Evan's Jumbo Wild Backstory

This season, G3 is celebrating the commitment that goes into every step and turn in the mountains by telling stories about the people -- engineers, designers and athletes -- who make the gear on which we skiers and snowboarders rely. Backstories is about the years of work, success and failures. Along that track, G3's friend Evan Mitsui took some G3 Empires for a rip in the Jumbo Glacier area last spring, and has just shared this look under the hood of Jumbo Wild and the 25-years of drama wrapt into the film’s 60-minute runtime.

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It’s 4:45 a.m. and I wake to a text from Nick Waggoner, the filmmaker behind the recently-released ski documentary Jumbo Wild. It’s a reminder to print waivers on the Best Western’s lobby printer. As forecast, the day breaks clear. I pull on my ski gear, down a mug of crummy coffee and drive the short distance to a collection of hangars just outside of Invermere. Our guide is already there, talking with the chopper pilot. Waggoner and photographer Garrett Grove pull up in a battered Tacoma, followed by Grant Costello and Oberto Oberti, the key figures behind Jumbo Glacier Resorts, the company the latter founded to realize his dream of building an all season resort in the wild heart of the Purcell Mountains where, on this spring day, we’re headed to shoot a key segment in Waggoner’s film.

Evan Mitsui Photo

Conversation turns to Kicking Horse Coffee, just across the airfield, which doesn’t open for hours. Save for the guide, none of us are what you’d describe as morning people. We rally around the helicopter to review the day’s plan. The sky brightens pink, then orange and Waggoner is keen to get airborne to catch the morning light. After a beacon check, Costello hands me the keys to his mud-spattered Jeep Cherokee. As the odd-man out, I’m to drive to a secondary pick up spot some 40 kilometres up the Toby Creek Road where, after dropping the first group on Glacier Dome, a rounded summit with a view of the aptly-named Commander Glacier high in the snow-covered alpine, the pilot will find me. He’s marked the spot in Google Maps and, after about an hour of backroad driving, my iPhone on the passenger seat indicates I’ve arrived. I kill the engine and prop my skis — a pair of new Empire Carbon 115's on loan from G3 — against the Jeep’s tailgate. I step into my boots, which sink into the damp spring grass. Spent shotgun shells dot the dirt near a fire pit. Not far away, boots on, I find the requisite beer can fragments down by the creek. Not long after, the whomp, whomp of rotors breaks the silence and the helicopter loops into view in a wide arc around the surrounding snow-capped peaks.

Seated in the snow overlooking the serrated edges of a jagged ridgeline named the Lieutenants, above the fissured toe of a glacier poised to calve into the improbable, yet aptly-named, Lake of the Hanging Glacier, Oberti lays out his vision for a world class resort. Its lift network would open up the most skiable terrain on the continent with Glacier Dome’s rounded pate serving as a tram base — part of phase two of the development — connecting it to a mid station high atop Jumbo Mountain. From there, 1,715 metres of vertical drop, the longest ski run in North America, all in attractive natural snow, disappear into the valley below.

If you live and ski in B.C. then chances are news of Jumbo Glacier Resort's long and complicated development process — and the film, Jumbo Wild, chronicling the proposed resort’s rise and apparent fall — has likely hit your news feed by now. If not, you’d be forgiven for missing it. Now, 25 years in, the development has all but lost it’s news-appeal.

A once looming presence in the East Kootenay, Jumbo Glacier Resort, or JGR, has become a bit of a paper tiger in the eyes of it’s many and vocal opponents since the provincial government pulled the developer’s Environmental Assessment Certificate earlier this year. The loss of the EAC was, at least for the resort as initially laid out in its master plan, a nail in the coffin, burying a dream held by architect Oberto Oberti for a quarter-of-a-century. Grant Costello, who Oberti hired to run JGR, says it’s not over, though and if his persistence to this point is any indication, the smart money says a ski resort in Jumbo is simply stalled. *At the time of publication the developer had reduced the proposed number of beds in the village from 6,250 to 1,997. It’s unclear whether the planned number of lifts would also shrink.

Much of my take on Jumbo is based on a week spent in Invermere this past spring with Nick Waggoner (the guy behind that naked ski segment in the film Valhalla) while he was putting the finishing touches on the Patagonia-backed docu/activism movie Jumbo Wild, which just hit iTunes and will be on Netflix soon, too.

Evan Mitsui Photo

I’d actually been in Jumbo once before, shooting photos for Panorama resort and RK Heli, which has held tenure in the Jumbo alpine for decades. I’ve felt drawn to the place ever since and, while I rather sheepishly have to admit I’ve never toured there -- both trips involved a helicopter -- I jumped at the chance to go back. I was also keen to hang with a guy whose films I’ve watched numerous times.

Why all the fuss? Development in the Jumbo Valley is a polarizing subject that has driven a palpable wedge through the Kootenays from the beginning. On either side of the ideological divide are two opposed camps: one in favour of an expansive four-season resort in the wild heart of the Purcell Mountains, the other completely opposed to it. Among JGR’s opponents are, I think it’s safe to say, the vast majority of B.C.’s ski touring public. It’s a bold generalization but one I’m confident in making given the hard truth of what a Jumbo resort really means. At its core, the fight to save Jumbo is about land use and the fact that building that resort, deep in the B.C. backcountry, would make a wide swath of Crown (that is public) land which happens to be excellent touring terrain, private and thus exclusive to passholders.

Evan Mitsui Photo

As it stands, anyone who cares to visit under her or his own steam, or on a snowmobile, can get in there to sample the goods. The argument that a lift -- and JGR’s would be the highest on the continent -- makes it that much easier to push deeper into unchartered terrain falls flat when you really think about it. Plus, in addition to being sacred territory to the Ktunaxa Nation, who have joined the chorus of voices shouting their opposition to JGR, the Jumbo Valley is vital grizzly bear habitat that, if it were in any other province or the U.S., would be protected based on the mountain of scientific data identifying its critical importance to the apex predator.

That said, trying to navigate the line separating the for and against arguments for a resort in Jumbo (not the least of which is the grim reality that climate change could make B.C., and Jumbo, one of the last bastions of good skiing on the planet in our lifetimes) is, like any technical descent, a very personal choice.

For more backstory on Jumbo, I’ll point you to this story I wrote for Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine and this one, by Bruce Kirkby for the Globe and Mail, is also quite good and was my introduction to the Jumbo story.

-Evan Mitsui

Evan Mitsui Photo

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