Legacy in Limbo
Looking forward, the future of backcountry skiing in the Callaghan Valley is still uncertain. It’s easy to call our investment in the Hanging Lake and Beverley Creek access trails a failure, but I think this fight is far from over.
The 2010 winter Olympics brought the Sea-to-Sky many legacies — an upgraded recreational racetrack from North Van to Function Junction, psychedelic LED lighting in the Village, the braggadocio to walk through the Stroll with a pitcher of the sweet stuff on Jon Montgomery Day, and a never-ending supply of Muk-Muk plush for small-size fetish lovers.
It also brought road and winter sport development into the Callaghan, delivering unto us all a world-class nordic facility and backcountry lodge, as well as the recently minted Callaghan Lake Provincial Park, and with it, new fees to access what was previously the great and free wilds of Crown land.
Fees for freedom
For those not in the know, steep fees are now in effect for parking and access to Callaghan Lake Provincial Park. Last year, parking was free without trail use, and a reasonable $6 to use Nordic trails to access the backcountry. That has all changed. Hang onto your hats:
(1) cost is $10 per person to park at the Whistler Olympic Park if you are heading into the backcountry without trail use, and with a 5pm winter gate closure.
(2) it costs $20 – full price – to step foot onto existing nordic trails to access backcountry entrances. Overnight parking is forbidden; the situation is unclear whether you will be towed and/or locked in. If a party gets into an accident due to weather, avalanche or injury, and if vehicles are stuck or towed, resulting in a forced overnight bivy and/or a long walk-out, with members resorting to cannibalism during the long, cold night… well then, just imagine the headlines.
As for parking, the old Callaghan Country lot is no longer plowed, and the Alexander Falls lot, a bit down the road, only has a few plowed spots without guarantee of reliable service after a storm. Take your chances.
However! Whistler Sports Legacies knows their priorities: if you are a tourist who just wants to park and take some pictures of the geographically challenged inukshuk, well then… your stay is free… just visit the no-obligation gift shop. So beyond pretending to be picture-snapping tourists, hiding shit-eating grins behind our stuffed packs, how are backcountry users to interpret these steep and utterly unique fees — given that valley-based backcountry access elsewhere to Crown land is free? And given that the Callaghan is now a Provincial Park?
Let’s ask a few other questions too. What indeed has happened to the legacy for the Sea-to-Sky’s most popular and fastest-growing winter sport, backcountry riding? What precisely is the “legacy” of Whistler Sport Legacies? Whose running the show, and for whose benefit?
This series of inquiries, now circulating amongst the rather engaged Sea-to-Sky backcountry community, has been raised over at the TGR Forums and in the FMCBC‘s issue of Cloudburst. Letters have been written. Rumours of a petition abound. A Fall 2010 online survey conducted by the FMCBC showed that most backcountry users are willing to pay $5 a head for parking; however the survey noted that “usage will be significantly reduced by the user fees the WOP is planning to charge for the 2010/2011 season.”
The Good Ol’ Days
For many years the Callaghan Valley has been a playground for backcountry users, from skiers to sledders, thanks to a network of forest service spurs and the rough but maintained dirt road up to the forest services campground of Alexander Falls. With the construction of the Whistler Olympic Park in 2008/09, a few changes took place. While access improved thanks to a new, plowed and paved road up the middle of the valley, sled access was banned from the area. This had the effect of increasing sled traffic in surrounding areas (namely Rainbow Lake), as well as removing the ability to travel to and from the Upper Callaghan in a day.
At the same time, a new set of issues arose over backcountry access with the newly created properties of the Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) and Callaghan Country, both of which effectively block easy access to Callaghan Lake Provincial Park. However reasonable access fees and an ungated parking lot were negotiated thanks to the efforts of the FMCBC at the provincial level. After the 2010 Olympics, the two Callaghan areas became managed under the umbrella organisation of Whistler Sport Legacies. Despite promising trail developments from spring through summer 2010, in fall 2010 the access issues appeared to take a turn for the worse….
Signs of change
In 2010, before and after the Olympics, parking was free for backcountry users, with a $6 fee to use the Nordic trails for backcountry access. No gate was in place.
Following on what were relatively positive developments from 2009/10, volunteers under the FMCBC obtained funding from Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) to develop backcountry access trails and signage in partnership with the WOP. The process can be followed here, in which Lindsay Durno, WOP’s Operations Manager, specifically requested large backcountry access trail signs, even though it would put the FMCBC over budget, and require additional federal funding. In short, in spring/summer 2010, WOP liked the idea of the signs and trails and, one hopes, backcountry users.
Shortcut to Fall 2010 — the Olympic-style signs are built and the trails are flagged thanks to countless hours from local volunteers. However the signs are not where they’re supposed to be. Scott Nelson reports in Cloudburst that “The new WOP managers would not allow the signs to be erected in their planned locations next to the cross-country ski trails, so the locations were moved a few hundred meters uphill.” Why? Because “these signs were moved from their original locations at the request of Whistler 2010 Sports Legacies Society (the new owners of Whistler Olympic Park), who did not want the signs to be visible from the XC ski trails.” Indeed. What happened?
Not only are the fees high, but the blood, sweat and tears of volunteers and hard-earned MEC and federal cashflow have been put into signs and trails that the WSL apparently wants to keep hidden, as if backcountry users and their nefarious ways are not welcome in these here parts, and as if access to a Provincial Park is some kind of dirty secret….
An informal racking of my brain reveals that there are four to five times the number of backcountry-oriented ski, sled and board shops in the Sea-to-Sky than nordic shops (in fact, ironically Whistler’s Nordic Shop closed down in summer 2010). So why is it that the future for a dedicated Vancouver-based market of backcountry users, willing to pay reasonable fees for access, appears all but lost on the Whistler Legacies Society?
Whistler Olympic Park and Callaghan Country are dedicated to providing an exceptional Nordic experience for all our guests — especially those who reside in the Sea to Sky corridor. But it is not economically viable for us to change our operations to meet the needs of one small user group. It is our hope that Backcountry enthusiasts understand our challenges.
— Lindsay Durno, Director, Whistler Sport Legacies, letter to Mark Richards, December 16th 2010.
It is difficult to let this paragraph pass without some commentary. Besides ignoring the prior historical usage of the area – the Callaghan is listed in John Baldwin’s 1994 edition of Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis and has usage dating back at least another decade or two (or three) – there are also far more backcountry users than nordic skiers in the Sea-to-Sky. The evident number of slackcountry and backcountry users far exceeds the nordic crowd. Whistler is a world-renowned backcountry mecca; the new Spearhead Hut system is testament. John Baldwin’s increasingly thick ski touring guidebooks and maps bear witness. Likewise, the statement that Callaghan Country is a “Nordic experience” is nonsensical: on the Callaghan Country website, the backcountry lodge advertises backcountry ski touring, both self-guided and guided, as a lodge activity.
Likewise, BC Parks specifically mentions various styles of skiing in its information on Callaghan Lake Provincial Park:
Callaghan Lake is a prime year round backcountry recreation area. The Callaghan Lake area receives an average snow pack of 275 centimetres, which may yield 150 days of skiing. In addition, the rolling subalpine terrain is well suited to Nordic Skiing, and the steeper slopes surrounding the gentle valley floor and meadow offer telemark and ski touring opportunities.
Taking into consideration how BC Parks advertises the Callaghan, the idea that the Whistler Sports Legacies (WSL) would have to “change its operations” for this “small user group” appears to contradict not only the local user stats and the historical prior usage, as well as the manifest of Callaghan Lake Provincial Park, but the recent history of trail development conducted by the FCMBC and encouraged by the Whistler Olympic Park themselves.
All that Whistler Sports Legacies has to do is allow affordable and open access across its property to the Provincial Park, which seems little, if anything to ask for. Whistler Blackcomb provides discounted backcountry tickets to access Garibaldi Provincial Park, for example. So what’s the deal?
Indeed, why is WSL attempting to hide the existing trail signage it requested — and at additional expense? Why are the fees so exorbitant so as to deter backcountry users? And why is Whistler Sport Legacies turning a blind eye to the economics and usage stats of the area? Do they not want to make money off backcountry users? Do they not believe that backcountry users will also use the Lodge and buy grub after a day in the backcountry? Do they just not like our stinky base layers and unwashed appearance?
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Here’s the contact info should you so be interested in expressing your considerate opinion:
Lindsay Durno, Director, Whistler Sports Legacies
Keith Bennett, Whistler 2010 Sports Legacies President and CEO
Joan McIntyre, MLA for West Vancouver Sea to Sky