High atop the Sea to Sky Gondola, the hills are alive with the sound of … backhoes? With less than three weeks to go until its May 16 opening, dozens of construction workers are digging, drilling and hammering final touches into place.
Just off the Sea to Sky Highway in Squamish, B.C. – the self-proclaimed Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada – the 2,135-metre-long lift climbs the Sky Pilot massif in spectacular fashion. There will be wining and dining in its Summit Lodge; a tidy network of alpine walking trails and a 90-metre-long suspension footbridge are already in place at the top.
From the enormous sunset-facing patio, one of three panoramic viewing platforms, I gaze up at Sky Pilot Mountain’s horn-shaped peak as it tears clouds to shreds, while Howe Sound glitters in the forested fjord nearly a kilometre below. It’s enough to make even Tyroleans envious.
That’s two Austrian references already, and for good reason: The $22-million facility was inspired by the gondola stations common in the Alps, says general manager and founding partner Jayson Faulkner. These were built “not for skiing, but for access,” he says. “That’s very rare in Canada, which is kind of crazy. We have all this amazing wilderness, and we have first-world infrastructure – highways, roads and the rest of it – yet access is fairly limited.”
First proposed in 2011, the gondola required approval from four different sources, as it occupies municipal, Crown and First Nations land, and runs through Shannon Falls Provincial Park. After much local consulting over the nature and purpose of the project – and considerable controversy over mistaken perceptions that it would run up the Stawamus Chief, the iconic granite dome that looms over Squamish – construction began last March.
It all came together with “remarkable” speed, Faulkner says, because locals clamoured for something more than another roadside attraction. They are an active, outdoorsy bunch, as evidenced by the wide array of diversions – rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking, kite boarding and so on – that gives the town its motto.
The gondola, in turn, is about more than sunset cocktails and nuptial photo shoots. “All those superkeen backcountry hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers see this as providing extraordinary accessibility to what is otherwise inaccessible,” Faulkner says, gesturing toward densely forested mountainsides that, if all goes according to plan, will be home to a network of bike trails next year. “About nine million people drive the Sea to Sky Highway each year, and more than 70 per cent of them do it for the express intent of an outdoor wilderness experience. That is unique in North America, and we are here to cater to it.”
Most of those motorists, he concedes, are on the way to Whistler, one of North America’s largest mountain resort areas. But the gondola has no interest in emulating the former Winter Olympics site. “Fundamentally, Whistler is a ski resort.
All the other experiences up there are built around ski-resort components. We’re not like that. This is about being in the mountains and being inspired. It’s about easy, simple and inexpensive access.”
That said, Faulkner expects about 80 per cent of visitors to be sightseers of all ages and fitness levels “who come up for two to three hours, walk across the suspension bridge and do one of our First Nations interpretive walks. That would be about as far as they would go, but it would still be an adventure for them.”
The Stawamus Chief viewing platform is fashioned from blond pine, and framed with glass panels; it’s a bridge to oblivion that soars over its namesake monolith, and yields vistas stretching all the way to Whistler, an hour’s drive north.
“It looks so close,” Faulkner says, smiling, “and yet, so far.”
IF YOU GO
The Sea to Sky Gondola opens May 16 and closes in the fall for about a month to switch to winter operations. Rates range from $34.95 to $13.95. Visitors who reach the top via the Sea to Summit trail can ride the gondola down for $9.95. seatoskygondola.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism British Columbia. It did not review or approve this article.