheard him.” It’s been a rough couple of years, he acknowledges. After the first incident, in 2019, the company had to lay off a third of its staff. They reopened in February, 2020, but had to shutter almost immediately owing to COVID-19. They reopened again in May. In September, the gondola was destroyed a second time.

Not only does the gondola cut through parkland but it also brings more visibility to Squamish, says Mr. Brown, expanding on what he believes may be the saboteur’s motivation. Mr. Brown is not a criminal profiler. He’s just another local spinning theories, albeit one in constant contact with the lead investigator on the case. The message, Mr. Brown believes, is “enough.” It’s a “reckoning,” for all the people priced out and pushed out of the place they love, that they feel they found and developed, and that has now been taken from them. “It’s an attempt to send Squamish back in time.”

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And, he feels, it serves as a warning to Aquilini Development, the development arm of the Aquilini Investment Group, owners of the Canucks and the company behind yet another massive housing development built around a new ski resort, Garibaldi at Squamish. The $3.5-billion project is slated to break ground in 2023 on the Brohm Ridge slopes.

Mr. Brown feels the saboteur wants to hold the moral high ground: “That’s not who they are. They are not surgeons. They are butchers. They came one step from being a murderer.”

The RCMP declined to provide an update on the investigation or say whether a $250,000 reward announced last fall yielded results, but there is at least one reason to believe the investigation may be further along than the RCMP have said. Video footage of the perpetrator captured by the gondola’s cameras has not been publicly released. If police were still searching for a suspect, the crystal clear image could have been widely publicized.

At top, a team from Fatzer AG, the cable's Swiss manufacturer, pulls the new cable into the Squamish gondola's system and splices it into the existing cable. Left-over cable, bottom left, has been prelaced again. At bottom right, millwright Marie-Eve Harvey climbs on the new infrastructure to remove and park the gondolas overnight.

Photos: Haley Lorraine Photography; Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

Mr. McLane, the climber, is among several locals who fielded calls from investigators inquiring about an angle grinder purchased from the local Home Depot. The handheld power tool used for cutting and polishing is believed to have been used to cut the gondola’s cable. Motive and opportunity all point to a local, Mr. McLane says, but he imagines the perpetrator had the sense not to buy the device in town.

The company believes the saboteur will return and says it is taking extraordinary measures to ensure they are not successful a third time. They could run the gondola around the clock, making it impossible to cut the cable, something Mr. Brown says they are not planning to do. (Its powerful engines make a loud, grinding racket, and would disturb campers at the Chief — a public relations nightmare, among other problems.) But the company says it will be removing all 39 cabin cars from the rope line at close every night.

The company believes the saboteur does extensive reconnaissance work, so the security system designed by defence contractors is set up to constantly change: “They will be able to see certain things and know some of our security features. But the way our system is designed, they will never know all our capabilities. We will never step it down from where they are today. We are committed to living within this paradigm.” He believes the gondola is now more secure than 98 per cent of the Canada-U.S. border.

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That may be, but Mr. Brown said some of the same things last February, when the gondola reopened before being felled a second time. Perhaps the biggest challenge they face is that two-thirds of the gondola route cuts through a densely forested park, Mr. Brown says. “We are not going to militarize a park.”

He knows that some may be fearful of returning. “I know we’re safe. I’m not going to try to convince anybody. It’s okay if they don’t want to come. We’re going to step back and let this beautiful place speak for itself.”

The Sea to Sky Gondola descends down the mountain in Squamish, B.C.

Alana Paterson/The Globe and Mail

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