The idea of building a gondola up to a ridge above Bridal Falls overlooking Chilliwack is going under the microscope.
Details of the application for a two-year “licence of occupation” from Bridal Falls Gondola Corp. to conduct in-depth studies on Crown land was posted on the provincial government website Aug. 15.
The feasibility, as well as the potential geotechnical hazards, will be looked at, and public consultation is a part of the process.
Coun. Sam Waddington cautioned on social media that there’s “a long road ahead” before any approvals.
“I think it is imperative to have as much information as possible about what exactly a gondola would look like, what its impacts would be to the environment and existing recreation, as well as to the community and the economy before we make a decision,” posted Waddington.
This certainly isn’t the first time the idea was floated for a gondola up Mount Cheam. The last time was around 2005, according to Drew Brayshaw, principal of the Statlu Environmental Consulting.
“At that time it was part of a proposed ski development in Chipmunk Bowl. I believe that proposal foundered on the fact that Chipmunk Bowl is south-facing and low-elevation and would probably offer horrible resort skiing.”
The project applicant for this project, who was also behind the Squamish gondola attraction, is envisioning a different business model for gondola builders, one that “doesn’t have to be tied to a resort development” to be successful, he suggested, which can “just pay for itself with day trippers and a restaurant.”
But there are a couple important differences between the Squamish and the Bridal Falls proposal on the Mt. Cheam range, Brayshaw noted, including the fact that the Squamish version offers access to a wide range of activities from hiking and biking to mountaineering and climbing.
“I’m a climber, and I can say that the Cheam area doesn’t offer as much in the way of variety due to the rock quality,” Brayshaw noted.
The Squamish gondola is built on solid granite, which means “very few slope stability concerns” there which isn’t the case exactly in the proposed area which has different geotechnical hazards.
“On the other hand, the south slope of the Fraser Valley east of Chilliwack consists of weaker sedimentary rocks like shale and limestone, and is home two at least two large historic landslides — the Cheam slide and the Marble Hill slide — and there’s potential for more,” said Brayshaw.
In addition to large landslides, the area is prone to smaller landslides of the sort that occurred in November 2011 near Bridal Falls, as well as debris flows or mudflows, of the sort that blocked Highway 1 last November near Herrling Island.
“This isn’t to say that it would be impossible to build a gondola running up to the ridge near Mount Cheam, only that it might be difficult and expensive to find a safe way to do it,” Brayshaw said.
“I think Squamish’s gondola has been a success in terms of increasing recreational use of the Squamish backcountry, but it might be more challenging to replicate that success here, so while I’m interested in the prospect of Chilliwack getting a gondola, I’m not sure yet if it truly stands a chance of being built or not.”
Marc Greindanus of Chilliwack Park Society said that while it’s very early in the process, it could be a “boon” for local outdoor recreational enthusiasts, if it gets built.
“Clearly there are many hoops yet to jump through and serious consultations with land managers and user groups are just getting underway,” said Greidanus. “If it can be built and operated in a sustainable manner, then the proposed gondola and associated non-motorized recreation area absolutely fits with the Chilliwack Park Society’s goals of encouraging outdoor activity and trail connectivity.”
It could mean a simpler way to access the alpine for hiking, but also for mountain biking and snow sports with minimal highway driving.
“And of course many jobs would be created bringing money into our city from both international and local tourism,” said Greidanus. “Assuming environmental, safety and user group concerns can be addressed, this project is a spectacular way to diversify our economy and boost the reputation of our city in the region.”
Since the proposed site is on Crown land, the application by the Bridal Falls Gondola Corp. for “commercial recreation/multiple use” featuring a multi-passenger gondola has to gain approval by the province’s Farming, Natural Resources & Industry ministry. Environmental, geotechnical and engineering studies will have to be completed by the applicant, including traffic studies to look at all the implications.
Water, sewer, storm water, hydro, natural gas, and telephone communications will also be extensively evaluated in the study phase.
“The first phase of the project - this application - is centered on information gathering and investigations only,” reads the application posting on the ministry website. “No changes or alternations to the landscape will be made during this first phase.”