Ski areas extra vigilant after suspected Squamish sabotage of Sea to Sky Gondola

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Sea to Sky Gondola
A member of the RCMP’s Integrated Forensic Identification Services Team inspecting the crime scene. Authorities say the Sea to Sky Gondola was intentionally downed in the early hours of Saturday, Aug. 10. Photo: RCMP

Gondola operators are on heightened alert following last week’s apparent sabotage of the Sea to Sky Gondola.

Investigators said the gondola’s main cable was cut in the early hours on Saturday, Aug. 10, causing 31 cars to plummet toward the ground. No one was injured.

“Out of due diligence, numerous ski areas are doing extra checks with their security, just focused more on the lifts,” said Christopher Nicolson, president of the Canada West Ski Areas Association. “As far as we know, the motivation is not yet known.”

Canada has a robust regulatory system for gondolas, added Nicolson. According to Technical Safety B.C.—the provincial authority that oversees the safety of passenger ropeways such as gondolas and chairlifts—the Sea to Sky Gondola passed two inspections in 2019.

The agency is currently investigating the incident in coordination with the RCMP.

Police have also reached out to Whistler Blackcomb.

Asked if the company is shoring up security, Whistler Blackcomb would not comment, referring Pique to a statement issued Aug. 10.

“A pre-operational inspection is always conducted before the lines open each morning,” wrote spokesperson Jennifer Smith. “Guest safety is a top priority for Whistler Blackcomb and it will continue to be vigilant in upholding its standards and practices.”

Representing Grouse Mountain, communications manager Julia Grant emphasized that the safety of visitors and employees is a top priority.

“We have significant safety procedures in place including stringent daily equipment checks as well as our regular 24-hour on-site monitoring at the base and the chalet,” she wrote in an email to the North Shore News.

With a robust criminal investigation underway, the search for answers into the suspected intentional downing of Squamish’s iconic gondola is underway. While limited in what he can discuss given the ongoing investigation, Sea to Sky Gondola General Manager Kirby Brown suggested that whoever carried out the brazen act would have needed a fairly specialized skillset.

“I’ve got to stay away from speculating on the classification of the type of person who would be able to do this, but I would just say [that] this is a unique individual, just in terms of [having] the wherewithal to do this,” he said.

The cord was cut somewhere “mid-span,” he added, not wanting to publicize the precise location.

“There are a couple routes they could have taken,” Brown said. “[That’s] the tricky part of being in the middle of wilderness. It’s not like there’s only one way in.”

After scaling one of the gondola’s massive towers, the suspect (or suspects) would have then been faced with cutting through a 52-millimetre-thick cable engineered to handle “incredible weight, under extreme tension,” for years, said Brown.

He believes the line was cut straight through and then fell immediately with the individual still on the scene.

“It was instantaneously catastrophic,” said Brown. “We know exactly when it happened—to the minute.”

While the incident took place when the gondola was closed, Brown suggested that someone still could have been hurt, whether it was someone who was hiking underneath the line or a worker in one of the terminals.

The RCMP is currently asking anyone with information to come forward, especially if they were near the gondola or Stawamus Chief area between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Aug. 10. Reach the Squamish RCMP at 604-892-6100, or contact Sea to Sky Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or www.solvecrime.ca to remain anonymous.

Launched in 2011, the $22-million Sea to Sky Gondola project faced significant opposition from environmental groups before opening in 2014, with many voicing concern about the creation of a major commercial enterprise in the heart of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.

Yet since opening, the gondola has proven tremendously popular among tourists and locals alike, offering easy access into the backcountry and year-round outdoor activities. It is also one of the largest employers in the community.

Whistler adventure tour operator Mountain Skills Academy opened a “facilitated ascent” feature accessed by the gondola—known as the Via Ferrata Tour—in 2016.

“[The closure] seriously impacts our business because obviously we can’t run our tour,” said owner-operator Eric Dumerac. “It’s terrible for us because we run the Via Ferrata Tour and we also do rock climbing and hiking up there as well.”

Dumerac said the company employs 20 people who rotate between Squamish and Whistler.

“It’s definitely going to affect a whole bunch of our guides’ livelihoods,” he said. “We have to scramble to keep them employed. It’s just terrible, really.”

With its sensational views of Howe Sound, the Sea to Sky Gondola is also a popular wedding venue.

Rachael Lythe of Sea to Sky Celebrations has facilitated numerous nuptials at the summit of the gondola and had three more planned this season.

“It’s heartbreaking for the clients,” said Lythe, who is organizing alternate venues.

With about 200 employees and the summer tourism season that remains, the Sea to Sky Gondola is looking to reopen as quickly as possible. But it may be months before that happens and will likely cost millions of dollars.

The organization is already in talks with suppliers to replace the cable line and 20 severely damaged gondola cabins, said Brown.

“The real outstanding question is how quickly can we get a new haul rope,” he added. “As soon as we get that locked down, we will be able to communicate to everybody how long we’ll be down.”

In the days since the cable was cut, many Sea to Sky locals have voiced support for the organization, with some posting happy memories of using the gondola to access spectacular backcountry terrain.

“That’s the heartening part of the whole thing,” said Brown. “There might be one bad actor, but we live in a corridor and community with a whole bunch of wonderful people who are reaching out left and right and sharing their optimism and support for us.”

–with files from Jeremy Shepherd/North Shore News