Kirsten Andrews is a former columnist at The Squamish Chief and the co-producer and artistic director for the Squamish Constellation Festival.
From the earliest days of its inception in 2014, my family has had a season pass to the Sea to Sky Gondola – the jewel in Squamish, B.C.’s crown, a strong thread in our tight-knit community that simultaneously serves as an unabashed point of pride and, even at 885 metres above sea level, manages to bring everyone together at a grassroots level.
The memories are too numerous to count. We’ve used it to soar up the Squamish mountainside to a summit with breathtaking views of Howe Sound. We’ve learned Indigenous folklore and studied the local flora and fauna on the nature-packed trails, less than an hour away from downtown Vancouver. We’ve taken photos with Santa; we’ve watched our children sing holiday carols. On hot summer days, we’ve hiked sun-dappled trails and celebrated with pints on the octagonal lookout deck with live music, or coffees and yoga during the week.
The gondola has been a go-to destination for visiting family and friends, because almost anyone can enjoy it, regardless of fitness level – from great-aunts to new parents and their babies. It’s ideal for those with mobility issues and is wheelchair-accessible. It also provides adventure-seekers unparallelled access to the back country. I can’t count the number of times I had the pleasure of sharing a cabin with tourists – from across Canada, Taiwan, Switzerland or Mexico – whose mouths would hang agape. One traveller remarked to me that the experience was akin to something that “Disney would have built if he were a nature lover.”
So when I heard the news last week, my stomach sank. Cabins on the Sea to Sky Gondola, our gondola, had plummeted to the ground in the early hours last Saturday, the cable slack against the rock below. Thirty-one cabins were damaged or destroyed; an RCMP investigation would reveal that the 52-millimetre-thick cable didn’t snap but was intentionally severed. Fortunately, no one was injured, but more than 200 employees are out of work, and it’s estimated the gondola won’t be operational until next spring.
Exemplary leadership, though, has always been at the heart of the gondola operations, and general manager Kirby Brown has led the charge through this crisis. In the days following the closure, he prioritized redistributing the now-shuttered summit restaurant’s fresh produce to our community soup kitchen and food bank. As a friend and neighbour, I know his first concern has been for the people, his staff.
Other businesses in town are doing their part to absorb the extra workforce, and as I write this, a community job fair is taking place specifically for the suddenly unemployed gondola staff.
Still others have had their lives altered by the incident. Lovers are drawn to the gondola. Last winter, while taking a gentler route among snow-capped trees decorated with red wood-cut hearts and white portrait frames dangling from green boughs, we stumbled upon an engagement in process. And I’ll never tire of witnessing couples dressed to the nines emerging from the gondola cars eager to say “I do.”
Now, many couples are scrambling to find new venues for their special day, and gondola staff are helping relocate as many special events as they can "to other beautiful venues in the area,” according to the website.
“We know we aren’t the only couple affected by the venue change, and we certainly know that our situation is pale in comparison to the amount of damage that occurred, for those who face employment uncertainty, and other local businesses that may be impacted in the weeks coming,” betrothed, new-to-town residents Connor and Mia McCardle wrote to The Squamish Chief newspaper. “Our love and support go out to all those affected and, hopefully, we will have the opportunity to support you, even if all I can do is buy you a beer when we cross paths. Squamish, thank you. You’re awesome.”
This week, a Facebook page was established for individuals to share their support and stories. “My Dad worked in forestry as a log broker and my questions and the sunshine pulled the memories of his days working in the Squamish area. We talked about trees and how they grow,” wrote one woman named Susan Rybar, about her 83-year-old father, who has dementia. "He shared, once again, how to tell one species from another. Cedar, fir, hemlock. We wished we could climb higher, but 83-year-old feet only take you so far. The gondola got us as far as we could go.”
The gondola is worth so much more than just its parts. It is the definition of community and gathering. The stunning backdrop – easily one of the most scenic and beautiful views of anywhere in British Columbia – is secondary. The view may be what gets people up there in the first place, but we keep coming back for the love.
Let’s hope we can return soon.
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