Chasing rumours of gondola plans for Mount Begbie

The rumours have been swirling around Revelstoke for months. We sent local journalist Alex Cooper to beat the bushes and find out what’s up.

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The challenging summer hike up Mount Begbie, Revelstoke's most iconic local mountain, is a summer rite of passage for Revelstoke residents. Photo: Alex Cooper

This article first appeared in print in the October/November issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.

Mount Begbie’s twin summits and glacier are Revelstoke’s icon. It is the backdrop to countless photographs and has awed most people who have travelled through the region.

It’s the community’s greatest symbol. The first recorded climb was in 1907 and a trip to the summit in summer is a rite of passage for locals. The views from the top provide commanding views of the Monashees, Selkirks, and the Columbia River far below. In winter it has become a go-to spot for locals as a ski touring destination.

When I first heard rumours of a gondola going up on Mount Begbie back in April, my reaction was, “Why would someone even consider that?” Surely the pubic would be overwhelmingly against it.

Over the summer I heard the rumour brought up a few more times and in late August, I was asked to dig into it. Someone I consider reputable and well informed said they’d been asked to be involved in the project. Another person said they’d sat in a meeting about it. Someone said they’d seen plans.

The story I heard was a group of investors were looking to build a gondola up Mount Begbie, similar to the extremely popular Sea-to-Sky Gondola in Squamish. It would be catered to summer sightseeing and winter skiing and would include all the trappings that come with such an amenity. Still, I had nothing concrete to work with – just idle talk. I reached out to a few contacts hoping to secure proof but came up empty.

Hiking up Revelstoke’s imperious Mt Begbie is worthwhile even in overcast weather to see the glacier. Photo: Emily Kemp/Revelstoke Mountaineer

I checked the government websites where they post applications for land tenures and found nothing. I contacted the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations, who would review any application, and they replied, “No application, or expression of interest, has been received from the Mt. Begbie proponent.”

I called Loni Parker, the director for Area B Rural Revelstoke, who said she had not seen anything, but had talked about it with Ian Tomm. I was at work when I talked to Parker, but I ended the call saying I would ask her thoughts once I knew more.

I’ve known Tomm for a while, since he was the executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Association and I was a reporter at the Revelstoke Times Review. Since then, he’d moved on to become the head of HeliCat Canada, and is now a consultant and ski guide.

We met on a Friday morning at his home in Upper Arrow Heights and I asked for more information about the rumoured Mount Begbie project. He told me he’d been hired by two different investment groups — one American and one Canadian — to look at investment possibilities around Revelstoke. He said he’d been studying land use in the area from Shelter Bay to Mica, and from Three Valley Gap to Rogers Pass, and was looking at possibilities for some sort of resort that would complement Revelstoke Mountain Resort, not compete with it.

“We’re looking at a small-scale resort project somewhere in the area,” he told me.

The view of Mt. Begbie from the water on Williamson’s Lake. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer file photo

He did not confirm that an application to put a gondola on Mount Begbie was being developed. “There’s a whole bunch of ideas but really at the end of the day we don’t know what we want to do,” he said. “We’re still very much in research stages and there’s a whole bunch of ideas on the table.”

I pushed the question a few more times, but Tomm dismissed it as nothing more than the typical Revelstoke rumour mill in action. I asked him why another resort was being considered — even a small one and he talked about how successful Revelstoke has been economically recently and how much tourism is booming. He noted tourism from China is increasing and that ongoing improvements to the Trans-Canada Highway will only get more people to come here. “There’s a lot of people going through Revelstoke and more and more of them are stopping,” he said. “Those trends are not going to stop.”

In essence, Revelstoke is poised to capitalize even more from the tourism boom and there are investors who want to get in on the action.

Another big question is should this happen? Revelstoke is already home to two mountains with easy access to the alpine (RMR and Mount Revelstoke National Park), and numerous others where a combination of logging roads and trails can get you up there (Sproat, McCrae, Cartier, Frisby, Sale, Joss, and Keystone, amongst others). Should there be more access to alpine environments?

Tomm called it a philosophical question, adding accessibility was an issue for many. “For the very young and the very old, accessibility is an issue. You go to Rogers Pass and it’s a long way to get somewhere. Not all people can do that. Philosophising aside, I think communities like Revelstoke will continue to grow and diversify.”

File photo: A Canada Day celebration capped off with a tremendous fireworks display in Centennial Park, with Mount Begbie serving as the backdrop. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer

He also argued that a sustainable resort development could have less impact than other land uses. Forestry companies have logging rights and many mining claims exist that could be developed in the future. The south shoulder of Mount Begbie has been logged extensively and a cut block was harvested on the main face a few years ago.

“Forestry has the rights to cut all the timber we can see from Revelstoke,” Tomm noted. “As the economy changes, is that in the best interest of Revelstoke?

“A project that we’re considering could actually be an interesting form of land use because it would protect trees from being cut,” he added.

I spoke to Loni Parker a second time after my conversation with Tomm. She said Tomm told her they were planning a proposal for a gondola on Mount Begbie. (Tomm denied this: “To reiterate what I said the other day, I’m consulting for multiple different groups. We are looking at a whole bunch of different projects.”)

“The question for the community should be where do you want development to go and how much is enough,” she said. “We really need to have a community dialogue on what gets done where before any more tenures are given out.”

Parker is retiring from her role as director of Columbia-Shuswap Regional District Area B this year. (This role makes her the elected local goverment representative for a vast swathe of land outside of Revelstoke city limits, stretching from Mica Dam to Trout Lake). Parker said she hopes to get started on a backcountry land use plan for the Revelstoke area as her last project. She said development should remained focused on RMR, which was the subject of extensive community debate.

As far as a gondola on Mount Begbie, if it did move forward, she would be out in front opposing it. “It’s incredulous that someone would thing they should do that in this community,” she said. “We have enough development and it’s ongoing.

“It’s our iconic Mount Begbie and I think it should be left alone,” she added. “It’s the wrong place to do something like that.”

So, is another tourism development worthwhile, or is it out of the question? Is it better than logging (or mining)? Is that what we should be asking should another resort somewhere nearby ultimately be proposed? If the proposal is indeed on Mount Begbie, do we need to reconsider our community’s connection to the mountain? What’s wrong with a gondola when we already allow logging? Should we accept both, oppose both, or choose sides?

I wonder what they said in Whistler when lifts opened on Blackcomb Mountain in 1980. Is that a fair comparison?

I was hoping to write a breaking news story here about a plan to put a gondola on Mount Begbie, but I didn’t find the evidence I need. Given the rumours that have circulated, I still felt it was worth writing something, if only to spark a discussion while investors and developers work on plans.

Last month I wrote in this magazine about how development dominated the agenda of the outgoing Revelstoke City Council. While I was unable to produce any smoking gun about a Mount Begbie gondola development, it’s clear Revelstoke will continue to see investment and development and the community discussions around those issues will continue to be at the forefront of our discourse in the years to come.

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