Five years ago, 10,000 tonnes of snow roared down a ski run called "Pink Panther" in the Purcell mountain range at 200 kilometres per hour.
Today, the operators of the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort have started construction in a location that critics say lies within the path of the avalanche. The proponent, Oberto Oberti of Glacier Resorts Inc., said the buildings will be located just outside of the high-risk area.
Environment Minister Mary Polak will decide in the coming weeks whether the resort, which has been in the planning stages for 23 years, will be allowed to proceed. In part, she'll have to decide whether the resort is in, or just at the edge of, a danger zone.
Ms. Polak toured the site, about 55 kilometres west of Invermere, on Oct. 10, when she saw workers pouring concrete foundations on a dirt clearing. She told reporters on Tuesday she believes the buildings will be safely located. She is relying on the developer's data, however, and a local operator who has been running heli-skiing tours in the region for decades is disputing the assessment.
"Jumbo Glacier Resort infrastructure, workers and potential guests are at risk of large-scale avalanches that cannot be mitigated," warned Graham Holt, general manager for RK Heliski. The company has been involved in avalanche control and rescues in the region for 44 years, and Mr. Holt sent photographs of the 2009 Pink Panther avalanche to the provincial government to warn that the location of a day lodge is poorly chosen.
Mr. Holt noted that the environmental certificate requires the developers to build "completely outside the avalanche hazard areas."
A planning map provided by Glacier Resorts shows a service building 44 metres from the edge of the wide swath of an avalanche zone, and a day lodge 56 metres from the zone. The proponents say that regular avalanche control at the ski area would greatly reduce the risk and put the "real" avalanche zone far from the site.
Mr. Holt said the margin of error is far too narrow. "It is 100 per cent in the avalanche path," he said . "You are not just looking at the snow path but the air blast preceding the avalanche." The blast can "snap 50-year-old trees like toothpicks," he noted.
The proposed Jumbo Glacier resort, located high in the Purcell Mountains, provides a uniquely reliable base for skiing, which would make it North America's first year-round ski resort. The B.C. Liberal government has been supportive of the project, creating a resort municipality, providing a $200,000 budget and appointing a mayor and council to manage this still-undeveloped wilderness.
However, the company's environmental certificate was set to expire in October if the resort developers could not demonstrate they have "substantially started" construction. Ms. Polak toured the site with her enforcement team to determine whether those terms have been met. She would not say whether the construction – mostly concrete foundations for a gondola, the lodge and a service building – meets the test of "real and tangible" work with a long-term impact on the location.
In the House, NDP Leader John Horgan said the prospect of a Class 4 avalanche, such as the one that was recorded in 2009 on the Pink Panther run, is grounds to cancel the company's environmental certificate. "For the minister's edification, a Class 4 avalanche is really, really bad," he said. "It's not a good place to put a day lodge."
Ms. Polak said she cannot comment on the project until she has made her decision. She is still consulting with the Ktunaxa First Nation before she makes the call, likely before the end of the year. The Ktunaxa have opposed the project, saying it will destroy a sacred site.
Mr. Oberti, meanwhile, wants the government to amend the environmental certificate because he thinks the restrictions around avalanche hazards are unreasonable. "This condition is a bit 'off' in terms of ski resort operation, since the grooming, use and management of ski runs on avalanche-prone areas removes the hazard," he said in an e-mail. "This is one of the conditions that should probably be reconsidered in terms of wording."