The Rise of Jumbo Mountain

A mountain of hurdles and controversy has surrounded the developmentof the first B.C. ski resort to be built from the ground up since Blackcomb.

Jumbo Mountain | BCBusiness
Jumbo Mountain

A mountain of hurdles and controversy has surrounded the developmentof the first B.C. ski resort to be built from the ground up since Blackcomb.

Yes, Jumbo Mountain in B.C.’s Purcell range is a spectacular sight: draped in a glacier it drops icebergs into a turquoise lake. But zoom out a little and it’s not that different from dozens of other peaks in B.C. Logging roads snake up the nearby valleys and extend like tentacles up the hills. Clearcuts patchwork the forested slopes. There’s an abandoned mill site. Nothing special here. But dig a little a deeper and this anonymous massif, west of Invermere, is intricately connected to the last 50 years of skiing history in the province. And now its future too.

In the early 1960s Hans Gmoser, an Austrian immigrant and mountain guide, tested the idea of using helicopters to shuttle skiers to the top of long powder runs here. That was before he opened what many believe to be the world’s first heli-ski lodge, in the Bugaboo Mountain range near Golden, now part of the heli-ski mega player, Canadian Mountain Holidays Inc. Later, his heli-ski colleague Mike Wiegele also flew forays into the 11,000-foot mountains around Jumbo. In the mid-1970s, Grant Costello, a coach with the Canadian national ski team and now senior vice-president of Glacier Resorts Ltd., settled on one of the four nearby glaciers as the perfect summer training ground for Canada’s national ski team. This was after spending six months scouring the province for an alternative to the expensive and busy summer-skiing option of European glaciers or South American ski resorts. It took a while, but in 2005 the Canadian ski and snowboard teams would train here in preparation for the Vancouver Olympics. However, all that would be little more than obscure footnotes were it not for Oberto Oberti, a Vancouver architect and skier with a dream of finding a piece of Europe in B.C.’s mountains.

Image: Trevor Florence
Commander Glacier

It was 1984 and Whistler and Blackcomb were suffering through a warm winter on the coast. Without snowmaking, the skiing sucked and the economy wasn’t much better. Before immigrating to Vancouver, Oberti had grown up skiing in the European Alps from his home in Milan, Italy. He commented to one of his architecture clients that if it were up to him, he never would have built a ski resort so close to the ocean and at so low an elevation. The client, also a skier, commissioned Oberti to find the ideal place for a ski resort in North America: high enough not to worry about rain, and with plenty of sunny days and even more snow, and with glaciers for summer skiing. Oberti spent the next few months looking at climate charts and topographic maps, and zeroed in on an area north of the U.S. border and west of the Canadian Rockies. In the end, the area around Jumbo rose to the top.

Oberti’s original study led to nothing, but it itched at the edge of his mind. In 1989, he finished building 1415 W. Georgia Street, one of the first residential highrise buildings in downtown Vancouver, for Nikken Canada Holdings Ltd., a Japanese company. Nikken wanted to do something else in B.C., something that would improve the company’s image. “At the time, the Japanese were taking heat for making lots of money in B.C. without leaving any benefits behind,” recalls Oberti in his thick Italian accent. Oberti suggested a tourism development. Maybe a ski hill. He knew the perfect place. With Nikken’s backing, he started work on the proposal for Jumbo Glacier Resort in 1990.

At the time, it was poised to be the first major new ski resort in the province in a decade. Twenty-two years later, it still is. If the resort opens as planned in 2014, Jumbo will be the first from-scratch ski resort to open in B.C. since Blackcomb in 1980. (Newer projects – Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and Revelstoke Mountain Resort – were both major expansions of existing local ski hills; smaller Shames Mountain, near Terrace, opened in the early 1990s.)

Part of the reason for the long road was the controversy that followed the project’s every step. Multiple blockades were set up and protest marches were held. Open houses got heated. Environmentalists and some local First Nation groups still oppose the resort, saying it overlaps with important grizzly bear habitat, among other issues. Investors in the project say they have been harassed and Oberti claims to have been assaulted by opponents on two occasions. Even most of the B.C. ski industry is against the project. Then there’s government bureaucracy: the environmental assessment process alone took nine years, instead of the less than two promised.

As the project progressed and costs grew, Nikken backed out and other investors took its place, most of them private corporations and individuals who are passionate about skiing. Because of the harassment they’ve faced, Oberti declines to name any of them and he won’t say how much money has been spent on the project. He and his architecture firm worked on it as a sideline until 2003, when he hired former ski coach Grant Costello to take on some of the responsibilities.

Image: Achim Purschwitz

Finally, in March this year a master development agreement was signed by the province, leaving just one last bureaucratic mogul before construction can begin: mountain resort municipality designation. In 1995 the province created the Mountain Resort Associations Act; designed to make it easier to develop mountain resorts, it includes the option of creating a mountain resort municipality and thus a local authority to implement the master development plan and issue building permits, create bylaws, zoning and the like. The local regional district has backed the resort’s request to the province for MRM designation multiple times, and after 22 years of setbacks and delays Oberti is finally feeling optimistic.

“If government had told us how long it was going to take, we would have walked away at the beginning,” Oberti says. “But the end always looked so close. It was like a trap and we kept getting sucked in deeper and deeper.” Now Oberti believes the MRM designation is a mere formality, and with the project moving toward the construction phase, he has no regrets. “There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world,” he says.

Oberti has always seen Jumbo not as a ski resort, but as a four-season tourist attraction. Sure, during the winter skiers will come. The base elevation is higher than the summits of Vancouver’s North Shore ski hills and well above the rain line, even with pessimistic global warming forecasts worked in. The Purcell Mountains receive deep, dry and consistent snow. Four glaciers will ensure good year-round skiing, no matter what Mother Nature delivers. And the terrain is excellent – Panorama-based R.K. Heli-Ski Panorama already uses the area for its heli-skiing day trips. But many ski hills in western Canada can brag some of that. What sets Jumbo apart, its strategic advantage, says Oberti, is sightseeing. At any time of the year, non-skiers will be able to roll up to the gondola – literally, since it will be wheelchair accessible – and be at the top of a glacier at 2,700 metres in 15 minutes. Oberti doesn’t believe there’s anywhere else in North America where they can do that.

Image: Achim Purschwitz
Grant Costello on-site.

There’s no doubt Jumbo is bold and exciting, but the key to a successful resort is ticket sales. Will people come? Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which is similarly remote and huge, has struggled to draw enough skiers to turn a profit since its major expansion in 2007. Skier visits to B.C. resorts remain flat at sub-2008 levels. Only a couple of B.C.’s major winter resorts have managed to make summer tourism a sustainable business. Many wonder what’s going to make Jumbo different.

“This is a new type of development that doesn’t exist in North America right now,” says Grant Costello. “We’re following a model that’s been very successful in Europe for more than 100 years – year-round alpine tourism. We believe, and so do our investors, that Jumbo will become an iconic tourism destination like Chamonix or Zermatt.”

“If we can tap a small fraction of 7.5 million day visitors to the mountain national parks, we’ll be doing well,” Oberti says, referring to such popular destinations as Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho parks.

That’s a big “if,” says David Lynn, executive director of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, which represents ski resorts and local hills across western Canada, but mostly in B.C. “The number-one factor for ski-hill success, in my mind, is the size of the population that lives in close proximity,” he says. “If you build a ski resort in a remote location, you are going to have an extremely difficult time garnering skier visits. Saying Jumbo’s location is perfect for skiing is ignoring that fact.”

The population of the nearest town, Invermere, is 4,000 people, while fewer than 57,000 people live in the East Kootenay Regional District, which includes Jumbo and stretches along the Alberta-B.C. border from the 49th parallel to south of Golden. The nearest major city is Calgary, a three-to four-hour drive away, along a route that passes four ski resorts. Those arriving by air to Cranbrook’s small international airport could be at established resorts in Fernie or Kimberley faster. And everyone has to drive past Panorama.

Lynn is not the only one wondering about traffic potential. Skier-visit projections put forward by Oberti were questioned during the environmental-assessment process and again by economist Marvin Shaffer. In a 2011 independent economic analysis of the proposed resort for the Ktunaxa Nation Council, a First Nation based in Cranbrook and a vocal opponent of Jumbo, Shaffer wrote that projections in the resort’s master plan were unrealistic. He called the forecast doubling of skier visits between the first and fifth year, from 70,000 to 141,000, very high. “I think they used an ‘If we build it they will come’ mentality,” he says. “They’re also relying on a lot of international visits, when we’re seeing a downward trend in visitors from the U.S. and Asia.”

Image: Achim Purschwitz

And the skiers Jumbo does draw will likely come from other B.C. ski hills. “We expect Jumbo will cannibalize from other ski resorts,” says Lynn. “There are only so many skiers out there. A new resort might grow the pie a little bit, but it’s difficult to imagine even a resort as impressive as Jumbo will somehow create a new market in a significant way.” Plus, he says, there’s already room on chairlifts. When the Canada West Ski Areas Association did the math, it found that without any expansion, B.C. resorts could absorb roughly two million more skier visits right now. That’s a one-third increase over the six million that come in an average winter.

That’s not how Rick Jensen sees it. Of any ski-hill CEO, he should be the most worried about competition, being just down the road from Jumbo at Panorama Mountain Resort, a family-friendly hill known for great service and grooming, not necessarily for deep snow and expert terrain. But Jensen is firmly supportive. “Yes, there will be some cannibalism of the local market,” he agrees, “but we’re going to benefit from the international visitors who will be attracted to Jumbo that aren’t coming now. Visitors to Jumbo, who maybe don’t know Panorama, will have to drive right past us.”

Many will have to stay at Panorama, as well. At full build-out, Oberti is planning fewer than 6,000 overnight beds at the resort – by comparison, Whistler has 62,000 – so many of the resort guests will probably stay in the well-developed village at Panorama. And the glacier sightseeing makes a summer visit to the region more attractive overall. “Jumbo can’t do anything but help,” Jensen says. Already Panorama and Jumbo are talking about shuttles running between the two resorts, and packaged lift tickets, among other partnerships. Further spinoffs, says Jensen, include economic stimulus to the local economy from the jobs and business associated with a major construction project, and then a long-term employer. “People say ski-hill jobs aren’t high-paying, but there are many in operations that are good jobs,” Jensen says.

For his part, Oberti says the over-capacity argument is bogus. “During the 1990s the industry was already talking about excess capacity,” he says. “Since then there’s been a 300-per-cent expansion in capacity. When Blackcomb started up, everyone said it was going to ruin Whistler. That was obviously not the case. The same thing was said about Kicking Horse and Panorama. Both grew.”

Oberti says there’s room in B.C. for five Whistlers, as long as each offers a unique product. “Skiing doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, the same everywhere,” he says. “We’re creating a new level of skiing. Most resorts want to pack in as many people into an area as they can. It makes business sense, but most people don’t want to ski in crowds. They want the heli-ski experience without the heli cost. That’s what Jumbo aims to do.” Once it is fully built, the resort’s website says, average skiers per day will top out at 2,700, compared to 11,000 on an average day at comparably sized Whistler-Blackcomb.

The difference in user-generated revenue will be made up by lower operating costs: 20 lifts at Jumbo versus 37 at Whistler-Blackcomb, no need for snowmaking, and a longer ski season. Still, Oberti concedes that lift-ticket prices will likely be high. “My recommendation, and the plan at this time, is that there will be a discount of up to 50 per cent for local residents and a price for the tourists that will be the highest in B.C.,” he says.

The unique nature of the resort will justify the ticket price, he says. Within a few years of opening, Jumbo will boast one of the highest vertical drops in North America, 1,715 metres, and be the highest resort in Canada, with a top elevation of 3,419 metres. At build-out, 5,925 hectares of terrain, also tops in North America, will be open. By Oberti’s count, it will be one of only three summer skiing destinations in North America, compared to 36 in Europe. “People fly to the Alps for the Alps experience because they can’t get it in North America. I think they will fly here or drive a little farther because we have a competitive product.”

“We’re not building a ski area,” Costello kicks in. “If our investors thought we were trying to compete with the five or six major resorts that already exist in the province, it would be a tough sell. We’re doing something new. Our customers are not all skiers.”

Image: Pheidias Project Management
Farnham Glacier, where the Canadian national ski
team trained for the Olympics.

Unlike ski resorts that started as winter destinations and have since tried to create a summer market through golf, mountain biking, conferences and other attractions, Jumbo was planned as a four-season resort from the beginning. “Do year-round right, and it can have huge benefits to business,” says Canada West’s Lynn. “A key to driving profitability is looking at ways you can have customers and utilize expensive infrastructure, like lifts and hotel rooms, 12 months of the year instead of four.”

Costello thinks the sightseeing bus tours that criss-cross the province and tour the mountain parks all summer will be an easy target for gondola rides to the top of a glacier. There are already sightseeing flights zooming up the Jumbo valley from Invermere. “The sightseeing is spectacular,” he says. “They’ll come by the busloads to ride the gondola to the top, get out, take a picture, look around, get back in and ride the lift back to the bottom.”

Then there are new markets like China. A recent Canadian Tourism Commission study, titled “2012 China Ski Study,” found there are five million skiers in China, up from 10,000 in 1996, and 70 ski resorts, a huge jump from three in 1980. Lynn points out that the Chinese aren’t destination skiers yet, but, they will be in the long term. Oberti and Costello are already eyeing this potential market.

First they need to build the resort. This past summer the last study – a grizzly bear population analysis – was completed and the road was slated for improvement between Panorama and the future resort’s base. But little more can be done until Jumbo becomes a resort municipality.

The Regional District of East Kootenay voted unanimously to ask the province to create a mountain resort municipality for the Jumbo Glacier Resort Project in 1996, and the entire approval process was based on it becoming a resort municipality. The regional district reiterated the MRM recommendation vote in 2009 and again in June 2012. As of the writing of this article the province still hadn’t created the MRM.

Image: Achim Purschwitz
Jumbo offers stunning vista for
summer visitors.

Oberti blames the hold-up on the project’s opponents – environmentalists and the Ktunaxa Nation Council, mostly. But he also says in the past he’s had run-ins with provincial bureaucrats opposed to the project. “The last way to further delay the project, and thus to have it potentially killed, is to find ways to put into question the whole approval process or to make it technically difficult or impossible to issue the building permits that are necessary to start work,” wrote Oberti in an email in late June this year. “This negative strategy . . . is most unlikely to succeed. Consequently the establishment of the MRM is expected soon.” Oberti is so confident the MRM is a foregone conclusion that Jumbo has already begun the tendering process for resort construction projects.

Once Jumbo becomes a resort municipality, $50-million worth of lift and day lodge construction will begin, probably in summer 2013, and it would carry over into 2014, Oberti says. The first lift, a gondola with a mid-station, will rise to Glacier Dome, a shale slope at the top of a glacier at 2,700 metres. Surface lifts on the glacier will follow. There’s a chance the first skiers could be carving up the glacier in the summer of 2014. Oberti says a December 2014 opening is more likely. More lifts will be added, expanding the resort to other peaks and to three other glaciers.

If all goes according to plan, the village at the base will grow slowly through phase one of development and then pick up through phases two and three with hotels, condos and mountain homes. Oberti says Jumbo will not make the mistake many ski resorts made during the recreational property bubble that popped in 2008. The Mountain Resort Associations Act allows the province to sell land to resorts cheaply for development. Resorts make a tidy profit when they then resell that land to developers or as lots for mountain homes. It became an important part of the ski-resort revenue stream during the last boom. But when demand for those properties dried up, resorts relying on that income struggled. “Real estate sales will offset some of the initial capital costs,” says Oberti. “But they will be aimed at users, not those looking to flip property to make a profit.”

To make all this happen, Oberti will transfer his original company, Glacier Resorts Ltd., designed solely to push the proposal through the approval process, into a development company. A large group of consultants who have been involved with studies and planning will remain in the mix. Costello describes it as a small development corporation with lots of arms. An operational company will also be started closer to opening day.

Costello and Oberti aren’t worried about raising the estimated $50 million needed to finance the first phase of building lifts and cutting runs. “We have people knocking on our door every day wondering how they can get involved,” Costello says.

Indeed, through 22 years of frustration, Oberti says, finding investors has never been an issue. Where others see Jumbo as mountains, glaciers and forest, they see what has eluded so many other winter resorts and the key to its success – four seasons of moneymaking.