On a cool morning in April, Sam Waddington brushed through chest-high ferns on the low eastern slope of Mount Cheam, about 50 miles as the crow flies from Vancouver, B.C., in the Canadian Cascades. Waddington, a local skier who owns an outdoors shop and guiding service based in Chilliwack, was biding his time in the low valley until spring melted out the logging roads that afforded vehicle access to the backcountry ski zones high above.
The morning was vibrant and magical, so radiant that Waddington could almost see the plants growing. This place is known as Lexw Qwò:m, meaning “always lots of moss,” in the Halq’eméylem language shared by Indigenous Stó:lō people in the Fraser River Valley. These lands, S’ólh Téméxw, contain 24 First Nations and the highest concentration of shared, overlapping Indigenous interests in Canada. Due to patterns of settler-colonialism and Indigenous resistance here and elsewhere in B.C., the land is unceded—occupied but never taken through treaty.
Within this complex political landscape, two vastly different recreational tourism proposals are competing for the right to operate on the same territory, jockeying both for First Nations partnership and provincial approval.
One, Cascade Skyline Gondola, represents a no-frills, low-impact opportunity for backcountry skiers. In the chunk of mountains between the Fraser and Chilliwack Rivers, the best skiing is deep and guarded during winter by a long approach up winding forestry roads.
The gondola would deposit skiers right on the shoulder of Mount Cheam, where there would be free access to the backcountry. There would be a day lodge with an ice-skating pond. Cross-country and snowshoe trails would wind through the alpine. At the gondola’s base would be a Stó:lō cultural and interpretive center—Cheam First Nation is an equity partner in the project, which was first proposed in 2016 by Jayson Faulkner.
“To have this gondola-accessed ski-touring zone, it will be mind-blowing,” Waddington says. “It is phenomenal backcountry terrain.”
The other proposal, Bridal Veil Mountain Resort, envisions a massive destination resort in the same place. Bigger than Revelstoke but smaller than Whistler, the 11,500-acre resort would sit back in the mountains, out of sight from the Fraser Valley below—aside from an alpine village with restaurants, lodging, and shops built on the ridgeline above town.
One million visitors are estimated to visit “B.C.’s next great all-season resort” per year, as dubbed by the developers, enticed by Pacific Northwest snowfall and easy access from three major airports. The project promises much more tax revenue, more visitor spending, more career opportunities, and more construction jobs created during the 20-year buildout than the Cascade gondola.
The proponents talk passionately about their commitment to environmental and climate stewardship, affordable housing, and Stó:lō equity ownership, but their idea is only in the Expression of Interest (EOI) stage, the very first step in the province’s multi-year major project review process.
This spring, proponent Robert Wilson and former proponent Norm Gaukel began promoting their idea and engaging with the public for feedback. Soon after the EOI announcement, Cheam First Nation issued a press release expressing deep concern about the potential for this “large industrial” resort to usurp the “eco-cultural tourism” gondola, which many believe was close to earning its green light from the province. Now, that’s on hold until the Ministry of Forests can collect feedback from local governments including First Nations and other community stakeholders, evaluate the responses, and determine how, and whether, to proceed with either idea.
“If we [Bridal Veil] are not wanted by the community, this project won’t proceed,” says Michael Watson, a lawyer and business consultant who worked for nearly 20 years on Cheam economic development, and who Bridal Veil hired as a Stó:lō consultant. “This is only going to be resolved by Stó:lō people.”
Waddington remembers receiving the call from a colleague about the Bridal Veil EOI while walking through Jurassic ferns at the foot of Mount Cheam. He happened to be standing right in the Cascade gondola’s projected liftline, and his heart sank.
“We are so close to having something that will truly transform our mountain community and city in general,” says Waddington, who was asked by Cheam leadership to speak with SKI on behalf of the nation. “I honestly think the ski resort is a bit of a real estate and land grab play.”
Waddington’s second thought in reaction to the Bridal Veil news was, “there’s no way they’re trying to do this again.”
Because building a ski area here is not a new idea. There’s some baggage.
In the fall of 2002, Gaukel first floated the idea of a tramway to an unnamed high point near Mount Thurston. In February 2004, the province granted Gaukel and his company, Resorts West BC, a license of occupation to develop approximately 57 acres of land in line with this vision. Over the following year, however, the project ran afoul of city officials, was met with protests from environmental groups, and finally succumbed to financing issues. It was eventually rejected by the Ministry of Forests.
“There was controversy back then. There were people who did want it, and who didn’t want it,” Bridal Veil president Robert Wilson tells SKI. “But Resorts West is no longer part of this project. I understand that it’s in roughly the same location, and there’s certain similar elements, but we’re not re-creating that company … some people want to focus on the past, I want to focus on the future. People are writing us literally from around the world, talking about how great this project is—from Indonesia, Australia, China.”
In mid-May, Gaukel sold his stake in Bridal Veil to focus his energy on health and family, which some will see as a strategic move to distance Bridal Veil from Resorts West. While Wilson emphasizes the “substantial disconnect” between the projects, he also underscored the throughline of Gaukel’s vision, which Wilson says he is committed to carrying forward.
The Bridal Veil story may sound mighty familiar to skiers who followed the epic Jumbo Glacier Resort saga, which gathered members of the Ktunaxa First Nation, skiers, and environmentalists in a fight against an unwanted European-style megaresort that was first proposed in Interior BC in the early 1990s. That story finally ended in January 2020 when development rights in the area were extinguished forever. Now, Jumbo’s proponent, Oberto Oberti, is focused on developing Valemount Glacier Destination, near Jasper, in collaboration with Simpcw First Nation.
“Why is there this certain crowd obsessed with these golf-course-and-ski vacation resorts?” asks Chris Ludwig, president of the British Columbia Mountaineering Club, a co-founder of the advocacy group Backcountry BC, and a vocal opponent of Bridal Veil. “What is it with these narcissistic, flim-flam investment projects? They [developers] keep trying and trying.”
“We’re in this competition [with Skyline Cascade Gondola] based on ‘best and highest use,’ which deals with economic, cultural, and environmental, factors,” Wilson says. And, in the end, “the government will decide which is better.”