Decades of flat skier numbers and climate change are threats to new resort proposals
For David Harley, who founded and owns the successful outdoor retail chain Valhalla Pure Outfitters, this is a question he hopes to answer with Zincton All-Seasons Resort, which he says will turn the North American ski business on its head. Pinched between the quiet Kootenay burrows of New Denver and Kaslo, in one of the snowiest belts of the province, Zincton would become a one-of-a-kind, hybrid backcountry ski resort run entirely on local hydroelectricity.
If Harley gets his master plan approved and secures investors, his resort will supplant a historical backcountry ski-touring area called London Ridge, directly opposite Retallack Lodge—a boutique cat-skiing operation on Highway 31A. Zincton’s plan is unique in North America, with the closest analogue being Colorado’s Silverton Mountain Ski Area, which uses a single chairlift to stage guided backcountry skiing in wild, ungroomed terrain.
Zincton, by contrast, would have a small number of groomed and gladed runs, but the vast majority of the skiing in its 5,500-hectare ask from the provincial government would require guests to hike or tour to it, using stick-on climbing skins and backcountry bindings and going equipped with avalanche safety gear. From there, electric buses would collect skiers along the highway and bring them back to an amenity-packed village at the resort’s base.
Zincton’s village area would be built on land Harley already owns, and he promises to make the entire venture carbon neutral from day one, using electricity supplied by the Silversmith Power and Light hydroelectric station in nearby Sandon. (Harley’s agreement would secure all of the power from Sandon, using any excess to mine cryptocurrency or produce hydrogen and ammonia as energy storage.)
Re-breaking the Mould
This style of resort might sound strange to skiers in B.C., but it’s not dissimilar to what’s been going on for over 50 years at prominent ski destinations like Chamonix and La Grave in France.
“The ski industry has not engaged its imagination for two generations in North America. It’s been an increasingly corporate-money situation; the Europeans are light years ahead of us,” Harley says, arguing that some resorts have three times the amount of inventory dedicated to backcountry than they have to downhill. “We’re not behind the curve in North America, we haven’t even seen the curve yet.”
Based on scale, though, Zincton wouldn’t compare to the terrain the Alps offer, and a better comparison might be Japan, where Westerners have made a cottage industry out of backcountry skiing from small, snowy, mom-and-pop ski hills. Japan, however, has over 500 ski areas to bounce between, all linked in close succession, much like in Europe. Zincton would be isolated and on its own. What’s more, skiing is much cheaper in Europe and Japan.
Though many B.C. ski areas have started offering “one-up” backcountry tickets, they’re not far off the price of a full-day ticket, which is creeping toward $200 at most destination-class resorts. “Sidecountry” skiing isn’t a product Canadian resorts have embraced. Harley says he’s going to remedy that with “affordable” pricing and a managed backcountry area.
Given, however, that he doesn’t plan on accepting any Crown land (some is often granted to developers to help subsidize resort construction through real-estate development) and principally wants to sell skiing, low ticket prices could be difficult to swing. Very few resorts are able to make a go of it without significant real-estate developments attached.
Zincton’s would be limited, subdivided from the land Harley already owns. The tangential businesses in the village—food, accommodation, rentals—would all be handed to third-party vendors in what Harley calls a “distributed ownership” model that’s, again, common in Europe. He also promises to partner with an organization called 1% for the Planet to clean up contamination from mining tailings over the resort’s 60-year-lease, and to limit summer operations in order to maintain a Zincton-managed “wildlife reserve.”
Ski's the Limit
While that all sounds forward-thinking on paper, for investors, the idiosyncrasies of this plan could prove to make it a non-starter. One of the few resorts that gets by without real estate and summer operations is Whitewater Ski Resort (which owns all of its food and beverage services), near Nelson. Co-owner Mitch Putnam knows that just selling skiing is a long-term, low-return investment with a lot of risk.
“It can be a challenge for small ski areas to be profitable,” he admits. “You need to be two hours or less for day-trippers, or accessible to a large centre, which is obviously a challenge in the West Kootenay.” (That’s where Zincton also is.)
Putnam and his business partner, Andrew Kyle, were willing to risk a lack of proximity to big markets because Whitewater is a passion project—a family mountain supported by locals for generations—that they’re able to subsidize from years of money they each made in other industries.
“We were never in it to maximize prof- its,” he says. “We wanted it to pay for itself and generate enough revenue to pay for improvements. So we're fortunate my partner and I didn’t require profits as part of our income. That put us in a unique situation where we could reinvest most of the profits back into the ski hill... It’s almost a way of giving back a little bit to an industry and a sport that we both love very much.”
Putnam notes other hurdles for ski-area investors, too: skier visits at resorts have been stagnant in Western Canada for two decades, and without summer operations there’s no revenue for half the year. Most bigger ski areas have adopted summer operations for this reason, among many others.
“We’re looking at four and a half—maybe round it up to five—months of winter business per year,” explains Kevin Manuel, director of marketing at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which has branched into hiking, mountain biking and a wildly successful mountain coaster (a type of gravity-powered summer luge track).
“I mean, we have the infrastructure in place [to do summer business]. But I would say the number one reason we went down this path initially was for staff retention. You want an ability to generate some income during those summer months to pay your employees and keep them on a year-round basis.”
He also notes that homeowners want activities year-round—something that is crucial to real estate sales. Zincton won’t have mountain biking, a mountain coaster or an aerial adventure park because of its wildlife reserve, and because it needs to clean up those mine tailings. But Harley thinks tapping into the backcountry market during the winter will more than make up for these deficits.
“This is, like, bigger than snowboarding was when it was growing up. You know, this is huge,” says Harley. “And it’ll be huge in China, too, which will ultimately become the largest ski market in the world.”
Geopolitical tourism prospects aside, it’s true the sector is growing locally, which shows in sales figures for equipment and other backcountry products.
“We’ve seen an increase in bookings of 16 to 30 percent from 2012 to 2022,” notes Brad Harrison, executive director for the Backcountry Lodges of BC Association, which represents 32 off-grid lodges that sell catered and guided ski-touring vacations deep in the backcountry, far from other skiers and resorts.
Harley wants a piece of this market, too, and has plans to put a similar “hut” on top of London Ridge. He says that tapping into the success of this niche sector, along with cat- and heli-skiing, is Zincton’s key move.
“The heli- and cat-ski business has exploded over the last 30 years, and they broke all those rules [about being close to a major market],” Harley says. “The more commitment it takes to get to a destination, the longer people stay. So there’s a benefit to being remote now.”
The trouble with comparing yourself to the mechanized backcountry ski industry, as heli- and cat-skiing are together called, is that it’s tiny. It collectively contributed $326 million to the B.C. economy in 2019, according to Helicat Canada. This drastically outpaces revenues from backcountry ski-touring lodges, to be sure, but looks miniscule compared to the ski-resort industry, which, in Western Canada, was worth $2.51 billion in 2021.
Heli- and cat-skiing also have a completely different price point and user intensity than both ski touring (which is free) and lift-based skiing. It costs between $1,500 and $15,000 to ski out of a helicopter or snowcat for a day, and those operations only host 30 to 40 guests at a time (or less), across far more terrain. That’s because seclusion is something backcountry skiers, whether they be mechanized or self-powered, specifically seek out.
“Each [BLBCA] lodge has a tenure associated with it,” Harrison explains, “and that would be accommodating an eight- to 14-person group. The extensive-use area [for ski touring] is usually about 5,000 hectares.”
Compare 14 ski tourers, then, to the fore- casted 300 daily backcountry users in Zincton’s similar-sized tenure (up to another 1,000 daily are expected to stay inbounds and use the lifts), and Harrison asks pointedly, “Do you want to go ski touring with 300 other people?”
Lodges and mechanized operations also have the advantage of higher altitude; they tend to ski above 2,000 metres whenever possible. Most of Zincton’s skiing will be below this elevation, and that’s a problem because of climate change.
According to Michael Pidwirny, an earth scientist from the University of British Columbia who’s done climate modelling for many of Western Canada’s ski resorts, Zincton would not likely get to see out its 60-year lease as a ski-only operation.
“It’s a good place to make a resort if your business model is that this resort is going to be running over the next 40 years,” says Pidwirny. “But beyond that, temperatures are going to increase. Snowfall may not necessarily change that much, but you’re going to go from the highly sought-after powder-type snow to snow that’s more wet. By the end of the 21st century, this proposed ski resort is going to have climate conditions that are more like Sasquatch Resort, near Abbotsford.” (Sasquatch Mountain Resort is a rebrand of the defunct Hemlock Valley ski area, which just got a $1.5-billion expansion plan approved but has suffered extremely difficult snow conditions and low visitation for over a decade.)
That said, Zincton would be better positioned climate-wise than most resorts in B.C. for the time it is viable, and might be able to pick up business from those that will be more drastically warmed.
“Don’t forget,” Pidwirny adds, “all these coastal resorts, their conditions are going to get even worse, like the trouble Cypress [Mountain Resort] is having with freezing levels. Many of the big ski resorts along the west coast of the United States will be inundated with an increase in the number of rainy days. And, you know, it’ll be very rare to get good snow conditions where you can enjoy the skiing.”
A Good Fight?
Zincton also has a few controversies loom- ing. Most notably, the plan has no visible support from First Nations, and at least two of those that claim London Ridge—the Ktunaxa and Autonomous Sinixt—have voiced direct opposition. Harley, meanwhile, is adamant in his assertion that the only First Nation with reasonable claim to the Zincton area is the larger Sinixt Nation (the Autonomous Sinixt are an independent group within the Slocan Valley), the majority of whom live on the Colville Reservation in Washington State. This may be splitting hairs, however, since Matriarch Marilyn James—of the Slocan Valley—is still listed as a spokesperson for the Sinixt at large, and she opposes the development.
Next are concerns over wildlife: Zincton would bisect the north-south corridor between the Goat Range and Kokanee provincial parks, which many credible experts and environmental organizations (like the Valhalla Wilderness Society) say would cut off vital habitat to grizzlies, wolverines and goats, among other species. In response, Harley says that bears sleep during the winter, and the wildlife reserve will protect them in the summer. He cites an environmental report he had commissioned, and argues that most animals don’t migrate over the winter, plus the mine-tailings cleanup would, in fact, improve habitat.
But there’s also a cabal of local ski-tourers already using this area on its own terms to consider, many of whom have backcountry skied here without lifts their whole lives and don’t want to see these mountains developed. Harley calls this group “elite,” and dismisses them as maintaining a stubborn Kootenay tradition of opposition to all development, no matter how sensible. His conviction is that Zincton would allow more people to enjoy the area, reducing the barrier to entry for those looking for a lift-assisted introduction to the backcountry, and would be “inclusive.”
But perhaps the biggest hurdle is a January 2022 letter from the B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure outlining a litany of technical problems with the proposal, as drawn by Whistler ski-resort planning firm Brent Harley & Associates (no relation). It outlines concern about interference with the highway avalanche-control program, and also about the inadequacy of Highway 31A to support a traffic increase— and a reciprocal question of who would pay for upgrades. On this, Harley simply says, “We’re working with [them].”
This all means that Zincton, and future resort proposals like it, aren’t just about what’s viable in our changing climate, or to investors, but also about what the public wants. If they let him build it, will either even come?